Agile Language Learning Manifesto: 0.0.1

In 2001, 17 software developers met and wrote a manifesto describing a lightweight software development methodology known as Agile. In the following decade, this methodology had a huge impact on the software development world. It was a departure from the typical methodologies of the time. It emphasized individuals, working software, and collaborating with the customer to ensure that changing ideas about what the customer needed could be taken into account so that the right thing was built the first time. You might wonder what the heck that has to do with language learning and you’d be right to. You see, I think that many of the same philosophies and ideas that are the cornerstone of Agile Software Development can actually be adopted by the individual language learner. I also believe that they represent the best method for organizing, tracking, and verifying both the learning process in general and the individual skills language learners need to develop to achieve their goals. Here is my manifesto for Agile Language Learning:

Value people and interactions over process and habits, processes and habits over goals, and goals over materials/tools.

Thinking Introspectively about you Linguistic Weaknesses

Self-testing has helped me figure out that I my most challenging topic in Italian grammar is the application of the trapassato prossimo within the context of a text.  While I am writing or speaking, knowing when to use it is generally quite easy. Or at least it seems to be. But when I do practice exams that require filling in the blanks of a text with the proper conjugation (person and tense) of the verb, I consistently fail. This can only mean one thing: I have a much worse understanding of the distinction between the verb tenses than I actually think that I do. I'm over estimating my ability and only become aware of this problem by consistently testing myself on all areas of the language and taking the time to think.

The retrospective period is a fundamental part of how I learn anything now. I've taken this from the Agile Software Framework that we use at work. Essentially I designate a period of time where I don't do as much studying. This gives me time to relax and let "diffuse mode" learning sink in while I do some self-testing and prepare my resources for my next intense round of learning.

Based on my evaluation of the mistakes I have been making I only have some minor problems distinguishing between when to use the passato prossimo and l'imperfetto so I really need to focus some attention up front on the trapassatto prossimo with some standard study and exercises. Then, I have some PDFs of various magazine articles that I have been slowly taking two or three paragraphs from and replacing conjugated verbs with their infinitive forms. I'll publish these at some point but as it stands right now, my time is quite contained with the exam specific prep period coming up in only a few months. I really need to fill in gaps in my learning before then.

Techniques for formal letter writing and my CILS prep log for 29/04 - 05/01

Over the weekend, I completed a large number of flashcards to refresh my vocabulary. I also completed lessons 27 and 26 of Ascolto Avanzato missing only 1 point on lesson 26 and with a perfect score on 27. I also had a language exchange session with roughly 40 minutes of Italian.

Listening comprehension, as has always been the case for me, is one of my strongest skills in Italian. I also completed two letters. The first was a letter of complaint and the second “autocandidatura” for work. I think the way that I have chosen to go about the letter writing is pretty useful for people who are primarily self-directed learners without a full-time instructor that will correct their writing.

1.       Find a large number of example letters that cover the general types found on the exam. I did this via a Google search, specifically Google Images. These don’t have to be prefect but they should be written by native speakers. As long as a letter is a letter of complaint, it does not matter what the specific topic or complaint happen to be about.

2.       Ensure that you have at least two examples of each type of letter from the exam that meet the criteria of what you would expect to find on the exam. Total, though, you should have at least five examples of each type with two being very close to what you’d expect from the test.

3.       Begin your studies by copying the letters by hand word-for-word into a notebook. Start with a specific type (domanda di lavoro, for example) and copy all of the examples you have.

4.       Once you have copied them, go to a resource that actually teaches techniques for writing a formal letter and make sure you understand how the material taught relates to the examples you have copied.

5.       Pick out the examples you have found that relate most closely to the exam and blank out some of the key phrases that you have found common in the learning material as well as the example letters you have found. Give yourself no less than three days and no more than five days and then re-copy the letters filling in the blanks that you created.

6.       Then repeat step five again. Blank out even more of the letter and then give yourself at least seven days but no more than 10 and recopy the letters filling in all of the blank you have created in the letter. For clarity, you should keep the blanks from step five and add additional blanks.

