12 things I’ve learnt about language learning by being a language learner!

Italian and I…

We had barely met when I first arrived in Palermo. I called bruschetta “brooshetta” , pizzeria “pizzERia” and could barely string a sentence together. I had a few Memrise chunks – they meant I could ask where the vatican is (might have got some odd looks from the good people of Palermo if I tried that!*) and comment on the large number of taxies in sight, or surmise that something might be dangerous (me attempting to do anything in Italian, perhaps?) but when I went into a bar/cafe near where I work, I didn’t have the confidence to attract their attention or the language to follow it up with getting what I wanted.

I did have a few lessons but dropped out fairly early on because of a combination of lack of time and being driven slightly mad (much as it was interesting to see the classroom from the learner point of view!). I was, however, very motivated to learn, so worked my way through an A1/A2 coursebook and picked up some useful stuff and some less than useful (the only time I’ve needed to describe my daily routine at length was in a speaking test which formed part of an entrance test when I was thinking of joining a class again! :-p ). I’ve watched a load of dvds, films and series, with then without subtitles. I’ve read extensively. I’ve used what little language I have with various people. The latter three things I’ve kept up while the coursebook (the B1 version now) has fallen by the wayside. Though now that I’ve decided to do another year here, I have renewed my intentions to pick it up and continue…

I love Italian and have enjoyed the learning process thus far. Having just been on holiday around Sicily and having succeeded in putting my language to good use, I feel extra positive about it now! So I thought I’d pull together some things I’ve learnt on my journey as a learner up til now…

12 things I’ve learnt so far from my language learning:

  • 20 mins morning and evening is worthwhile. It must be-it’s all I’ve ever have time to do during the week and I’ve dragged myself from zero to A2 in my 7 months here so far. (In my entrance test I was one point off B1 for the written bit and my speaking was in the same general ball park). However, learners often think that if they don’t have an hour or so to spend, it’s not worth starting. Being busy people, finding that hour is, of course, difficult. 20 mins could be much easier! (I’ve a project under way currently to work on making small slots of time more appealing and likely to be used!)
  • Read, read, read! When I started Harry Potter one, I was looking up rather a lot of words and I also used a parallel English text alongside the Italian, varying which I’d read first; but now (I’m half way through Order of the Phoenix) I can read, understand and only look up the occasional word (or ignore it and read on!) Also, just because I was a (very) basic user, that didn’t mean I couldn’t start reading books in Italian. Familiar stories can be very useful for soaking up new language. My experiences of extensive reading have fed into my reading project.
  • I should listen more. I’ve done well with dvd films and series but I haven’t mined radio – took ages to discover I could get it through my ipod and plug that into speakers then promptly forgot ever to do so. (Internet radio is no go because I have a limited monthly data allowance which streaming radio would kill!) I really need to dig out my ipod again…
  • (Related to above point) getting into a learning routine is really useful! I automatically do my reading each evening (and often with lunch too); for a while (3 months?) I also opened my coursebook religiously each morning with my morning cuppa. Then it just becomes what you do as part of a day rather than an added extra that can be forgotten. How can we help our learners develop helpful routines?
  • Mapping to other languages is so helpful. French is related to Italian and I have reasonable French, which I’ve used to my advantage in looking for similarities and differences, both of which are useful memory aids. Not to mention just being really *interesting*! While on holiday, my aunt (who has good Spanish and French, but little Italian) and I (good French, basic Italian) were often making comparisons between these languages and also German (we both have a smattering of that too) for both of the reasons mentioned above. So, other languages should be welcomed in the classroom, I think.
  • I can do more than I perceive. Have just been on this holiday around Sicily, which involved doing a lot of taking charge, as my aunt and uncle, who travelled round Sicily with me, have little (her) to no (him) Italian. I managed. Including several phone calls! I found I had more vocabulary than I realised and could make myself understood fairly easily. When I first arrived, as I said earlier, I once went into a bar to try and get a slice of pizza or similar, but didn’t even have enough language to get their attention and was also too scared to say anything. Progress has definitely been made and that is hugely motivating! (Which underlines how important it is to help learners discover that they can use language – a bit like the budding readers in my classes have done with reading in English…)
  • Though I didn’t give myself another (Italian) name in the end (see my post about identity here), I’ve noticed that before I speak in Italian, there is a split-second moment where my Italian mindset slips into place, just before I open my mouth. It’s not a “how do you say xxx?” type switch, more of a changing channels to my Italian channel. Maybe this is slightly related to second language identity? (I have to become “Lizzie who CAN speak Italian”…) I’ve also noticed that I respond in Italian automatically when, for example, I bump into someone and need to apologise or what have you. Without thinking. So maybe the Italian mindset is on more than I realise, but when I speak with purpose, I become aware of it?
  • I have found myself at times trying to apply what I teach to my own learning, especially, for example, the metacognitive approach for listening to stuff, and at times going completely against it (e.g. all the words I looked up initially in Harry Potter!)  I have concluded that all is very useful to be aware of, but it’s important to feel the freedom to break rules too: language learning is so personal. Rather than tell a learner you should/shouldn’t do this or that, I’d involve them in a discussion about possible ways of doing things and benefits/limitations of each.
  • Living in a country doesn’t necessarily mean you do tons of speaking to native speakers, especially if you are low level. But nevertheless, being surrounded by the language counts for a lot. Even just in terms of reminding you to study :-p But also you hear it and see it regularly, even if you don’t do much speaking. When I went to UK at Christmas, I found it much harder to study, a) having lost my routine and b) being surrounded by English again. However, as time passes, and you become more comfortable in your use of the language, exploiting opportunities that DO arise becomes easier.
  • Losing self-consciousness and focusing on communicating definitely helps. A dash of necessity is useful in making this step. And when you are understood, and manage to do what you want to do, you feel dead chuffed! Again helpful to try and replicate this to some degree in the language classroom, at whatever level. (I think I’d have found it much more motivating to do a task where use of personal details was needed than I did the language practice activity I did have to do, which was pretty much a communicative drill. Not knocking the communicative drill, but maybe an extra task too…)
  • If you speak other languages, it’s good to try and maintain them while learning the new one. I read in French regularly – generally every evening after I’ve done my 20 mins of Italian reading. (I have a 40 min piece of music that is neatly divided into two sections, so no clock watching needed!) I think a) it’s nice not to lose the previously learnt language and b) it must be good brain gym switching between languages!
  • If you learn a new word, it’s like making a new friend – in a crowd of other words, where before it would have been just part of that “sea of faces”, once you make friends with a word, it stands out. E.g. I learnt “condividere” today and then overheard some random Italians speaking and picked out that word amongst others. (Was I primed to notice it by having focused on it earlier in the day?) But like human relationships, if you only meet someone once, you may then forget their name/face and need reminding at the next meeting, when you know you know them from somewhere but can’t place them. (Which is more likely to happen when you meet them out of what you perceive as their usual context)

