Don’t be afraid: Italian can’t hurt you. It’s just a bit uncomfortable in the beginning. Road sign from Florence Italy. Photo by Belinda Fewings via Unsplash.
I’m going to leave it to the expert “how to learn Italian” channels out there to teach you fun Italian idiomatic expressions and not-fun-but-necessary Italian grammar. Instead I’m gonna stick to what I know, which is how it feels to feel very very foolish when trying to speak Italian. I swear I’m an expert on this subject!
I’m just kidding. (Sort of.) In this piece I want to share how it feels to learn Italian from zero. First, the good news: the positive emotions of learning this beautiful language are so powerful, at least in my experience, that they have fueled my daily commitment to it for over five years now. I can now have conversations of any length in Italian, on a range of topics. I don’t learn Italian out of a sense of “needing to stick with it”. I do it because I’m in love and obsessed with it. It’s like chasing a massive crush. And, the powerful emotions are not only effective drivers; they are a great reward for all the hard work. In these COVIDy times, it’s wonderful to feel the sense of connectedness that comes from speaking to Italians online. If you haven’t tried it, you must.
That’s all the warm fuzzy stuff. On the other hand, there’s some, ummm… some negative stuff too. If you want to learn Italian from scratch, you need to face your demons. Avoiding the negative sensations that creep in when learning a language is the surest way to never really learn. Here are a few less-than-pleasant emotions you’re going to need to experience to know you’re on the right track, and some suggestions on how to cope with them:
This is an emotion so fundamental to language learning, I need to list it first. Seems like junior high is around the time we acquire the sensation of embarrassment in a real and true way, and of course, a strong distaste for it. Most of us then work hard the rest of our lives to avoid embarrassing moments.
Well, you’re going to need to get over that if you want to start speaking a foreign language. I’d estimate I feel a sense of embarrassment in the context of learning Italian about 20 times as often as I experience it in my regular life. But keep with it, because I assure you, there is no way to get to the promised land of comfortably conversing in that new language other than to first trudge though a proverbial swampland of embarrassing moments. You’re gonna get there. A nice outcome of accepting embarrassment as an emotion you can handle is that its negative impact diminishes with time. It’s like confronting the boogie man you think is living in your closet only to discover it was just weirdly shaped shadows on the wall all along. See? Nothing to worry about! When that happens, it’s kind of a beautiful thing.
Sometimes it feels even a shade darker than doubt: “I’m certain I’m wrong about this…”. Guess what? You very well may be wrong. It’s understandable that you might be wrong about a few things when you are just learning a language that others have been speaking for twenty or thirty years or more, right?
Don’t despair. On the contrary, your sense that you are incorrect is, in and of itself, a sign of progress. It can be an indicator that some part of your brain is starting to internalize the rules and tendencies of the language. Your instinct now knows that something is incorrect. That’s what you want to happen.
Even better… at times when you feel doubt in language learning, and you power through it, you are sometimes pleasantly surprised to learn you are right. I sometimes experience this in Italian when I guess at a word based on what I think I understand so far of the language patterns, even if I cannot consciously recall learning the word I’m about to use. I’ve been surprised at how many times my language partner tells me “Yes, that’s correct, go ahead, keep going”. I play it cool but I’m smiling big on the inside when this happens. Doubt is an emotion that works hand in hand with the act of guessing and trusting the instinct you’re developing for the language. It’s a good one to cultivate.
You learned 700 Italian words and can perfectly conjugate the 20 most common verbs. You’ve watched hours and hours of Netflix in Italian and have started to understand it. And now you jump into a conversation and you can’t comprehend a blessed thing. Don’t worry, it’s totally normal. And you should get used to it because you’re going to experience it all anew when you go to a fresh language partner, travel to an unchartered part of Italy, or start to delve into a novel topic of conversation.
My advice on how to use “confusion” as an emotion for measuring progress is make sure you are experiencing a healthy balance of a sense of mastery and a sense of confusion. The former lets you know you’re getting something under your belt, and the latter lets you know you’re expanding on that knowledge.
