How I’m learning Italian (inspired by the one and only Sandy Millin!)

Sandy’s brilliant post on how she’s learning Russian has inspired me to reflect on and write about my own efforts to learn Italian, with a bit of comparison between my way and hers.

The first difference between our learning is that, when not cancelling them, she is having lessons. What’s more, they are one-to-one lessons. I had a few small group lessons when I first arrived in Italy, and established that I was a terrible classroom learner. Like Sandy, I, too, felt sorry for my teacher having me as a student! I wonder if I would do better in one-to-one classes? It would be interesting to have a few and find out…

I suspect, though, like any adult learner of a foreign language, time management would be an issue. Especially, like Sandy, the whole HOMEWORK bit! During the time period of the small-group lessons, near the beginning of my time here, I mostly did my homework half an hour before the lesson started – it couldn’t have been any nearer the time because our weekly staff meetings immediately preceded the lesson time-slot! On the surface you’d have assumed I was an unmotivated, bad learner. Not so. The problem was that I was too motivated – I had already met what we were looking at in class during my own self-study. So the homework – gap fills and writing out verb conjugations and so forth – was boring.

(Or would it? If I were in a one-to-one class, then theoretically we’d be doing stuff I was interested in knowing, both in the classes and, by extension, for homework. Ah, homework. It’s compulsory to set it here, so with my own experiences in mind, I’ve worked very hard on trying to ensure that the homework I set is meaningful and of interest to my learners.)

Needless to say, I stopped the lessons (time was at a premium and the lessons weren’t doing it for me) and went it alone.

Reading

 

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Harry Potter: tutti i libri!

 

Knowing that I enjoy reading in languages others than English (especially French), I immediately decided I had to start reading in Italian. So I bought Il piccolo principe from the local bookshop (had to be done, was the first book I ever read in French too…) and downloaded a complete set of Harry Potter books in Italian onto my e-book reader. I also dug out a pdf. of Harry Potter 1 in English. I used them side by side. Sometimes I read a few paragraphs in English, followed by those paragraphs in Italian, and repeat. Sometimes I did the reverse. It was a fascinating voyage of discovery, seeing how things were said in Italian and taking care to keep an eye out for any similarities with French – lexical or grammatical. So I suppose, though I was reading extensively, I was also reading intensively – using the text to learn about language.

Eventually (somewhere part way through this first in the series), I gave up using the English version and just used the Italian version. It wasn’t a conscious decision, so much as a gradual realisation that I had enough language not to need the side-by-side translating any more. I graduated to looking words up when necessary. Initially, quite a few words. (What a terrible language learner! You’re supposed to guess by context/ignore etc. Oh well!) As time passed, fewer and fewer words. What I now rather like doing with words I don’t know is guessing what they mean and then looking them up to see if I’m right or not.

I also downloaded an audio book of Harry Potter 1, having read an article suggesting that extensive listening to audio books, in addition to extensive reading of the same books, can be beneficial. I still haven’t finished listening to it. But I’ve listened to a few chapters, some while reading at the same time and some just listening. A few of my students swear by it (they like graded readers that come complete with audio!).

It’s ok, I haven’t read Harry Potter exclusively – I’m also ploughing my way through a series of books about horses aimed at teenagers. Which is actually useful because I’ve taken up horse-riding again since I’ve been in Sicily, so having a working knowledge of that vocabulary is relevant! I’ve yet to find a use for all the magic-related vocabulary I’ve picked up… 😉

Actually, reading didn’t come first. What came first started before I even got to Italy: Memrise.

Memrise

 

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Screenshot of Memrise site

 

Once I accepted the job at IH Palermo, I downloaded “Basic Italian” from Memrise, using the app on my Ipad. From this little gem, I learnt how to say something could be dangerous (potrebbe essere pericoloso), to comment on how many taxis I could see (ci sono molti taxi), to ask where the Vatican is (dov’e il Vaticano?), and the Italian for pork (carne di maiale). Which, as a vegetarian, I haven’t had to ask for, but it’s useful to avoid on menus! *NB excuse any errors – it’s been a while since I reviewed these and I don’t often write!

