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How to Learn a New Language

A sign in broken English in the window of an Italian shop
Have you ever struggled to learn a new language? I have and I am not the only one.
I am having a lot of fun trying to speak Italian. I am sure that the people I am trying to speak it with are having even more fun listening to the contorted sequences of words I produce. Somehow, understanding is achieved each time. Sometimes it’s much more difficult than on other occasions, but still…
After getting close to the three-month mark of living in Italy (hey, that’s like a quarter of a year!), I have made some linguistic progress, but still there is a lot left to be desired.
You see, I am a professional linguist, trained and certified at that. Experienced, too. All this means is that, in principle, I can’t bear to speak a language unless I speak it just so perfectly well. And with the right accent at that. And with a fabulously extensive vocabulary. And being able to make jokes that only a native speaker would understand and also being able to throw in every now and then a ridiculously suitable idiom for the occasion, that not even every native speaker would have in their repertoire.
I have studied quite a few languages in my life and I have put myself under so much pressure to speak them perfectly that quite a few of them cracked under the weight of my expectations, called me unrealistic and dropped along the way. French proved particularly obstinate and I keep telling myself I don’t miss him one bit. I am secretly wishing though to be able to hold a philosophical conversation in pure French throwing a smattering of perfect ‘r’s’ every now and then for added effect. The reality, however, is that the extent of my French stretches to ordering a jambon beurre baguette when I am in France (which is not that often anyway).
The hardnuts that stayed with me all along the way to linguistic happiness, are as follows:
  • The biggest love of my youth – Portuguese that I dedicated five years of Uni life to, only never to practice it professionally. I now speak it very rarely, but I am happy to report that I remember it clearly, dreamily and absolutely perfectly, just like everyone remembers their first love.
  • My old and trusty friend – Spanish, that also took five years of my life to learn fluently and since then has served me well both professionally and personally, and, in the case of the latter, has enabled me to order with confidence in Mexican and Spanish restaurants around London.
  • My still not quite perfected frenemy – English, that I sort of really learned on the go or, in other words, after years wasted on lessons and courses, I was only able to start speaking it sort of well once I moved to live in England and had little joy speaking Bulgarian to the locals there.

Oh, yes! Bulgarian is my mother tongue and I am so good at it that I can spot immediately when you are not using correctly your reflexive possessive pronouns and I am actually able to explain to you what these are.
So, here I am in Italy with very little Italian under my belt. In fact, in my teens, I actively discouraged myself to learn the language. If I remember correctly, the reason for this was that some of the girls at school really liked the idea of speaking Italian, so they were learning it from a book or two and used it as a secret language amongst themselves. I still remember an occasion when one of them turned to another two of them and said: ‘Lei piangere!’, referring to a fourth of them. Somehow, I still think that statement was incorrect on so many levels. So, wanting to be different and not wanting to blend, I put a big red cross over the idea of learning Italian and there it stayed for many years.
I only started to gently and tentatively peel off said red cross once the idea had crystalised for us to relocate to Italy. In my previous trips to the bel paese, I had found it difficult to communicate and impossible to understand whatever I was being told. This didn’t bode well for our potential move there.
Several Italian speaking friends of mine would tell me that it is a very easy language and I should be able to understand it with no difficulty whatsoever based on my knowledge of its close relatives Spanish and Portuguese.
No such luck! Italian sounded on a completely different wavelength to the radio in my head. Also, words were strange and brand new. Even Portuguese, which phonetically is so different to Spanish, shares lots of words with it, but Italian had to behave like I had in my teens and keep apart from the rest, coming up with completely new terms for whatever Spanish and Portuguese had agreed between themselves.
Take the word ‘yellow’, for example. In Spanish this is ‘amarillo’. In Portuguese it’s ‘amarelo’. It’s different, but still so close. Instead of adopting something simple like ‘amarilo’, though, Italian had to come up with a completely new and different word – ‘giallo’, which I only heard, understood and remembered because it features in that iconic phrase that is played on loop at each Italian train station – ‘Alontanarsi dalla linea gialla’ (Step back from the yellow line).
In September 2012, I decided on a whim to join an Italian class, organised in Rochester, which is just down the road from Chatham (in Kent, England), where we lived. At the time my husband and I were still discussing a potential move to Italy, but we also had other pressing issues on our minds. I joined the class looking for some linguistic stimulation and interaction and not so much to get myself ready for a new life abroad.
So, once a week, I would trundle down to the local study centre and together with another ten or twelve people try to learn Italian.
It was a disaster.
When learning a language, the only two methods that have worked for me are:
  • Intensive daily study over the course of several years. You know the drift: sixty to a hundred new words a day (writing ten lines of each whilst repeating it and its Bulgarian counterpart out loud), grammatical exercises, reading of whole books in the said language, learning in depth about the literature, history and culture of the countries where it is spoken and (in the case of my learning Portuguese) even a course in historical grammar, which is the scientific discipline that analyses how a language has developed through the centuries. This method has helped me learn both Spanish and Portuguese. If you apply yourself, this method gives an excellent linguistic and cultural understanding However, as you are not in the country where the respective language is spoken, it’s likely that you’ll miss out on colloquialisms and day-to-day situational communication. Thus you may end up speaking a rather outdated form of the language, glimpsed from books and perfectly pronounced films.
  • Full immersion in the country where the language is spoken – communicating exclusively (no matter how badly at the start) just in that language, reading newspapers and magazines daily in order to build up a vocabulary and learn colloquialisms, slowly making the transition to thinking into said language, rather than thinking in Bulgarian first and then translating in my head what I wanted to say. This method has helped me learn English and it is really good as it gives you a great insight into the psyche of native speakers. The downside though is that as the learning process is often intuitive, at the end of it you may be able to communicate in the language fluently, but not be able to explain why what you say is correct in linguistic terms.

