Progressing in Italian


Just over a month ago I decided to start learning Italian. I have previously studied French and Spanish and can speak both languages fairly confidently (though French perhaps more so than Spanish), so I began studying Italian with an idea of what works for me when it comes to the study of Romance languages.

I had previously written of my desire to compare my experience learning Italian in 2017 to my experiences learning other languages, particularly Romance languages, in previous years when I was still trying to consolidate something resembling a coherent language learning strategy.

What follows is a collection of reflections on my experiences progressing in Italian, ranging from my impressions of resources and materials both familiar and new, to the application of learnings from other domains to language acquisition.

Michel Thomas Italian

It was during my study of French that I was first exposed to the Michel Thomas audio courses, and also, critically, to the idea that I could learn to recognise patterns and structures in a language solely through listening and responding verbally to drills. I have said on many occasions and continue to say today that the Michel Thomas French Foundation and Advanced courses are the best language learning resources I have ever used.

Given my overwhelmingly positive experiences with the Michel Thomas courses for French and Spanish, I decided to begin my study of Italian with the Michel Thomas Italian Foundation and Advanced courses. The Italian courses more than lived up to the expectations set by my past experiences with the French and Spanish courses and gave me the ability to recognise and construct sentences using every verb tense used in the spoken language.

With these courses I took the approach of listening to them twice a day, not for any specific minimum period of time, in the morning while on the way to work, and in the evening before going to sleep. I made quick work of the Foundation course, finishing it in just over a week, but I found the Advanced course to be more challenging than I anticipated which resulted in me spreading the four discs out over almost three weeks.

Actions and Events in the Past

As with the Michel Thomas French courses, the Italian courses do not spend more than a few minutes discussing the passato remoto, often called the simple past tense in English, the common use of which is largely literary or dialectical. Interestingly enough, I had in my head for many years the idea that Italian, like Spanish and unlike French, made liberal use of the simple past tense.

Truth be told, when considering on previous occasions whether or not I should study Italian, this was a key factor every time I decided not to go down that road. This may seem like an odd reason to not learn a language, but it is easy to get a little spoilt after having had the experience of learning and speaking French.

In French, talking about completed actions that occurred at any point in the past requires you to know just two verbs inside out: to have and to be. The latter of these is used specifically when dealing with verbs of motion and reflexive verbs. In practice, this means that regardless of what the action is and who initiated it, you only ever have to modify either the verb to have or the verb to be when constructing a sentence about a completed action that occurred at some point in the past.

Consider the following example sentences with the verb to read:

English French Spanish
I read a book J’ai lu un livre Leí un libro
You read a book Tu as lu un livre Leíste un libro
We have read a book Nous avons lu un livre Hemos leído un libro
They had read a book Ils avaient lu un livre Habían leído un libro

With the French sentences, the form that the action of reading takes at any time in the past, lu, is unchanging. On the other hand, the Spanish sentences always require a different form for the action of reading taking place in the simple past, and these forms change depending on who is performing the action.

Needless to say, the latter case results in greater relative complexity for a language learner at the introductory stages and presents a higher barrier of entry to reaching the stage where one can confidently talk about completed events and actions at multiple points in the past.

Assimil L’Italien

After finishing the Michel Thomas Advanced French course, my next port of call was Assimil’s New French with Ease, which I think it is fair to say is something of a modern classic when it comes to French learning materials. There are a few different approaches to the Assimil courses ranging from the official approach to various personal approaches popularised online. Mine is as follows:

  • Listen to the recording a few times until I don’t feel totally lost
    • At this point I just aiming to get the gist of the dialogue, not to understand everything
  • Listen to the recording while looking at the text
  • Listen to the recording while reading the text, pausing after each sentence to repeat it aloud
  • Listen to the recording without looking at the text, pausing after each sentence to transcribe it, reading each word aloud while writing
  • Listening to the recording without reading the text, pausing after each sentence to repeat it aloud
  • Read through the lesson notes
  • Listen to the translation exercises recordings without looking at the text, pausing after each sentence to transcribe it, reaching each word aloud while writing
  • Mentally translate the translation exercise sentences
  • Mentally identify the missing words in the fill the blanks exercise

Key to note is that I don’t follow the idea of doing passive and active phases as per the official approach.

In one of my previous deliberations on whether or not to learn Italian, I went as far as buying Assimil’s L’Italien course from 2004. The language of instruction for this book is French, and the content itself I consider to be simpler, for lack of better word, relative to the Italian with Ease course from the 1990s. My choice to use L’Italien essentially came down to two factors; that I wanted to use the book that I had previously purchased, and I thought that it would be a good opportunity to read in French.