Memrise teaches you chunks and provides lots of random pictures which are supposed to help you remember words. (All I can remember of the pictures was that an alarming number of them featured busty women which had nothing to do with the chunks in question! But I’m sure there were some good ones too.) It also gives you a sense of progress by likening the learning progress to growing flowers. You plant seeds, you grow them,  you water them, etc.

Things I like about Memrise:

  • It gives you chunks: I like chunks. Once I’ve learnt them and can say them, I like analysing them and seeing how they’re made and seeing if I can manipulate them to do other things.
  • Instant feedback: It gives you a chunk, in Italian or English, you touch what you think is the translation (out of the choice they give you) and it tells you if that is correct or incorrect.
  • The inbuilt spaced review: It “locks” sets until you need to “water” them.
  • Audio and visual: As well as seeing the chunks, a voice says them to you. Therefore you can repeat them after the voice.
  • Priming: You see language in the multiple choices given that you focus on subsequently. So you’ve seen it repeatedly before you focus on it, so it’s a little bit familiar already. Although, who knows how useful that is when it’s all out of context?

Things I don’t like about Memrise:

  • For the most part, it’s matching/multiple choice. It would be nice if, as well as that, you could graduate on to typing in the translation for long chunks. With multiple choice, sometimes you know which one it is because you know which ones it isn’t. (Though that in itself is an interesting exercise and tests your knowledge of other chunks, I suppose!) I think the closest you get is choosing words from a selection to form the chunks and spelling out words from a selection of letters they give you.
  • The randomness: There seemed to be little rhyme or reason to the chunks selected. I suppose you could make your own sets like on Quizlet, and then it would be more specific/tailored, but I haven’t got that far with it – it got forgotten before that!

Memrise has the dubious honour of being the only language learning app/programme that I’ve ever used properly. (I’ve also dabbled with Babel but abandoned it very quickly!) Unlike Sandy, I haven’t used Quizlet as a language learner. I’ve used it to revise Delta terminology and I’ve made self-access materials to help my learners use it (though very few of them have got particularly keen on it) but I haven’t tried to use it to learn language. I used Memrise prior to departure from the UK to give myself *something* – as that would be better than arriving in Italy with absolutely *nothing*! I didn’t use it for long after I actually got to Italy. Now that I’ve said that, I plan to open it, run through the sets and see if I can get 100% or what it teaches me this time round!

Vocabulary

So if I don’t use Quizlet and my use of Memrise has died a death, how do I learn vocabulary? Well, I haven’t used vocabulary lists, I haven’t post-it’ed my flat, I haven’t made index cards. I did have a vocabulary note book (which was an appalling example of a vocabulary notebook!) – where I’d note down any words or phrases that interested me, higgledy piggledy, and look over them periodically. I’ve also learnt a bit of various topic-related vocabulary from my course book (daily routine, things in a house, going on holiday, shopping and eating etc. the usual kind of thing!). But the majority of it, I have learnt through reading, as described above. I like the idea of using Quizlet but… a) I’m not sure what vocabulary I’d choose to input. But more importantly, b) I have limited time to devote to language learning and I really like reading and watching dvd series or films. <Bad learner flag!> …although I think I pick up a fair bit of vocabulary from those activities. I feel it’s slightly more meaningful to see vocabulary repeatedly in context rather than in flashcards/lists. Perhaps another thing for my to-do list, though, is use Sandy’s Quizlet guide and see what other people have done with it in terms of learning Italian. That will be most interesting, even if I don’t actually do the games and stuff.

I learnt fruit and vegetable vocabulary from the market, which is also my main location for recycling that vocabulary! Other food vocabulary has come via studying menus in various restaurants. Helpfully enough, my course book had a sequence dedicated to market shopping, so I learnt a few useful phrases that way too.