7.       At this point, you should feel pretty comfortable with the structure of a formal letter. Go back to the learning material and complete any exercises that are given. You should also take a few examples form the test and attempt to complete them as you would be required to in the exam: pen and paper only! Only then should you type them out and post them to a language forum or service like Lang8.

Happy learning!

My OneNote notebook with material for this component of the exam: Lettere

CILS Prep Log 28/04

Today I took a TELC B2 practice test which is quite easier than the CILS exam for the same level. In order to increase the difficulty I the initial 3 sections of the exam giving my self only about 2/3 of the time alloted for the first section of the test. I scored 176 points out of a possible 180. Unfortunately I was interrupted before I could complete the written piece of the exam. I'll need to continue that later.

I also wrote a letter asking for information and completed lesson 28 of Ascolto Avanzato with a perfect score. I have yet to have the letter corrected.

In addition to the above, I completed a large number of flashcards for vocabulary.

Getting Back in the Saddle with CILS C1/C2 Produzione Orale

After roughly 9 months of wasted time due to demands at work, I’m getting back in the saddle with my Italian studies. I have set the money aside for the CILS exam, I am still debating if I will take C2 or C1, but I expect it to be scheduled and set in stone within the next month.

Yesterday I got in touch with two teachers to get my exam prep back on course. With the first, my aim is to work primarily on the section for the monolog. I’ll be sending her two sound files each week that are 3 to 4 minutes in length and are either taken directly from past exams or are based closely on the type of material covered by this section of the exam. With the second teacher, I intend on covering the first section of the oral exam. This section is more difficult because it requires managing an interaction for which the candidate cannot possibly be prepared. If you had asked me about this section of the exam about a year ago, I would have said that I believe that the candidate needs to be familiar with a very broad section of situations and able to manage them all with a high degree of confidence. But, I have changed my views on this section after considerable thought on the types of situations I have seen in previous exams. They are far too varied for anyone to be able to handle any specific situation with any real degree of precision. Instead, I believe that the important thing, the skill actually being tested, is one’s ability to manage unpredictability and unfamiliar situations in Italian. If you can’t prepare for specific situations presented in the test, what can you do to best prep for this section? There does seem to be a certain amount of uniformity in the types of interactions that you will find:

1.       Inquiring/complaining client: The candidate is the customer/client and has questions about a product/service or some sort of problem. You might need a refund, have a complaint about something that happened to you, or need to ask if the product can do X or work with Y. The roles may also be reversed.

2.       Professional service/Interview: The candidate must assume the role of a business owner, consultant, or job seeker that is meeting with a potential client/boss to work out the details of some sort of business deal or job interview.

3.       Academic career: The candidate takes on the role of a student who is requesting something from a professor that s/he may or may not know. This might range from asking for the professor to assist you on your thesis or to allow you to attend a course though you may not have the full requirements.

4.       Civil services: The candidate will take the role of a person who needs to interface with some sort of civil service. This could be anything like renewing your permission to stay in Italy, discovering that you are the victim of a robbery and need to contact the police, or that you are suddenly sick and am ambulance has been called.

Immediately you should notice that all of these situations require ample use of the formal Lei. You absolutely must feel comfortable with it. After that, the important thing here is to find linguistic steppingstones that you can use as markers and that can give you precious moments to think about where you want to direct the conversation. In my opinion, the best thing to do is to look at the situations above and create a mind map in your native language of short, generic phrases that you feel would be useful in such situations. Avoid the urge to get hyper-specific. The purpose of this is not to memorize sentences that you think you will be able to use; you’re taking a C-level exam! The purpose is to find some stock phrases and expressions that you can use to fill space and transition from the unknown to the known. Then make sure you can use equivalent forms of those expressions in Italian. 

Imagine that you are asked to assume the role of a person who wants to rent a booth at a trade show for the industry that your company operates in. You have no clue how to do this. I wouldn’t even know what would be expected of me of this situation in English. Well, no problem. Who would know about this sort of thing? The VP of marketing, not you. You’re the owner. What are phrases that you might use in a professional setting where you lack the required knowledge to operate at high level professionally?

