10 Ways to Sabotage Your Progress in Italian

How not to learn Italian

Two women reading in Italy
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There are ways to speak Italian quickly, and there are tips and tricks they don't teach in Italian language school. Conversely, there are methods and approaches that will slow down your progress and only prove frustrating and demotivating. You might have the best intentions, but here are ten sure-fire ways how not to learn Italian (or any foreign language, for that matter).

1. Think in English

Perform the mental gymnastics that requires a lot of time and effort when conversing in Italian: think in English, then translate into Italian, then retranslate into English after hearing the speaker's response.

Now watch the listener's eyes glaze over as your brain painstakingly hashes out this unnecessarily complex process. At this rate, you'll never learn Italian—unless you forget your native tongue. Think like an Italian if you want to speak like an Italian.

2. Cram

Stay up late, drink plenty of espressos, and try to learn a semester's worth in one night. It worked in college, so it should work with a foreign language, right? Well, you cannot get into shape in just a few days at the gym, and you cannot learn Italian by studying just before a test. It takes repeated effort, over an extended period of time, to get results. Rome wasn't built in a day, and no one can become proficient in the Italian present subjunctive tense in an evening.

3. Get the Dubbed Version

The Italian movie that was critically acclaimed and that everyone's raving about? It's now available on DVD, in English no less. So sit back, microwave some popcorn, and watch the actors' lips flap out of synch for two hours.

Worse, miss the various nuances of the Italian language during conversations as well as the original voices. (In fact, many viewers believe that English-dubbed films bastardize the original.)

Yes, it's difficult to listen to a foreign movie in the original version, but no one ever said learning Italian was going to be easy.

If the movie is that good, watch it twice—first in Italian, and then with subtitles. It will improve your comprehension, and more than likely the original dialogue will have shades of meaning that could never be conveyed by translation.

4. Avoid Native Italian Speakers

Stick with English speakers when studying Italian, because after all, you can communicate with them at will without having to exert any extra effort to making yourself understood. You might not ever learn any of the nuances of Italian grammar, but then, at least you won't embarrass yourself.

5. Stick to Only One Method

There's only one way to learn Italian—your way!

Cyclists in the Giro d'Italia have bulging quadriceps and huge calf muscles, but their upper body is underdeveloped. Use the same muscles and you'll get the same results. You'll never build up the proper lingual techniques required to sound like a native Italian (or at least close to it) if you don't cross-train. Avoid the linguistic equivalent (memorizing the lines in every Fellini movie, or knowing every verb that's related to cooking) and try a balanced approach, whether it's reading an Italian textbook, completing workbook exercises, listening to a tape or CD, or conversing with a native Italian speaker.

6. Speak as if You're Speaking English

The Italian alphabet resembles the Latin alphabet used in English. So who needs to roll their r's? Why is it important to know the difference between open and closed e's? Although certain Italian dialects might have pronunciation idiosyncrasies relative to standard Italian, that doesn't mean non-native speakers get to make up new rules regarding pronunciation. Get yourself to the linguistic gym and give that tongue a workout!

7. Attend a "Learn Italian in 48 Hours" Class

Granted, there are benefits to learning Italian survival phrases when traveling to Italy, but your short term memory will fail you within days. And then what?! Instead, adopt a more deliberate approach, and learn the basics of the Italian language before traveling to Italy with an Italian for travelers e-mail course over several weeks' time.

Think of it as preparation for what a vacation in Italy should be: leisurely, with plenty of time for watching the world go by.

8. Don't Listen to Italian Radio or TV

Since you can't understand the conversation anyway, don't bother tuning in (via cable or Internet) to Italian radio or TV broadcasts. The announcers speak too quickly, and without any context, your comprehension will approach zero. On the other hand, you might not be able to play a musical instrument, yet regardless if it's classical, rap, hip-hop, or metal, you can easily pick up the rhythm, cadences, and tempo of any song. Keep that in mind, and it may be easier to incorporate the distinct intonation of Italian when speaking the language even if you don't understand the words themselves (many opera singers have near-perfect diction when performing Italian works, yet have only a rudimentary understanding of the language).

9. Remain Silently Foolish

As the adage goes, "It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt." So sit there and say nothing in Italian, because otherwise, it will become evident rather quickly if you are unable to distinguish among false cognates in Italian.

10. Travel to Italy Only if Necessary

Given the logistics of air travel nowadays, who in their right mind would want to travel to the country of the target language? There's schlepping luggage everywhere, interminable waits in the airport and on the security line, and leg room sufficient only for children. Then, three times a day at meals, there will be a struggle trying to read menus and ordering food. Imagine, too, if you have certain food allergies or are a vegetarian and have to explain that to the cameriere (waiter)!

In fact, if you make the effort, you'll discover that traveling to Italy is the best way to learn Italian. While there will be challenges, being immersed in the language is guaranteed to improve your Italian language skills quicker than any other method. Consider it a linguistic adventure, and start planning your itinerary now.