 

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Listening

I’ve been watching dvds – films or episodes of series – in Italian fairly regularly since my arrival in Palermo. To start with, I used subtitles in English and then very soon switched to Italian subtitles. Then I bought a DVD series with no Italian subtitles! Shock horror! So I had to watch without subtitles. At first, it was just a case of looking at moving pictures and catching the very odd word once in a while. I persevered. A few episodes in, I noticed I was no longer just looking at pictures but also actually understanding some of what was said. Now I can follow reasonably well. I haven’t used subtitles since buying this DVD series, even on subsequently bought DVDs which do have them. Why? I tried it and found the subtitles annoying.

As mentioned earlier in the post, I’m also listening to Harry Potter 1 very sporadically.

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….very sporadically!

 

I’m very unlikely to finish it in the next few weeks, but it will come in very useful over the summer, when I need to find ways to maintain my Italian while not in Italy!

Another good source of things to watch and listen to in other languages is Youtube. I found a lovely cartoon film which had been dubbed in Italian, which I really enjoyed watching while I was in England over Christmas, in a desperate attempt to hold on to some Italian:

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Such a lovely little story – do watch it, in whichever language you want to! 🙂

 

I haven’t used Youtube overly much while in Italy, though, due to my internet connection being limited – I get a certain number of gigabytes of data per month, which streaming would eat into massively. I plan to mine it over the summer – another thing for the Italian Maintenance list…

For the same reason (limited data connection), my use of Italian radio has been… limited. I really should either find my Ipod, which picks up radio but which I’ve managed to lose, or pick up a cheap little FM radio.

My TV doesn’t work, so that hasn’t been a possibility – perhaps next year! (I shall be living in a different flat – hurrah!)

I had some good listening practice during my recent holiday – I wound up having to make and receive a couple of phone calls – every language learner’s nightmare. I used context and key words to get by! I didn’t understand everything but I understood enough – and more than I would have expected to understand. I didn’t worry about the bits I didn’t understand. I also used strategies to check my understanding of what was important e.g. repeating it back and paraphrasing.

Maybe I should do more intensive listening? Make myself do mini-dictations and the like?

Writing

I don’t do a lot of writing. I have, however, tried one thing to give myself writing practice: I started an Italian blog. No, you can’t see it – it’s deliberately set to private!! It has a grand total of about three entries, though there is one entry in my Ipad notes that I haven’t yet uploaded, I don’t think. I can’t even remember. The majority of the writing has been done in Ipad notes, while on planes to and from Palermo. Being captive for three hours seems to work!

What I like about blogging in Italian:

  • It makes me actually use the language productively. (My receptive skills are so much stronger than my productive skills!)

What I dislike about blogging in Italian:

  • Time-consuming! So I should maybe set myself a mini-goal such as writing something once a week. Or write less per post and more frequently, until I can do it more quickly.
  • I can’t say complex things yet (or at least couldn’t when last I tried!) so frustration often accompanies it!

I really ought to dust the blog off and get using it again…

Speaking

Speaking is the missing link in my language learning. I don’t do it nearly enough. For ages I’ve been meaning to try and set up a language exchange but have kept putting it off. Why? Well, what will I say? I’m not that talkative at the best of times! What I’d really like is PSP Speaking sessions like we have in our school (an hour-long, mixed level, group discussion in English on different topics, done in pairs/small groups and then whole-group, with some feedback given) in Italian! Maybe next year I’ll get round to setting up a language exchange…

Grammar

I’ve learnt quite a bit of grammar from an A1/A2 course book that I’ve worked my way through. It’s not bad – generally involves giving you a text in Italian, reading or listening. If a listening text, the transcript is then printed for mining in subsequent activities once you’ve listened for meaning. The grammar comes out of the texts, which have clearly been written for that purpose. I suppose it works for me because I like language in context. I’ve got the B1/B2 book, but I haven’t yet done much of it. I lost my habit of getting the book out first thing in the morning, sometime soon after Christmas. I really should find it again. And remember how lucky I am that I’ve found some Italian course materials that work for me – sounds like it’s much harder with Russian!