You’ll have to excuse me, I don’t usually…..

Can you help me understand what is required to…?

And how exactly does one go about…?

So, if I’ve understood….

Notice that these phrases are in no way concretely related to the idea of renting a booth at a trade show. All they do is help you drive the situation from areas where you lack knowledge to where you can get the information you need to say something intelligent and demonstrate that you not only understand but that you can manage the interaction. You are not being tested on your knowledge of trade shows in Italy. Let that stuff fade into the background and focus on how you’d handle the situation in real-life: requesting information, ensuring you have understood, and then moving the interaction on to the next step.

Things to avoid:

1.       Apologizing a lot for linguistic errors. This is counterproductive. Forget the mistake and move on unless it has impeded understanding. You said the wrong word? You do that in your native language, too. Behave as you would if it were your native language.

2.       Focusing on details related to the scenario. The creators of the exam have stated that the scenarios should not get in the way of the evaluation of the candidate’s linguistic abilities. Chances are that the examiner is not going to feel 100% comfortable in the scenario; they will not focus on the details of the scenario so you certainly shouldn’t! Instead, work with your tutor to find ways to manage interactions where you aren’t an expert in the thing being discussed.

3.       Preparing for specific scenarios. You won’t get them on the test. Just forget about it. Prepare for as many varied situations as you can find in the quaderni for previous exams. Do each once and move on to something else.

4.       Automatically picking the easy one. An interaction at a shop between a sales clerk and customer might seem B2, but unless you are super confident in talking about clothing, colors, and prices you might be better off picking something that appears more difficult on the surface. Learn the types of scenarios that tend to be hardest for you and, during the exam, pick something that isn’t that. You should still make sure you try to improve your ability to deal with challenging situations while you are preparing for the test, but once you’re taking the exam always choose what you know will allow you best to put your skills on display. There are no extra points for picking the hardest scenario.

A Tour of Romance

I’ve decided that while I continue to work on Italian, I’m going to allow myself to take some time to look at some of the less studied Romance languages. Having a working knowledge of the Ibero-Romance languages for more than 20 years, learning Italian intensively really highlighted my lack of knowledge of the language family and how it was skewed by my familiarity with only Portuguese, Galician, and Spanish. In an effort to satisfy my passion for minority languages, I’ve decided on picking up Catalan, Piedmontese, Romanian, and Sardinian to a B1 level. Most importantly, though, I’m going to take the time to make a comparison of them and perhaps dig into the transition from Vulgar Latin to Proto-Romance and then to the modern languages. Once thing that has made me very sad about my selection is that Occitan is not on the list. I’ve not been able to find a single native or fluent heritage speaker willing to teach it even informally. From what I have gathered from academic material published on the Internet it is all but moribund. Since its relationship with Catalan is similar to that of Brazilian Portuguese to Galician, I decided to give it a try instead. Catalan’s language community is very strong and very proud and there are a lot of resources available on the web as well as teachers and informal tutors on iTalki. For Piedmontese, Sardinian, and Romanian I’ll be learning through Italian so as to be sure that I do not get to distracted from my current plan of study.

Fall Italian Language Challenge for 2015

It’s almost the middle of September and I’m very excited because I’ve finally progressed to the point where I can speak for a few minutes on a familiar topic. I would still not place my speech at the B2 level but I’m nearly there. My reading ability has absolutely skyrocketed. I’ve been reading a book called Geografia Italian per Stranieri and I don’t even realize I’m reading in Italian. There may be one or two words I need to look up in each chapter. I’ve also gone back to Io Non Ho Paura and feel I understand the vast majority of it now. There may be a few words per page that I’m unsure of or need to look up. All-in-all, I feel my progress over 9 months has been substantial. I’m feeling fresh, I’ve revamped my study habits and fall is upon us.