And last but not least, though more being reminded than having learnt:

How much I love languages, language learning and language teaching! 🙂

(* I know – I can substitute other things too…)

Italy_flag

La bella Italia – Italian flag: from commons.wikimedia.org – licensed for commercial reuse with modification

Advertisements

12 thoughts on “12 things I’ve learnt about language learning by being a language learner!

  1. Thank you for a very interesting post. I entirely agree about the importance of reading, even small articles of news help enormously, but I would also add that I am seeing rapid progress in teenage learners here in France in those students who watch TV series in English
    ( sometimes English with English subtitles). The intense exposure to the language seems to enable most, not necessarily all, of them to be able to adopt the English-speaking “channel” that you describe. i would add on a personal note that I don’t feel I have the same “voice” when I speak French as my English voice, even though I’ve been here for over 25 years.

    • Yes, TV series are great. I’ve gained a lot from watching TV series without subtitles (having started with films with [italian] subtitles) 🙂
      Thank you for an interesting response!

  2. Yet another great post, Lizzie. Thanks for sharing your experience and ideas.
    I’ve come to very similar conclusions over the years of learning various languages, so I don’t want to repeat them here. But I think as a language teacher, learning a foreign language can really improve your teaching. There’s so much you can learn from the experience. You can probably better advise your students how to improve their English, for example.
    I’m actually in the process of learning Portuguese now. I got interested in polyglots some time ago, and I started to wonder whether you can become fluent in a language in a relatively short time, e.g. 6 months, as many polyglots have. This is the first update after 2 months of studying it: http://teflreflections.blogspot.nl/2014/03/be-fluent-in-6-months-first-update.html

    • Definitely agree that learning a language is invaluable to a teacher of language. Who would learn the piano from a teacher who has never learnt to play? I think it’s only in languages that this is actually allowed…?
      Will look at your link shortly, thanks! 🙂

  3. Very interesting post. I would agree with them all. Would you also include language learning should link to your interests? I know it is impossible to always focus on something you find fun and interesting but should it be encouraged as much as possible?

    I have a teen elementary class that every teacher in my school has refused to deal with. As soon as I started teaching them through song based lessons their behaving improved and their learning accelerated.

    I’ve put a few song based lessons on my blog https://lyricalenglish.wordpress.com/2014/04/30/let-it-go-from-frozen-lesson-plan/ I hope you like them.

    • I think if you enjoy what you are doing it helps a huge amount. Like me with extensive reading and listening. But I think it’s also good to at least experiment with ways that you don’t necessarily associate with enjoyment, because they might also work well too, you never know! 🙂
      And thanks for the link!

  4. Pingback: How I’m learning Italian (inspired by the one and only Sandy Millin!) | Reflections of an English Language Teacher

  5. Pingback: The role of metacognition in language learning | Reflections of an English Language Teacher

  6. Pingback: 12 things I've learnt about language learning b...

  7. Pingback: How I’m learning Russian (part two) | Sandy Millin

  8. Hi Lizzie,
    This was a really interesting post and I just thought I’d leave a comment to recommend you the Learn Italian Pod podcasts to help your Italian even further – not that it sounds like it’s needed!
    They’re available at all different levels, and I listened to them during my year abroad from university when I lived in Spain, but didn’t want to forget the ab initio Italian I had learnt in the year prior to moving abroad.
    Best of luck with your ongoing learning journey 🙂
    Rachel

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s