NYR 1904: “Learn a New Language.” Part 4 – The Shotgun Approach.

Last week’s post was all about flashcards. But flashcards were only one part of a shotgun approach I took to learning Italian. My idea was to try several different strategies at once in an effort to fill any gaps in my learning.

A few ideas fell flat. For example, my wife and I were into cooking at the time (it’s hard to think that there was once a time before we had kids where we had time to cook and study a new language) and I thought it would be a good idea to buy an Italian Cookbook and try to translate it, word for word.

Ha! That lasted about a week. To this day my copy of La Scienza In Cucina E L’Arte Di Mangiare Bene remains mostly untouched, lying deep within the catacombs of my Kindle library.

That said, here are a few strategies that went well:

For Grammar: University of Vermont Professor Cristina Mazzoni’s la grammatica italiana

I have zero recollection of how I found this website. I think I just googled “Italian Grammar.” Yes, it was kind of weird doing the homework assignments, knowing that a bunch of college students in Vermont were probably doing the same thing. But you know what? I found it to be thoughtfully laid out and very helpful.

In my experience, with grammar you just have to bite the bullet and study it for a few weeks. As the website puts it:

Ideally, we would not have to study grammar; rather, we would learn Italian the way Italian children learn it–by being immersed in it.

But since we do not live in Italy and therefore have a limited amount of time to practice the language, learning some basic grammatical structures speeds up the rate at which you improve your spoken and written command of Italian.

Also, it is extremely useful both for me as teacher and for you as students to have a common vocabulary we can use in order to ask questions and provide answers as to why Italian works in one way and not another–for example, when I make corrections in your written assignments.

Grazie, Signora Mazzoni. I should write her an email!

For Travel – My Daily Phrase Italian

This podcast was great. Short lessons, 5-10 minutes long, and the narrator does a good job of emphasizing correct pronunciation and meaning.

Early in my studies, I had this idea that the only way to study a language was to learn a bunch of words, learn some basic grammar principles, put the words together using the grammar principles and then I’d be done. But even after studying flashcards for several months, someone would hit me with a simple “Dove vai?” and I’d respond with a deer-in-the-headlights look.

This podcast helps with that. If you think about it, when you’re interacting with people in every day life, there’s actually a pretty short list of phrases you frequently use. “How are you?” “How much does this cost?” “Where is the restroom?” Or my personal favorite… come si dice questo in italiano?  (“How do you say this in Italian?”) This podcast does a great job of focusing on the short phrases you’ll actually use.

In fact, in Lesson 50 you learn the phrase, il mio bagaglio ‘e stato rubato (“my luggage was stolen”). That one came in handy!

For Day-to-Day studying: Duolingo

Love Duolingo! If you haven’t picked up on it yet, I’m into most things that involve tracking, data and gamification. Duolingo leverages all of these motivational tactics, and does so in the form of a convenient app that can be very addictive. It’s also a great community; if you are genuinely confused after getting something wrong, 90% of the time you’ll find exactly what you need in the comments section.

For Immersion: Rosetta Stone

Of all the strategies I’ve listed above, this is the only one that isn’t free. And it’s not cheap; I recall dropping a few hundred dollars for an online subscription.

I purchased Rosetta Stone to hedge my bets. I was using all of these free resources, but in the back of my mind I was worried that I’d have some huge blind spots if I didn’t pay for a comprehensive software solution. Rosetta Stone was great, but there was a lot of overlap with the other study materials I was using, and looking back I probably could have gotten by without it.

However, there was one big thing that Rosetta Stone brought to the table that none of the others did: online instructors.

As part of my subscription I had access to a live instructor for a few short sessions (20-30 minutes), and the instructor would guide me through a conversation in Italian. This was incredibly helpful; it taught me to slow down, to focus and listen to what the other person was saying rather than think about what I was going to say next (a lesson that applies to more than just language learning).

The shotgun approach got me to where I wanted to be prior to my trip. There are ways I could have probably learned more efficiently, but I’m happy with how things turned out.

Next week, I’ll (finally) talk about the new language I’m learning in 2019. See you then!

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