This means that it’s time for another 90 day challenge. This one will go from October to December and I’m really excited about this one because it’s going to include frequenting the Italian course offered by School Amici in Cincinnati. Thanks to Reddit, I’ve found some strategies that have been helping me get past my bad habits that I feel have been holding me back the most. If you’ve been following my progress you know that I have always had issues writing frequently, reviewing my lessons, and organizing/preparing for my lessons. In my last post, I mentioned the Reddit user who studied for and passed the C2 exam for Italian in 2 years. I got 2 very good ideas from him that I have already integrated into my routine that have helped me immensely: using videos from EuroNews to write the transcript for or a summary of short videos and giving a 3 minute monologue in my lessons.

Writing the transcript or summary has been helpful because I do it with pen and paper only. Then I can look back at the transcript provided by the video and ensure that I am not consistently misspelling any words. It also helps improve my listening comprehension as well as boosting my vocabulary.

The 3 minute monologue has helped because I simply cannot do it if I have not done some sort of preparation. I’m learning set phrases, conversational connectors, and finding chronic issues in grammar and pronunciation all of which give me the required motivation to go back and review my lessons.

This will be my study routine for the Fall Language Challenge.

  • Using Memrise to add another few thousand words to my vocab. I’m doing Memrise daily.
  • Using EuroNews videos every day to boost my writing.
  • 2 conversation lessons per week with monologues. I’m not quite certain that I will be able to maintain 2 lessons like this per week but I am going to try.
  • The School Amici class, which will certainly have homework/exercises at the B2 level. I am excited that I placed in the upper-intermediate class.
  • Using Ascolto Avvansato 3 times per week to help my listening comprehension.
  • Extensive Reading with books like Geografia Italiana.
  • Every other weekend I want to take a B2 or C1 practice exam. If I am lucky, I’ll be able to pass one of the C1 practice exams by December.


Out with a whimper...

I definitely consider my summer language challenge to have been a success. I increased my vocabulary by over 700 words (that's just based on my Memrise/Anki work) and gained a much better working knowledge of the fundamentals of Italian grammar. Unfortunately, though, I feel it ended with a whimper. I lost steam on the last couple of weeks and combined with a death in my family I basically did almost nothing in the final week. I certainly did nothing productive! And what's worst, it was the first week since I started studying Italian that I did not have a conversation with a native speaker in Italian only. But that's what happens when the reality of life intrudes on your goals.

I am excited that I will be taking a live Italian course in Cincinnati in September. I'll be enrolling in the upper-intermediate class and working hard to get myself to the point where 2016 can really be dedicated to taking the C1/C2 level CILS examination. Over at /r/LanguageLearning the Redditor JS1755 posted his experiences taking the C2 examination for Italian and his description of it really inspired me to get back on the horse and reset my goals for the next four months.

I've got a little bit of free time where I can re-assess my strategies and tactics from the past few months and see what I need to do to really hit my goals before the year is over.

Vocabulary for Italian Fluency

I want to start this post with the caveat that I believe simple vocabulary based flashcards are less efficient than full sentences. The reason why I believe this is the same reason that mnemonic techniques like memory palaces work for memorizing facts and other information. The added situational context and detail makes forgetting less easy. And yes, I phrased it that way intentionally. It doesn't make remembering easier, it makes forgetting less easy. And to be clear, what I do not mean is that context-based learning of vocabulary is superior to simply using a flash card. The science on this topic is clear: in the long run there is no significant difference in retention of vocabulary learned contextually as compared to vocabulary learned via memorization and refreshed using spaced repetition.  But there is a difference in short term memory retention between these two classes. What this shows is that a combined approach of context-based learning with spaced repetition for review is preferable for enhancing short and long-term gains in learning. So simply combining a list-based vocabulary Memrise course with extensive reading and listening can have a nearly exponential effect on vocabulary acquisition in the short and long terms.

And now, to the point. I've found a series of courses based on the book Using Italian Vocabulary that I think is very applicable to students studying at the B levels. The problem is they seem to be somewhat scattered. The Memrise user abilegge has created a huge subset of courses on the book but it seems she may have left some of the words out. Another user, arbor151, has created fewer courses but it seems like those courses are more complete.  I have compiled them here and I will be creating the remaining courses once I get to them. Even though I have marked most of these as B2+, much of the vocabulary is applicable to a B1 level student but the vast majority is probably too much. My suggestions is that if you are studying at the B1 level, you should really pay attention to the levels in each course because your time might be better spent elsewhere. If you are confidently speaking and writing at the B1 level and you are ambitious, go ahead and get started.

