For Beginners

Maybe both the easiest and the hardest part of learning a language is beginning. It’s easy to decide you want to learn a language, but if you don’t choose the right methods you can stall before you even get started. This I know from experience. I studied two languages prior to Italian and I can’t speak either one of them. I can speak Italian, however. What did I do differently?

Let me tell you right away, going to school is the least effective way to learn. No offense to all the wonderful teachers out there, this is just a reality. And this is true of pretty much anything you study. No one can put knowledge into your head. You have to do it. School can lull you into forgetting this reality. That being said, among the other ways to learn, there are a lot of methods, most ineffective, to choose from. So, how did I do it?

Speaking from experience, by far the best language learning technique is the Pimsleur Method. Pimsleur uses an audio repeat-after-me and answer-back technique. With Pimsleur, you sometimes simply repeat what the native speakers say, and sometimes you answer questions the native speakers pose to you. In this way, you can practice actually understanding and responding in the new language. New words and phrases are repeated at optimal intervals so that you begin to remember and associate the words without too much effort. You also begin to develop a feel for the language’s grammar. And you develop that feel without even trying! In fact, I recommend that you don’t worry at all about grammar until you’ve reached at least the intermediate level. In truth, children never really bother themselves with grammar (until they are forced to in school, but by then they already have a pretty strong grasp of it, don’t they?) Grammar is built into us as human beings. It actually comes pretty easily through sound. So listen and repeat!

The optimal amount of time to spend studying in the beginning is about 30 minutes or so a day, with the possibilty of repeating the same lesson twice in a day if you feel you need to. Most people can muster up at least this much dedication, especially if they are already spending about 30 minutes or so commuting. Make doing your language lesson part of your habitual routine somehow, because in order to learn optimally, you must do at least a lesson a day. Learning a language happens over time, so it’s easy to become impatient. You don’t see results on a daily basis. You see them over months and years. So, you need to have a little faith. When you feel discouraged remind yourself that it’s only 30 minutes and just do it!

Don’t try to do more than 30 minutes, though. Your brain can’t absorb the extra information and you will actually retard your ability to learn. As you become more proficient you will naturally be able to do more. But in the beginning, keep it at 30 minutes.

Once you finish the Pimleur Method you will be invested enough in language learning that you should have enough momentum to move to the next level, although you will certainly miss them. Happily, Pimsleur has added new, more advanced, lessons to their most popular languages. Italian now has 5 levels. Fantastic! Take advantage.

For beginners, I also recommend an easy reader. (Easy Italian Reader by Riccarda Saggese is my pick for beginners.) Pimsleur offers reading lessons and you should definitely do those. But this Easy Italian Reader is an excellent addition to your studies. Seeing words in print helps develop your ear and works as a memory aid. With this easy reader, you will be able to read immediately. Yes, you will! Cool, huh?

When you’re done with Pimsleur you will feel like you’ve been thrown out into the sea with barely a life raft. What do you do now? By far the best thing to do is to find other language learners and just have a conversation. Do this twice a week. If you live in New Jersey, you can come to the Language Exchange here. But there are no doubt language exchanges near where you live. Traveling, if you can afford it, is of course one of the best ways. Go to Italy!

For those who simply want to keep learning on their own, I am currently working on a group of Pimsleur type lessons known as Langwedges Italian. These will be dialogues that focus on particular verbs or phrases in all their most common conjugations. I will be fundraising to have these dialogues recorded by native Italian actors in a listen and repeat style format, so keep checking for the latest developments.

Want more resources? Check out my list of favorites and my learning tips.