4. THE SENSE YOU’RE A NUISANCE
When you start to venture outside the comfort zone of your tutor into situations where you just organically seek out Italian conversations, this is where you can get into what I refer to as the Steve Urkel phase of your language progress. (Non-American readers can click here if this reference is utterly lost on you… he’s an essential part of our national heritage.) Sadly, sometimes you can’t avoid moments where you feel like a bit of an annoying pest who says things that other people find a bit, you know, grating. At least, this is my experience. For instance, I get enthusiastic about wanting to speak, so sometimes I insert myself into a conversation where I wasn’t really invited. (Did I do that…?) Or I try to stick to speaking Italian to a native speaker who is much more advanced in English than I am in Italian.
To be fair, this doesn’t create dire situations that often thanks to the kindness of Italian people. They live up their reputation of being exceptionally warm and forgiving with those who try to speak their tongue. But it still does happen here and there. And again, it’s normal, and even better, can indicate progress. It means your building enough confidence and range to seek out opportunities for dialogue.
Most language experts will suggest that you control for that “sorry to bug you” sensation by seeking out language partners who are very close to your own level in speaking. That can be a good strategy. Another is, if you find you are someone who craves conversation to the point where you will jump in any time you hear Italian being spoken on the street, you might just need to up your tutoring sessions or conversation exchange sessions so you feel satiated to the point where, you… don’t do that.
Here’s a thing that will sometimes happen when you learn Italian (or any other language): you find yourself among a group of native speakers. You’re rolling with the conversation for a bit… and then you start to lose everyone. People are laughing… you have no idea why. What was the joke you missed?
The way I feel about “alienation” in language learning: it tends to feel like an exaggerated bad feeling extending from mere lack of comprehension. It’s like sitting at the lunch table by yourself at a new school. It’s not that people around you don’t want you to fit in. They just don’t communicate easily with you yet and you feel left out.
This is quite understandable when you are still trying to learn Italian basic conversation and you join a group of Italians who speak with each other in rapid slang-type chit chat. A few hacks to bypass this negative emotion: 1. stick to one-on-one conversations in the beginning, easing into conversations with two or three people at once. 2. Focus on listening in group conversations rather than talking. Active listening can be quite polite and is very beneficial to your progress in Italian. 3. When others laugh or smile about something, go ahead and laugh along even if you don’t get the joke. A smile goes a long way in conversation. 4. As a last resort, I find that having a couple of charming, funny phrases in my back pocket can generate a giggle of its own. Try to memorize a phrase like “Non ho la minima idea di cosa avete detto”. (I don’t have the slightest idea what any of you just said”.) People are likely to laugh. And you’ll get why and can laugh too.
6. THE FEELING YOU’RE FAKING IT
When I first started to learn Italian I found I need to do weird things that I wouldn’t normally dream of doing in a “normal” conversation. Like rehearsing the conversation several times before having it with a real person. Like sticking to only talking about the things that I only knew how to say, even if I wanted to say more, until I got a little more comfortable.
Has this happened to you? Did it feel a bit artificial? Well, don’t sweat it at all. This is exactly where you should be when you are learning the art of banter in a new language. It’s like the difference between practicing parallel parking between two cones in a parking lot and doing it for real out on the road. There are all kind of things you should do to make the experience safer and easier for yourself while you are learning. Simulating the experience is almost sure to make you more comfortable over time with more spontaneous exchanges.
Its seems pretty obvious that the sum of everything I just laid out can add up to a general sense of frustration at times. That said, frustration isn’t actually the most common emotion I experienced when I first started to learn Italian. It’s common to experience it a lot when one gets to an intermediate level, though. Most polyglots will tell you that’s because progress is quick when you have “everything to learn”, but plateaus as you get to an intermediate level. What am I saying here? Well, good news, frustration could indicate you’ve reached an intermediate level, where conspicuous progress slows. The bad news is, the “generalized” emotion that I felt as a result of all the other negatives, in the beginning, wasn’t as often frustration, as it was…
I don’t recall ever canceling a session though, due to fear. That’s not because I’m excessively brave or disciplined in the face of negative emotions; I’m not. I’m actually kind of wimpy. I persevered because all the negatives were balanced, if not surpassed, by a flood of pride, elation, joy, camaraderie, freedom, and expansiveness that came from early gains in learning to speak Italian. The great news is, I have continued to feel all of those things in spades, even as negative feelings have faded. So get comfortable being uncomfortable, because the unpleasant emotions that come with language learning are more than just side effects. They’re indicators you’re doing it right.
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!