Using Italian Vocabulary

  1. Towns, cities, and Buildings/The household/Gardens - B2+ [50% complete]
  2. The physical world/The animal world/The weather - B2+ [completed]
  3. The body/Health services - B2+ [50% complete]
  4. Physical appearance/Body language - B2+ [10% complete]
  5. Personality/Behavior - B2+ [completed]
  6. Clothing, footware, and accessories/Food and drink - B2+ [50% complete]
  7. Perception, moods, and the mind - B2+
  8. Quantity, shape, measurement, and size/Containers - B2+
  9. The arts/The media - B2+
  10. Literature and writing/Expressions, interaction, speaking, reading, writing, and phoning - B2+
  11. Leisure/Sport - B2+
  12. Travel/Transportation - B2+
  13. The lifecycle/Religion - C1+
  14. Education/Science - C1+
  15. Agriculture/Industry - C1+
  16. The business world/Employment - B2+
  17. The office and computing/Communications - B2+
  18. Law/Finance - C1+
  19. Geography/History and war - C1+
  20. Politics/Social services and issues - C1+

Update: Another excellent course that focuses more on phrases and expressions than vocabulary is 1100 Intermediate Expressions. It currently has more than 1250 items and was added to as late as July, 2017. This course has actually become the core of my SRS studies in 2017. Statuses above are up-to-date as of 2017/08/02.

Half way through my summer Italian language challenge

I'm close to the half-way point of my summer Italian language challenge for 2015 and I feel that so far it's been very successful. I feel like I have a very good handle on most of the grammar topics for B1 and a good deal of the vocabulary as well. I think I need to spend a little more time with vocabulary regarding health and illness. This just has not been an area of much interest for me up to this point. I've been pretty successful in increasing the amount of writing that I am doing and this week I turned in 4 assignments for correction. I need to do my best to keep that pace up in the coming weeks as well as make a full transition to not using any sort of assistance in my writing; just a pen and paper.

Despite the victory I consider increasing my written output in Italian, I have not been reviewing my lessons and I am noticing more and more that there are certain words that I am consistently mispronouncing. This has to be fixed. It would go a long way to help my fluency if I didn't have consistent issues with words that seem to come up regularly.

My 3 usual tutors have all been helping me immensely during my challenge (Laura, Daniele, and Salvatore). I've also been collecting a lot of examples of grammatical structures for the B1 level in a Memrise course.

 CEFR B1 Italian Supplement - CILS TELC

CEFR B1 Italian Supplement - CILS TELC

I'm only about 1/2 way through with it but it already has 672 full sentences in it. I'm trying to get to the point were each grammatical structure has close to 300 or 400 examples. I suspect that it will be well over 2000 sentences by the time I'm done with the B1 specific grammar topics. I think by the time I'm ready to start specifically preparing for my CILS exam, I'll have created a corresponding course for A level Italian (a single course for A1 and A2) as well as a B2 level course. If I am lucky, this will mean that I'll have put in enough work to be able to consider sitting the C1 examination next summer. 

The First Week of my June 2015 Italian Challenge

I'm on my fifth day of my June, 2015 Italian Language Challenge and I wanted to give an update now because some of my parameters have changed since my original post (surprise, surprise). First off, I have not been using Magari like I expected but I've found two other resources that are a little better for someone who is self-studying. The first is called Parola a Te! It covers each of Italy's ragioni and discusses aspects of history, literiture, and culture that are important to each ragione. I also has both audio and video companions that can be found on the book's web site. The other book is Il Rifugio Segreto: Letture Semplificate.  This also comes with a CD but what I like most about it is that it matches my reading and listening level really well and includes explanations of vocabulary from the texts in Italian.