What I haven’t done is sit down and learn verb endings. I know plenty of regular verbs/endings  in the present, and I can form the past. I have quite a few past participles (or whatever they are called in Italian, the form you use to express the past along with avere). I know some future forms. I know a handful of conditionals. But during the holidays, I noticed that since I never say “we”, I struggled when I wanted to use a conditional “we” form. Of course I found ways around it. So it probably wasn’t necessary. But perhaps it would help to have a look at some verb tables, now that I have picked up a variety of verbs and endings via reading and listening, and compare it with what I’ve picked up.

Productive vs. Receptive

Like many learners, I have a very spiky profile. My receptive skills are pretty strong, while my productive skills are a lot weaker. My receptive vocabulary is pretty big now, my productive vocabulary a lot smaller – though words and chunks are moving across all the time, the more I meet them in various contexts. Perhaps, like Sandy, I should record myself speaking and listen back for mistakes. Perhaps I should pull my finger out and sort out that language exchange. Or, have a few private lessons… I also definitely need to do more writing, as that at least would also force me to produce.

Time

I’m a big fan of little and often, so I don’t need to challenge myself to do ten minutes a day as Sandy did. What I need to do is challenge myself to vary what I do more within the time that I do use. Difficult, though, as the reading I do in the evening (20 minutes) doubles as unwinding and when I watch series in the morning, I’m eating at the same time. When I read Harry Potter during the day, again I’m generally eating. So, maybe, then, I need to *add* ten minutes of non-extensive reading/listening – related activities to what I already do.

Some conclusions

Well, I’ve already drawn plenty of conclusions here , but…

  • Homework needs to be meaningful if you want your learners to actually do it!
  • Extensive reading is a very valuable learning tool and should be encouraged. It can be combined with intensive reading of the same text. (I’m sure people won’t necessarily agree with this, but it worked for me so I can live with the disagreement!)
  • Extensive listening is too!
  • Language learning is very personal: One man’s meat is another man’s poison. Many of Sandy’s methods don’t appeal to me at all and require much more discipline than I have, but they clearly work for her. Don’t force learners to learn outside the classroom in ways they don’t find useful/appealing. But do encourage experimentation with new ways of learning. (I will try Quizlet, honest…)  – This way, they/we may find more ways of learning that work for them/us.
  • Chunks are good! I agree with Sandy here. As a beginner, starting with chunks then analysing them for grammar later on is a good way forward.
  • Comparing texts in L1 and target language is useful: I found it invaluable when I started reading. I would have struggled a lot more if I hadn’t had that way in. It made reading in Italian accessible to me.
  • Reflecting on your learning is also useful: It enables you to be clear about what you’re doing and why, and to identify the gaps in it, as well as look for ways to try and fill those. Metacognitive awareness is very valuable.

I think, also, interestingly, I may be a terrible language student (in a classroom situation) but I’m not too bad of a language learner. I’m motivated, I’m self-aware, I’m fairly disciplined, I work hard. However, I could be better: I don’t vary my activities enough, I rely too heavily on extensive reading and listening.

Methodology

Well, I haven’t experienced Dogme as a learner yet, but, as with Sandy:

All good in my experience!

I would also add:

Looking ahead

What do I need to do in order to develop my Italian? And what do I need to do in order to maintain it for the nearly four months that I’ll be in the UK over this summer?

  • Keep reading! (That shouldn’t be a problem – I’m only on Harry Potter 5, L’Ordine della Fenice …)
  • Broaden my reading: investigate different genres – there must be plenty to find on the Internet: newspapers, magazines, forums etc.
  • Watch films/series in Italian regularly: I will have a decent internet connection while in the UK so no excuses!
  • Listen to Italian radio: As above!
  • Speak!: Really need to set up that language exchange…
  • Try Quizlet?: Investigate it again and see if I can make it work for me. And/or maybe try making a set on Memrise
  • Get a grammar book out: Look at the verbs, look at some other grammar and see what I have picked up from reading/listening extensively. Give it names. Look at a few rules. That kind of thing!
  • Get my course book out: It wouldn’t hurt, would it? Get that routine going again…
  • Add ten minutes! Do at least ten minutes of studying a day that isn’t extensive reading/listening.

