8 Tips About Learning Italian You Won’t Hear in School

The classroom isn’t the only place to learn a language.

Studying Italian tips
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How many years of foreign language did you take while you were in school? For many people, taking a class wasn’t enough to help them become conversational. While they can remember simple words, those years of instruction aren’t currently useful to them.

While it is possible to come out of school speaking a foreign language (especially if you take charge of your studies), it’s not common.

So what language learning tips can help you that you won’t hear in school?

Tips You Won’t Hear in School

1) Learn phrases first and grammar second.

It’s common in school to focus on verb charts and lists of themed vocabulary with intermittent dialogues placed between, but what if you could learn fun stuff like phrases first?

Yes, you can still learn grammar, but as the famous polyglot Kató Lomb teaches, one needs to learn grammar through the use of language, not the other way around.

These are phrases that you could actually imagine yourself needing in everyday conversation and ones that give you some time to think about what to say next, like “Voglio dire… - I mean” or “Ho dimenticato la parola! - I forgot the word” are particularly useful at any level.

By doing this, you make the language feel more real and tangible as opposed to words printed in a textbook.

2) Master “handle” verbs first.

Michel Thomas, of whom the famous method is named, taught a concept called “handle” verbs. Essentially, there are three verbs you learn how to flexibly use well before others because they can be used in place of other more complex verbs, giving you more capability to express yourself. These verbs are volere, potere, and dovere.

3) Test yourself every day instead of once a week or twice a semester.

In school, exams are given twice a semester. In between that, quizzes might be given as often as every Friday. While they’re useful for encouraging students to study, the system isn’t designed to help build long-term memory, which is exactly where elements of a foreign language need to go.

Instead of waiting to be tested, start testing yourself by creating flashcards and reviewing them daily. These flashcards will become your daily tests and the more you review them, the more likely that the concepts will stay in your long-term memory, allowing you to retrieve and use them quickly when you need them in a real conversation.

Finally, I recommend the SRS (spaced-time repetition) methodology for studying flashcards, which is really just a fancy way to describe a flashcard system that has you review cards you’re just about to forget or have forgotten. For digital systems, try Cram, Flashcards Deluxe, or Anki. For a physical system, you can try a Leitner box.

4) Build a study habit.

Since class meets up to five days a week at the most or one day a week in the least, classroom students aren’t used to the idea of studying every day to learn a language. However, having a routine is exactly what is going to help you become conversational in less time.

If you’re not studying every day, it’s best to choose a small amount of time, like ten or fifteen minutes, to devote to Italian. Once you’re accustomed to that time block, increase it by five or ten minute increments. Change can be challenging, so you want to take something like this nice and slow.

Like they say in Italian, a goccia a goccia, si fa il mare (drop by drop, one makes an ocean).

For more tips on how to build a study habit, click here.

5) Get really comfortable with indirect and direct object pronouns.

Remember, you want to be learning useful phrases first, but you’ll also want to back that up knowing how to make your way around grammar. Since there are is limited time in a semester and typically a lot of grammar to cover, indirect and direct object pronouns are often glossed over.

And because they’re small (like prepositions), it doesn’t seem like a big deal at first… except when you start having conversations and saying things like “it” and “them” feels like mental gymnastics.

6) Make space for different definitions for verbs.

In any foreign language, English definitions for verbs aren’t always how they seem.

That’s why one of the first things you’ll learn in Italian is that they don’t use the verb “fare,” defined as “to do / to make” more flexibly than we do. For example, “fare una doccia - to take a shower” or “fare colazione - to have breakfast.” Similarly, you would never use the verb “mancare - to miss” to talk about missing the train; you would use “perdere - to lose” instead.

These nuances aren’t intuitive, so we have to work on learning how to think more like an Italian. Testing yourself daily with flashcards helps immensely with this.

7) If you stick to “textbook” italian, you might sound too formal.

Much of what you’ll learn in a textbook will sound like you’re always talking to a government officer. It’s a useful skill to have, but it’s definitely not the kind of Italian you’ll be using most. Once you begin to wander outside of your textbook and the classroom, you can develop a more conversational tone using different words, grammatical structures, and even pronunciation.

8) You don’t have to spend six semesters in school to reach a conversational level

Foreign languages are set up in levels over a series of semesters with the intention that once you’re finished with an advanced level you’ll be able to speak the language.

Here’s the best tip I can give you: You don’t actually need to take a class at all. The Internet is full of very useful resources much like the one you’re reading right now. There are many merits to taking a class, interacting with other students, and following a curriculum, but it shouldn’t be the only thing you’re doing to learn the language.

You can absolutely become conversational, and you don’t have to wait to wait 3 or 5 or 10 years to do it. 

If you’re not sure what to focus on next and you’re having trouble getting motivated, I recommend choosing one of the points above that is actionable and interests you, like mastering handle verbs. If you want to take a different route that’s going to have more impact on your studies, building a study habit and testing yourself every day are great steps to build a solid learning foundation.