Soccer field in Castelmola, Sicily. Photo by Rémi Jacquaint via Unsplash.
In case you hadn’t heard, Italy bested Austria this weekend to push them into the Euro 2020 quarter-finals. (Oh wait hold on gotta do this real quick: Forza Azzurri!!) I don’t know if I’m just riding the adrenaline of all the Italian soccer fans I’m bumping into these days in the MyBelPaese community, but the whole thing got me thinking about language in terms of sports analogies. By the way, we Americans love our sports analogies so if you think I’m… ahem… way out in left field on this one, please just indulge me for a few minutes. This won’t take long.
So here goes: take a moment to reflect on any sport you that you have fantasized about being good at playing, or maybe one you just love to watch. Now imagine you’ve decided you just have to play that sport, you cannot resist. Or, if you’re a great athlete already, think back on when you were at the beginning of the process of learning it. Imagine you ask someone who’s really good at it already to give you some advice on getting started… and that person tells you the best way to get good is to sit on the bench for a few years and watch others play it. Or they suggest playing a simulation of the game on an app. Or worse, they hand you a big fat rule book and say the best way for you to learn the sport is to go home and do nothing but read that book for several months.
That’d be crazy, right? Probably even a little depressing. And for sure, no way are we going to take that advice. Because as intimidating as it can be to step onto the field and start kicking the ball around a bit for the first time, we all intuitively know that no one ever got good at playing any sport by doing nothing but reading about it or observing it. You need to get in the game. And in this case, getting in the game means starting to speak, getting into conversations, early and often.
See, the thing is, foreign language learning is a lot more physical than we credit it with being. Well, any language learning is that, but as adults, when we learn a language that is foreign to us, we can see, and in some senses feel, the process in a way we didn’t when we were little children learning our native tongue. We tend to think of it as learning on a cognitive level, and we tend to tie it to the concept of “studying”. Which of course one does when learning a language. But it is super physical. When learning, I think it’s useful to imagine yourself playing a fast-paced game rather than sitting in a classroom.
And it’s not just a useful analogy. To speak a foreign language, one needs to, well, speak. Listen, absorb, and speak. And it needs to happen at a reasonable pace in the context of a conversation; one that in the beginning, you definitely will not feel comfortable with. This is highly physical, intimidating, and exhilarating. It involves rhythm. It involves your mind pivoting quickly in the context of a conversation to try to throw something together using the limited words you have. It involves overlapping processes happening very quickly in your brain. For me, when I speak Italian, I can actually see my brain searching around in the archives for the words the person just used. It’s crazy! And then I need to form a response about two seconds later… now I need to rummage around and find some words to express the thoughts. It’s way more like dodging a defensive player, catching a ball and then throwing it to someone else, all in a matter of seconds, than it is like the process of sitting at a desk reciting rules.
Now, grammar enthusiasts, got nothing against you, we all know you need to learn a crazy amount of verb conjugations to conquer Italian; you’ve got to deal with congiuntivo (eventually); and get used to the fact that, for instance, Italians tend to drop subject pronouns while usually using direct object pronouns, while in English, it’s kind of the opposite. Yes, athletes need to learn the rules of the game. And they need to watch highlight reels and learn from observing the moves of others. All fine. You need to drill a lot. You need to listen a lot, it’s essential. You can get this from TV as well as a host of apps. But you have got to put yourself in game time situations, early and often, where someone says something to you, you deal with the real time struggle to understand, and organize whatever words you have and do the best you can to respond and keep the conversation going. Further, you don’t really learn grammar rules until you start using them in context. Conversational speaking is irrefutably the most challenging part of language learning in my view, and also the most exciting and fun part. Actual communication. I encourage you to put a lot of emphasis on it from Day One.
Two quick pieces of advice to get talking right away: the first is iTalki which is a very popular site for finding a tutor. (And if you’re following along on our language articles, you know its where I connected to my beloved tutor and contributor to this forum, Rossella Vicidomini!) In my experience with Italian, I felt safest here first in a situation where not only could I get a balance of drills, grammar and vocab, alongside basic intro-level conversations. A quick hack for these basic conversations: practice them. Straight up rehearse them beforehand, seriously. It will feel quite unnatural but it honestly gets you up and running in speaking the language so fast. Practicing a conversation in advance gives you more confidence during the real thing and also helps you prepare vocabulary you actually will use. Write that vocab down and learn it however you feel most comfortable: flashcards, weekly lists, whatever works for you.
Once the sheer terror of talking to a tutor has worn off and you realize it’s not only nothing to fear and in fact something to look forward to, I suggest jumping quickly into a conversation exchange site to find a chat partner. One of the best is conveniently named Conversation Exchange. The site is free if you don’t mind the banner ads, which is the one I recommend since you don’t spend much time there anyway once you find a language partner or two. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t totally hit it off with your first conversation exchange partner… just like in any other aspect of life, you might not make an immediate connection with every person you talk to, plus, some people do have a tendency to mistake these sites for dating apps… sigh. But with as with most things, you’ll find a little patience pays off. You can often connect with people who not only give you good language practice but become good friends.
Also remember, the majority of English speakers who are eager to learn Italian are doing it voluntarily. Italians tend to need to learn English, for their jobs, and to compete in a global economy where, increasingly, English is the standard. You’re not going to have a hard time finding an Italian chat partner, I assure you. Make sure you establish the ground rules early on of speaking “half (your native language – assume English if you’re reading this) / half Italian” during your session. Start with a short conversation. You’ll be ready for a full hour in no time if you can handle it. (Italians are super social, it’s easy to find ones who want to chat for that amount of time.)
So what do you think: are you ready to get in the game? Tell us your experiences with first time conversations in the comments below, we’d love to hear them! And be sure to check out our additional articles on Hacking Italian Language!
The MyBelPaese Language Corner is a collaborative series between an American learning Italian in New York City, and two Italian sisters from Ischia who work as Italian teachers and translators. We aim to mix the perspectives of a person who has remotely learned Italian to a level of comfortable conversation, with the expertise of professional language teachers who are Italian native speakers. It’s all about helping people in our community who want to learn Italian, get started with this beautiful language.
If you’ve decided you’d like to learn Italian, you can swing by the Language Corner and add it to your favorites, we’ll keep you posted on new articles to help you stay on track!