I know from experience (the Christmas holidays – 2 weeks)  I will have to make an extra effort to keep it going during the summer. At least the fact that I’m coming back here after the summer should be a good motivating factor!

Watch this space – I’ll post an update on how my aims, above, panned out – especially over summer…

And thank you, Sandy, for inspiring this post!

(PS: to those who are waiting for me to pick up where I left off with the social side of language learning and to respond to comments on the last post I wrote in relation to this, I will get there soon, honest! I’ve been on holiday for a few days so got some catching up to do…)

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10 thoughts on “How I’m learning Italian (inspired by the one and only Sandy Millin!)

  1. Wow Lizzie! Thanks for writing that – there are some really useful ideas for me too.

    I particularly like the idea of comparing the two texts and reading with both of them, as well as accompanying it with an audiobook. Maybe I should download Harry Potter too! I think the fact that you speak French helps a lot with the Italian, and that’s what’s been putting me off in Russian – it’s a big leap, despite already speaking some Czech. I’m starting to feel like I have enough vocab to make it worthwhile reading now, and I’ve been looking for a book to read for a while. I’m trying to reduce screentime though, so I’d rather get a paper one!

    In terms of Quizlet, what I find particularly useful is making the sets myself – that way I process the language much more than just looking at it. I think it’s just another way of copying it out, with the added bonus of having games to play afterwards if you want to revise!

    I did something quite similar with memrise – I used it before I came, then about twice after I got here, then almost never again. It was great for learning basic Chinese too, which I really need to go back and see if I can remember!

    I’d really like to watch a series in Russian, but have a slightly dodgy internet connection. I keep asking people to recommend things to me or to tell me a site where I can find things to watch (DVDs are almost impossible to buy here – I’ve seen one shop selling them), but it never happens. My teen students keep telling me not to watch Russian films or listen to Russian music 😉 I used to watch Alias in Spanish when I was at uni (also while eating breakfast!), and I learnt so much language from it.

    And I don’t think your bad learner flag is necessary – it’s actually great just to get lots of passive exposure to the target language. After all, that’s what we do when we learn our first language. We don’t have to be ‘on’ all the time – our brains still use what we hear/read to help us form conclusions about language patterns, and to recognise the rhythms of the language.

    Looking forward to comparing further notes as we both progress!
    Sandy

  2. Very inspiring, Lizzie. Thanks for sharing your experience. I’ll need to update my 6 months to learn Portuguese challenge I set for myself – http://teflreflections.blogspot.com/2014/03/be-fluent-in-6-months-first-update.html. Admittedly, as you, I haven’t been doing enough oral practice. So my receptive skills as in your case are pretty decent, but I struggle a bit when speaking.
    You should definitely try a language exchange. I think they’re great, though, you need to be lucky to find the right language buddy, who you actually get along with. I have found one, but unfortunately we haven’t been meeting as regularly as I’d hope to. Try Busuu. It’s quite easy to find language buddies there. You can also record yourself speak and other users give you feedback.
    I agree that the courses on Memrise can have VERY random vocabulary. That’s why I tend to create my own. And the review sessions are pretty boring. But because they’re nicely planned and you constantly get practice with the words you’re having problems with, Memrise is an absolute winner for me.
    Good luck with your Italian, and as Sandy, really looking forward to more posts from both of you about your learning experience.

    • BTW, I’ve tried 1-1 and group classes, but have given up on it. I would say that I’m a very demanding student, and it’s been really tough to step out of the teacher role and stop thinking about the methodology your teacher is using in class, which unfortunately is often very poor (at least it has been in my experience compared to how an average CELTA-trained English teacher teaches). What you’ve experienced with your Italian classes has happened to me on numerous occasions. I would just get bored, because the teacher taught me stuff I already knew, or we spent hours doing gap-fills and grammar.

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

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

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  7. Hi! Can you tell me where to find the Complete PDF book so of Harry Potter in Italian, as well as where you downloaded the Harry Potter 1 Audiobook from?!

    I had this same idea but can’t find it! Thanks so much!

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