I am currently twenty-four lessons into the book, which consists of one hundred lessons, and on the whole I am pleased with the course and the pace at which complexity is being introduced. I had an expectation that given the simpler nature of the dialogues in this edition of the course may also have impacted the usefulness of the notes provided for each lesson, however I have been very impressed the way in which the notes of each lesson explain the nuances of the demonstrated sentence construction patterns.

Diverging slightly from the path I took while learning French, I started working through L’Italien while still working through the Michel Thomas Advanced Italian course. I did this in part to maximise the total time I had available to dedicate to Italian study, which I felt I was not utilising well as I became less able to listen to the Advanced course for longer periods of time

Glossika Fluency–123 Italian

The past few years have seen me quite disconnected from the various online language learning communities that I used to be active in, and as a result it is only just now that I am learning about Glossika. A few months ago Alex sent me a link to an open source Ruby script for converting Glossika PDFs to Anki decks and a few lines outlining what Glossika courses provide, and while it seemed interesting at the time, I was still in the period where I was burnt out from struggling with reading progressions in Japanese and as such I didn’t give it any further thought.

After finishing the Michel Thomas course I was looking for both another Italian resource and specifically another Italian drilling resource. Now, as much as I love drills, I am terrible at doing them consistently if they are non-verbal. This is where Glossika comes in. Like Assimil, it seems that there are as many approaches to using Glossika as there are people. In the case of Glossika, there are two canonical approaches outlined on the Glossika website, which are essentially a more passive spaced repetition approach and a more active mass sentences approach.

Given that I first heard of Glossika in relation to Anki, I considered dumping each of the individual sentences into Anki along with the audio and translations. My initial thought was that Anki would allow me more flexibility in randomising my reviews and pruning out early sentences that were ‘too simple’, but after asking and reading around a little I decided against this.

Anki is an excellent tool which I have used to fill the gaps resulting from a dearth of both general learning materials at the introductory level and more subject-specific materials in the intermediate and advanced levels for less commonly taught languages such as Dari and Pashto. Italian on the other hand has a great wealth of both generic and specialised materials to draw from, including Glossika, and I feel that the sort of time that would be invested in curating an Anki deck, never-ending task in itself, would ultimately be better spent doing activities that improve my intuitive command of the language.

I have settled on using the Glossika Spaced Repetition (GSR) audio files, which are essentially the sentences spoken in English and Italian, separated by a short pause, over and over again, in a randomised order scheduled by a spaced repetition algorithm. The pause after the English sentence is just long enough to say the Italian sentence aloud yourself before it is spoken on the recording if you can say it confidently and without hesitation. I have therefore taken an approach to the GSR audio files which is more active than the recommended usage and has some crossover with the recommended fourth step for users of the Glossika Mass Sentences (GMS) intensive study approach:

Try to recall the target sentence in the gap after you hear it in English. Try to say it out loud, and pause if necessary.

When hearing a new sentence, I listen to both the English and the Italian readings, then pause and repeat the Italian sentence until I am comfortable with it. I then begin trying to say it aloud independently and without hesitation in Italian directly after the English translation is spoken.

A key point of divergence here is that I try to do this without pausing the recording, fitting my repetition aloud within the recorded pause on the track, as doing so provides me with a consistent level of feedback on my progress towards being able to produce the sentences without hesitation.

Embrace the Boring

Glossika is very much the type of language learning resource I didn’t know that I had always been waiting for. I have seen some comments criticising Glossika and the template used for its sentences for being ‘boring’. I, on the other hand, welcome the boring nature of the Glossika materials. I would probably go as far as to say that the majority of effective adult language learning, well into the mid-intermediate levels, is repeating activities that will get boring and monotonous very quickly.

This doesn’t just apply to language learning either– Want to eat better? Make your weekly food intake explicit, easily available and repeatable. Looking to build muscle? Pick a lifting programme and stick with it instead of doing a different bunch of random exercises every time you go to the gym. Fuckarounditis is real and it is just as applicable in study as it is in exercise.

Having the discipline to continue doing those activities regardless of how motivated you feel at any given time is a key factor in making any lasting and non-trivial progress. I have found that the predictability of the Glossika materials is a great aid in creating solid and sustainable routines to ensure I that I am putting in the grunt work that is ultimately necessary to be able to express my thoughts confidently in Italian.