The biggest change, though, has been working with my iTalki tutor Laura. She's been kind enough to take on some daily tasks and lesson prep work for the cost of a couple of extra hours of lessons. Every night I send her a report of what I have done that day and she corrects any exercises for which I don't have the answer key as well as correcting any writing that I have done. It's a huge commitment because I don't take days off. There might be days when I can't do as much as I want to, but I make an effort to get some Italian study in every single day. So far, just knowing that she has an expectation of me is helping to keep my on task and I feel like I have made more progress in the past 5 days than I did in all of May. That's not to say I didn't make any progress in May, I did. I was just kind of aimless and a lack of focus always leads to less progress than learning with a clear goal.

Two of my three big complaints about my learning process have been addressed with this arrangement: I'm writing more and I'm prepping for my lessons. The final one is really up to me, though. I really believe in doing learning retrospectives to take new vocabulary and structures from your online lessons and add them to Anki or Memrise or whatever spaced-repetition system you use. Without doing this so much learning slips through your fingers because you are so focused on the act of participating in the conversation there is no chance you will remember which grammatical structures you got wrong or which vocabulary words you are mispronouncing. If I can maintain this level and quality of work, I am really sure that I can make it to B2 by the end of August, 2015. 

Thoughts after 5 Months of Learning Italian

Today marks 5 months and 2 weeks (give or take a few days) since I started studying Italian. My original plan was to see how far I could get in 3 months and I think I progressed to the point where I was close to a solid A2 in the CEFR and using material in Italian only for the B1 and B2 levels. What I did not expect when I started is that I'd end up liking Italian so much or that I would make so many friends who were native speakers. This has made me decide to keep going in Italian until 2016 when I will attempt to take the CILS B2 or C1 depending on when the exam is and my confidence. The problem is I need to get more serious about my studies and increase my writing output. I'm already doing at least 2 hours of conversation per week as well as studying Italian for at least an hour per day. But there are a number of things I am not doing.

  1. I'm not doing retrospectives on my lessons. I have to start reviewing my lessons seriously and trying to make sure that I master the things I'm learning in the lessons and that I understand the corrections I am being given.
  2. I'm not preparing for the lessons. I need to pick a topic from my Conversations to Go game, translate it to Italian and then learn the vocabulary and structures that I expect that I will use in the lessons. I'm wasting too much time thinking instead of practicing.
  3. I'm not writing enough. I am a firm believer that if you practice speaking regularly then writing can have a direct positive impact on your speaking skills. I'm confident that if I had done these things from the start, I'd be close to the B2 level right now. 

For this reason I'm setting my next challenge. I'm going to take 13 weeks to really focus on getting to a solid B2 level. Here is my plan.


I've got two weeks to get my material ready.

  • I'm going to complete level one of Glossika's Italian fluency module and get as close to 1/2 way through level 2.
  • Translate 40 of the conversations to go slips for use in my lessons or in writing exercises.
  • Gather together examples of the following grammatical structures to supplement Glossika.
  • Present, future, passoto prossimo, and imperfetto of the top 10 irregular verbs by frequency. I expect this to be close to 8,000 sentences total (many will be conjugated variations).
  • 3,000 examples of the conjuntivo and condizionale with at least 1/2 being of the top 10 irregular verbs.


Here is my plan for the first week of June through the 30th of August.

  • Magari (B1 to C1) 400 pages – Use this book and some of the ideas for exercises to guide grammar and conversational learning. Many of the activities in this book are designed for groups or classrooms so finding an appropriate variation on the activity will be essential.
  • News in Slow Italian – one episode per week. This will include summaries of the 4 news segments.
  • 3 writing exercises using Conversations to Go – This will be the hard part of my learning to stay committed to. I need to force myself to create more output or I will not advance.
  • 2 or more conversation classes per week for a total of two hours minimum.
  • Practice tests and quizzes each week with CILS exam simulations performed every fourth week.

This is going to be a lot of work and that's why I'm sticking with a 13 week time span.  I can't keep up this kind of work indefinitely but 13 weeks is a good amount of time to be able to accomplish some real goals and still be able to make corrections for any problems I might have.