Today I have finally made a video that shows me speaking Italian. I made it on the day that marked my 3 month anniversary here, and thus this video shows my progress after 3 months of ‘immersion’ (in quote marks because I have spoken English loads here, well atleast before MTI2) and around what I consider a total of 4 and a half months of learning, counting from the day in which I first tried speaking Italian to somebody.
Now there may be some people who watch this, then seeing that it doesn’t have to take too long to get speaking in a language, decide that they too would like to pick one up. Well for those lucky sons of bitches the rest of this post will serve as my personal guide on how to do this, told through the story of two different characters, Samuele McItaliano and his counterpart Giovanni di Grammarbook.
Now quickly before we get onto the fable and my guide… You may be thinking ‘well you’re in the country of your language, it’s easy for you, but I’m in London (/wherever).’
Well, fuck you person who says this. It’s actually pretty hard to learn a language wherever you are, and particularly here sometimes. Firstly, everyone wants to learn my English so doesn’t speak Italian with me. Secondly, I was working for the first month plus a week and was having to speak English all the time while doing it. And thirdly, I returned to England for a week, and also later then spent another week staying with English people in Italy. So that in total leaves only 1 month and a half in non-English speaking environments, where additionally a lot of this time I spent with people who wanted to speak English nonetheless or was sat pedalling away on my bike, and thus not able to speak the language or study nuttin’.
So my point here… I honestly believe I could be speaking Italian just as well if I’d stayed in London, and in fact maybe even better if I was motivated enough. How? Because I think realistically I have averaged speaking Italian here for somewhere around 2/3 hours a day. In London there are communities for every single country and language in the world, so you also could easily adjust your life so that you are hanging out with people from you language’s country for a few hours every day. Easily. You just gotta get out there man… If not from a big city, you can find people online. So enough of your excuses, instead it’s time for a story.
(note, bad will be used in the michael jackson sense of the word)
The Fable of Samuele McItaliano and Giovanni di Grammarbook
Once upon a time, there was a badboy called Samuele McItaliano and (just) a boy called Giovanni di Grammarbook. They both set off to Italy for largely different reasons, though with one underlying intention in common; to master the Italian language.
Although one of the boys was (definitely) much badder than the other, they both were in effect actually pretty bad, they both were focused, and both had hearts filled with desire, fire and brimstone. When they set their mind to something, they wanted to do it, and they wanted to do it right. They were both intelligent, and both proud, while they also both liked to show off, and thus in their plight to learn Italian, were both obsessed with becoming as perfectly Italian as possible, and as quickly as possible.
The way in which they differed most perhaps lay in their methods. Giovanni, as his full name destined him to be so, was obsessed with knowing the grammar, the ins and outs of the language, and all of the vocabulary under the sun. He believed with this under his belt nothing could stop him, that he would be the envy of every foreigner who had tried to learn Italian before him, that he would speak an Italian so beautiful that it would be worthy of the Italian principi of old. He wasn’t scared of failure, but merely revelled in perfection, his pride lying in his ability to pick things up quickly and put them into practice easily. Samuele on the other hand, though proud too, had already accepted that mistakes are often a means to an end, a part of the learning process, and knew that even in making them his Italian would still come across as mighty impressive to all those that he met in his travels of Italia.
For some mystical reason, or some twist of fate, through their lifestyle both these boys were only able to study Italian for 3 hours a day and not a drop more or less. Giovanni decided that he would dedicate 2 hours to rigorously studying vocabulary and grammar everyday and one to talking with the people in Italian. An admirable endeavour, and I hope at this point that Giovanni di Grammarbook does not seem demonised, for he had the will to study and the bravery to speak, and indeed Samuele McItaliano was looking up to Giovanni, whilst staying quietly in awe of his determination and this will to succeed. Though Samuele, perhaps out of lazyness if anything, decided that he would not follow Giovanni’s path. Instead he decided upon spending two hours and 50 minutes of his three hours speaking to people in Italian (an unarguably more enjoyable task than studying) and 10 minutes perusing the grammar without making conscious efforts to remember anything.
But the Italian language was a wiley wench and had plenty of tricks up her sleeve. These tricks namely lay in her conjugations, for which each verb had more than 120, while all the most common verbs were completely irregular. Giovanni sat down at the table, and being the intelligent man he was, began to memorise them all. Samuele glanced through the general gist of the conjugations every day, and without having a particularly good knowledge of them, he went out and tried to talk anyway. When Giovanni spoke he was often able to use the correct conjugation, even when using some of the more irregular verbs, while Samuele instead would just take a guess at the conjugation based on what he knew or had seen before and inevitably get it wrong, but be understood in the process. However after a few times of getting it wrong, someone would correct him, and the correction was then given context; he had used it in everyday speech, it wasn’t just some word on a page, and for this he would remember it the next time. People were impressed by Giovanni’s knowledge of the Italian verbs, though they were also impressed with Samuele, who despite making more mistakes, was spending more time talking and was thus establishing a faster rhythm of communication.
Fast-forward a month and Giovanni was speaking quite well and knew almost every single conjugation perfectly. However they were memorised from pages of books, and so it took him a few moments to recall one to his tongue every time the need arose. Samuele only knew half of the conjugations that Giovanni knew, but could use them much faster because he was not only used to using them, but had learnt them through conversation. Samuele spoke faster, but more incorrectly, while GIovanni slower but technically better. People were impressed by Giovanni, but found Samuele more fun to talk to, it didn’t take 10 minutes to describe what he’d done that morning, even if what he said was at times a little harder to understand.
