Think Like An Italian, Speak Like An Italian

Forget Your Native Tongue—It's Italian You Should Be Thinking

If you want to learn Italian, forget your native tongue. If you want to speak Italian like a native, then spend some time in Italy speaking only Italian. If you want to read Italian, then pick up an Italian newspaper and peruse whatever section interests you. The point is, if you want to achieve competency in Italian, you must think like an Italian—and that means getting rid of the helpers that are really hindrances and standing on your own two (linguistic) feet.

Bilingual dictionaries are a crutch. Speaking English to your friends is a waste of time if your goal is to speak Italian. Making grammatical comparisons between English and Italian are worthless. It sounds counterintuitive, but in the end, each language has rules and forms that are unique and sometimes illogical. And translating back and forth in your head before speaking or reading is the ultimate fool's errand that will never lead to real-time speaking competence.

So many people approach language as a science and get completely tongue-tied—witness the e-mail questions this SiteGuide receives daily about obscure Italian grammatical points and textbook recommendations. Learners obsess over minutiae, as if Italian could be dissected, instead of speaking Italian and interacting with native speakers. Imitate them. Mimic them. Ape them. Copy them. Let go of your ego and make believe you're an actor trying to sound Italian.

But please—no books with something else to memorize. That turns off students immediately, and is not effective in the least.

If there’s one bit of advice I can offer to anyone studying Italian, regardless of your level: Stop thinking in English! Ignore English grammar—you’re wasting a lot of mental energy trying to translate literally and construct sentences according to English syntax.

In a letter to the editor in The New York Times Magazine, Lance Strate, an associate professor of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University in The Bronx reinforces this point: " does not follow that all languages are equal, and therefore interchangeable. If this were true, translation would be a relatively simple and straight-forward affair, and learning another language would involve nothing more than learning to substitute one code for another, much like using Roman numerals.

"The truth is that different languages differ in highly significant ways, in grammar as well as vocabulary, which is why each language represtents a unique way of codifying, expressing, and understanding the world. We do not become fluent in a new language until we stop translating and simply start thinking in the new language, because each language represents a distinctive medium of thought."

Let go of your fear of making mistakes. Your goal should be to communicate, not sound as if you have a Ph.D in Italian grammar (you’ll never do it, anyway, since there are only a small number of native Italians who are that well-versed in the intricacies of their own language. But certainly most of them can communicate their every emotion, fear, want, and need.). Your biggest mistake, and what will hold you back, is using English as a crutch and being afraid of opening your mouth wide and singing that lovely language called la bella lingua.

At the risk of sounding discouraging, a lot of language learners just don’t get it, and never will.

It’s similar to taking dance lessons. You can put cut-out feet on the floor with numbers on them and take lessons from an expert, but if you don’t have rhythm, and you don’t have that swing, you’re always and forever going to look like a klutz on the dance floor, no matter how many lessons you take and how much you practice.

So what do you do if you’re not a good dancer and weren’t born with natural rhythm?

Learning scripted responses in foreign languages is unproductive. Every textbook for beginners devotes many pages to dialogue that’s stilted and simply doesn’t occur in real life. So why teach it?! If you ask a person on the street "Dov’e’ il museo?" and he doesn’t respond according to the script you memorized, then what? You’re stuck, because there are an infinite number of potential responses, and none of us has enough time on the face of this earth to memorize them. And that person on the street is going to keep on walking, because he’s headed to a great pizzeria.

Learning scripted responses in foreign languages encourages a false sense of confidence. It doesn't translate into real-time speaking competence nor will you understand the musicality of the language. It’s like looking at a musical score and expecting to be a master violinist just because you've memorized the notes.

Instead, you have to play it, and play it again and again. Likewise with the Italian language. Play with it! Practice! Listen to native Italian speakers and mimic them. Laugh at yourself trying to pronounce "gli" correctly. Italian, more so than many languages, is musical, and if you remember that analogy it will come easier.

There is no secret, no Rosetta Stone, no silver bullet, when it comes to learning a language. You have to listen and repeat ad nauseum. You will make a quantum leap in learning Italian when you abandon your native tongue and disengage from the grammar that you implicitly learned when you were a child.

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Your Citation
Filippo, Michael San. "Think Like An Italian, Speak Like An Italian." ThoughtCo, Feb. 26, 2016, Filippo, Michael San. (2016, February 26). Think Like An Italian, Speak Like An Italian. Retrieved from Filippo, Michael San. "Think Like An Italian, Speak Like An Italian." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 21, 2018).