My Italian course followed neither of these two methods. Soon, I grew very bored. We were making miniscule steps ahead and for the whole duration of the course didn’t learn to conjugate any verbs. OK, I exaggerate horribly here. We learned to conjugate the verb ‘to be’. Otherwise, we would mainly write down lists of words related to a topic. For example, what to order in an Italian cafe. Once we discussed how to ask for pumpkin seeds in a bar using a colloquial and a non colloquial word. I don’t remember either and have never had the urge to order pumpkin seeds in an Italian bar.
The worst bit was the long pauses that we took from learning just to chat among ourselves. For some reason the stories told bored me to tears. I still remember listening to one such story about an English couple returning from their holiday home on Majorca and smuggling a whole piglet through customs at the airport. Apparently, piglet from that island was considered a delicacy. I remember listening to this and thinking: ‘I will never get these ten minutes of my life back!’. Worse, I still remember the story, hence it clutters me and steals brain power even now.
So, after a few months, I dropped out from the course. Anyway, I was pregnant at the time and felt like I really could use the time to sleep a bit more, rather than watch the clock for two hours once a week.
All this didn’t leave me with a lot of Italian before we moved here.
That’s why, during our first couple of weeks or so in Vicenza, every time we needed to speak to real Italian people I would use my saviour phrase ‘Parla inglese?’ and breathe a sigh of relief when the other person would be only too happy to practise their English.
Then, day by day, I started to gain some courage and to throw some Italian words here and there. They were just this: random nouns, some pronouns, but never verbs (as I didn’t know how to conjugate them, remember?!).
Listening to Italian radio every day has helped me make some progress in terms of understanding. I have come to learn by heart some of the commercials and the jingles that the radio station has on repeat. Then, whilst I am washing the dishes or looking through the window, I catch my breath because, all of a sudden, I understand half of a sentence or even a whole phrase from the rapidly presented news bulletin…, before the radio guy speeds his elocution again and it all becomes incomprehensible to me once more.
The most helpful thing though has been talking to Italian people every day. I go into il panificio, into the local supermarket, into the fruit and veg shop and hold little conversations. At the beginning, they would be one word long. Saying ‘Arrivederci’ at the end of an interaction based on smiles, gestures and grunts, felt like progress. Now, I have made some real linguistic steps ahead and can ask for a bag for my purchases or even where to find something in the shop.
It’s all still very rudimentary and slow, still very much grammatically incorrect, but I am trying every single day. For the first time in my life, I don’t aspire to achieve perfect linguistic understanding and communication. Just being able to reply with simple but correct sentences when I engage in a dialogue with someone would be perfectly fine.

Wish me luck!

About the author

Rossi

Rossi

Hello! I am Rossi - a Bulgarian currently living in Italy after a 14-year stint in England. This is my blog about my life in these three countries, travels around Europe and opinions about the world we live in. For regular updates, please, subscribe to my newsletter and follow me on social media online. You can also get in touch via the Contacts form or by commenting on the articles in my blog.

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