Trust the Process

Trust the process is one of those sayings that I have often heard repeated and nodded my head along to positively, but struggled to put into practice. As I initially became more proficient in learning languages I started to believe that I knew more than enough to identify exactly what I needed from whatever resources I got my hands on. Naturally I acted upon that belief, blinded as I was by my own hubris and in the processes missed out on much of the added value that those materials had to offer. That probably seems a little vague, so let’s take a concrete example:

When I was learning Spanish I was convinced that I had no use for putting any significant amount of time into becoming familiar with the formal second personal singular forms of usted or the peninsular second person plural forms of vosotros, and as such I put myself at a disadvantage by disregarding materials which I thought spent too much time dwelling on these two areas. Similarly, when going through the Michel Thomas Spanish Foundation course I somewhat stubbornly refused to respond to the drills aloud using any usted forms, which in hindsight hindered the overall effectiveness of the course because of the increased cognitive load required to make those implicit changes from usted to all the time.

Since those days learning Spanish over half a decade ago, physical fitness has come to hold an increasingly central role in my life. During my attempts to lose fat and build strength I have been repeatedly humbled , and I have learnt to keep in check the voice in my head that tells me that I know better when I start to get bored when working on foundations and fundamentals.

The learnings from those experiences have at some point along the way started to become increasingly domain-independent, and can now be seen in my approach to studying Italian. A nice way to illustrate this is by revisiting the previous example from my experience learning Spanish and contrasting it with my current experience learning Italian:

Much like Spanish, Italian also has a both formal second person singular forms with Lei, and familiar second person singular forms with tu, and again much like the Michel Thomas Spanish Foundation course, the Italian Foundation course focuses on drills using the formal Lei forms. When going through the Foundation course, I had no problem trusting the process and completing the drills as expected with the Lei forms and I spent practically no time at all throughout the course worrying about which parts of it I thought were and were not relevant.

Set the Right Pace

When starting with any new activity, sensible pacing plays a critical role in achieving long-term success. If the pace you choose is too fast, you run the risk of burning out quickly, and if the pace is too slow, you run the risk of increasing the pace out of a mixture of boredom, frustration and ego, to a pace that will be unsustainable as the difficulty curve ramps up. This too is likely result in you eventually burning out. I have typically been prone to the latter of those scenarios in my previous language learning experiences.

Going from having the level of grammatical knowledge imparted by having completed a Michel Thomas Advanced course to an Assimil course can initially feel like a significant step backwards and not a particularly efficient use of time. Faced with this feeling, I have been known to fall into the following pattern:

  • I disregard the received wisdom of doing one lesson a day and begin doing two or three per sitting
  • This is easy! I think to myself, patting myself on the back for being oh-so-clever
  • After the first two weeks, when the difficulty picks up and I find myself unable keep pace
  • The implicit expectation of either maintaining or increasing velocity then gradually wears me down

Thankfully I have not fallen into this pattern in my current study of Italian and I am enjoying progressing at a leisurely pace that I feel increasingly confident I will be able to maintain as the difficulty curve steepens.

Gaining an appreciation of the importance of pace was also key in leading me to reassess my approach to and expectations of velocity variation and incrementalism in general, which I touched on briefly when writing about restarting my Japanese studies earlier this year after having burnt out at the end of last year.

Poor Form and Humility

I will conclude with a brief vignette.

It is the year 2015 and it has finally sunk in that cardio is a terrible way to go about losing fat. I have also begun to understand that you can’t outrun a bad diet, and I say outrun specifically because I’ve yet to realise that this applies equally to any and every other form of exercise. I have been reading about the StrongLifts 5x5 programme (SL5x5) and I have decided that it is the programme for me and that I will start lifting. I buy a pricey power rack so that I can do big lifts at home and not have to worry about failing a rep.

SL5x5 is based around progressively adding weight to combinations of compound lifts that you do in sets with a low number of reps, which helps to minimise plateaus in the short-to-medium term. The programme recommends starting to work on every lift with just the bar as the baseline and progressively adding weight from that baseline, regardless of starting strength level.

I of course decide that this very sensible recommendation doesn’t apply to me and I start performing the lifts with additional weight on the bar from the very beginning. While I make some good initial progress, at a certain point I end up hurting my back as a result of not being able to maintain proper form when I begin doing the lifts with more significant weight. This leads to a period of suffering from chronic back pain, both from trying to lift heavy with poor form and the aggravation of an older back injury. This period also sees me balloon to my all-time highest weight and descend to my all-time lowest activity levels.

The painful lesson I took away from this experience is one that has since been transferred from its original domain and applied to my efforts in language learning, and I have no doubt that it is one which will continue to serve me in many other domains in the decades to come.