Fast-forward another month, and Giovanni knows thousands of words in Italian and can pretty much read a newspaper. Samuele is illiterate in Italian because he lacks a ton of vocabulary. However the spoken language is very different to the written, a person uses only 600 different words or so a day, and Samuele doesn’t see the point of learning all these other words until he can use the most common ones fluidly and can understand them when spoken. While Samuele sometimes has to ask somebody for the word for something basic (ie a curtain, or a fridge) during a conversation, Giovanni doesn’t. However Giovanni doesn’t fool anyone, he speaks very slowly, and despite the fact that he already knows the words for the fridges and curtains of this world, he seems – at the least – just as foreign as Samuele as it takes him so much longer to get to saying it.
Additionally the fact that Samuele doesn’t know vocabulary means that he has to try and explain what he means to people in Italian. As a result, he is forced to talk about areas and explain concepts that Giovanni would never have to, and in doing so he greatly improves the range of his conversational ability. While exploring these difficult territories of trying to explain words that may have abstract meanings, Samuele realises where he has difficulties talking, he sees his limits, and thus sees how to expand them. When he goes to read his grammar later, he specifically targets these limits and areas that troubled him, he reads the grammar and again it has context… It is not something he has to memorise, but instead the page of grammar gives the solution to his problem.
It’s now the end of the third month, Samuele is reading quite well now because he’s picked up so many words in conversation. Additionally the conjugations of all the words and the sentence structure are much more internalised so he is not translating as he reads, but understanding it in its own context. He’s built a rhythm of speaking, and because he’s also been perusing the grammar, he’s been able to implement what he’s read subtely and he’s not making too many mistakes. He’s surrounded himself with people who correct him when he’s talking in Italian and this has also greatly improved his grammar. Giovanni speaks with still a slightly better grammar, but it is slower and less natural, Samuele has established a rhythm and now finds it very easy to slot new elements of the language into it. He recognises quickly words that he hasn’t yet met in conversation and enquires about them, before adding them to his now rapidly expanding arsenal. He finds it easy to remember these words because he is habituated to speaking the language. He is thus quickly catching up with Giovanni’s knowledge of Italian vocabulary and he has done it much more effortlessly, while has an ability to speak it much more easily.
The three months are over and Giovanni and Samuele meet. They have both achieved similar results, though one would probably have to argue that Samuele is the more natural conversationalist, has a better Italian pronounciation, and is ready now to start increasing his ability to speak Italian exponentially. When Samuele doesn’t push himself, he can speak about simple things quickly and almost effortlessly, although perhaps has more difficulty than Giovanni at finding words and idiums for more complicated ideas and sentences. But because Samuele can use the base language so much better, as in all the words that you have to use all the time, it is he who seems the most Italian, and it is he who has succeeded in this task the best. Samuele and Giovanni shake hands, Giovanni di Grammarbook is not dissapointed with himself as he too has done a fantastic job, but has to take his hat off to the method of Samuele, who – as his name destined him to be so – has become the most McItaliano.
Moral of Fable: Literary Analysis
Giovanni did exceptionally well, in fact to speak as well as he did when he spent so little time on the speaking and so much more time on the grammar means that he must’ve been extremely intelligent. Everything he read would’ve had to have stuck in his head, and he must have been very focused if he was able to recall what he’d read as fast as the story suggests. Though still Samuele could recall things faster, and by the end of the three months he also knew all the irregular verb conjugations, and this was all without ever having made a proper effort to remember them. Well yes, he made an effort; speaking everyday in a language you can’t speak is hard, but it’s definitely more fun (and as this tale says, more rewarding) than spending all your time studying and trying to memorise things off paper.
So is the moral here don’t read grammar? No my grasshopper friend, Samuele did in fact read grammar each day. The moral of the story is instead that speaking beats everything. Or more specifically, ‘inquisitive speaking’, in which you seek correction, new words, and try to work out the grammar behind the new things you’ve learned (through further conversation or elsewise). If you are wondering how you should allocate your time in the beginning of learning a language between the writing, reading, listening, speaking, vocabulary, and grammar, the answer for me everytime is to speak. While speaking you get vocabulary, you’re corrected and so you learn grammar, you also have to listen, which you’ll do so with more attention because you have to if you want to continue the conversation (unlike a TV where you can just phase out), and of course finally you learn how to speak. You get them all at once. But yes, ofcourse you can’t always speak given that there’s not always someone to speak with, and so in these cases you should practice the other elements; watch TV, try writing something, read a bit of grammar to try and understand new things you’ve learned, do some vocabulary flashcards if you want.
Perhaps a point will come where there are specific things you could do to improve your language speaking skills, but in the first 3 months the best thing will always be speaking. As Samuele thought; what’s the point of knowing how to say all the complex and obscure words when it still takes you time just to say the simple and eveyday things like ‘I said to him’ or ‘we met’. For in Italiano these are no easy task; ‘gli ho detto’ and ‘ci siamo conoscuiti’ respectively, one being irregular and the other involving the use of reflexive conjugations and verb ending-subject agreement. When you learn a language, you get this urge to be as good as possible as soon as possible, and you get scared when you think of all these basic things that you don’t know the names of in your target-language (again like the curtains and fridges of this world), but you’re never going to be that good at the language until you master the basics of speech, and by the time you master these basics by speaking all the time, you will have learned the words for the curtains and fridges along the way.
Finally I can see some of you saying well this isn’t a guide, where’s the advice? It just says to speak the language. Well I’m afraid with languages there is no exact guide. There’s just what works best, which in my opinion and for the reasons above is to just go and speak, while being conscious of what you are learning. So in this sense I think this guide is actually the best on the internet (and it’s free), because you’ll find that as you start to learn a language, you’ll inevitably doubt whatever way you’re going about doing it, but as long as you are speaking as much as you can everyday, you can come back to this post and know that you are doing it the right way. Trust me, I mean after all… this is Samuele McItaliano you’re listening to.
(Twist at the end of blog post: He was me all along…)