Italian: if I had it to do all over again

I came to Italian with a high degree of proficiency in Portuguese. I tried very hard to ensure that my tutors or language partners never spoke English with me in my lessons. As a result, listening comprehension has always been one of my strongest skills. But how would I do things if I had to do them all over again? And what would I change if I had to do them all over again but without the knowledge of Portuguese?

The second scenario is really hard for me to address. It’s hard for me to imagine a world where I don’t know Portuguese. I’ve spoken it for close to half of my life now. This is what I have come up with for the first 90 days.

1.       I would take the first 90 days slowly and pay a lot of attention to my pronunciation. I am a firm believer that you must start speaking almost immediately. Learn basic phrases like “how do you say….” and “I’m sorry but I don’t understand.” Then pick a basic resource that is mapped to the CEFR level A1 that you can use with a tutor and start putting a lot of emphasis on listening and speaking.

2.       Use Primo Ascolto every single day. Complete the exercise and then go back to it and make sure all of the new vocabulary and sentences that you find interesting are added to Anki or some sort of spaced repetition system. Use the transcription of the audio by shadowing the speaker. Listen to a phrase, pause the recording, repeat trying to imitate the native speaker. Do this until you feel confident that your speech is as close to the native’s as it is going to be. A couple times a week use the audio as dictation. Go back to a previous lesson, listen to the audio again, and transcribe what is being said.

3.       At the end of the 90 days try taking an A1 CILS practice exam. Organize a lesson with your tutor on iTalki and simulate the oral exam. Then, on your own, try to simulate as closely as possible the conditions for the rest of the exam in one go. Print all the pages, set timers, and ensure you are not interrupted. Use these results to help guide your learning for the next 90 days. If you did not pass (and be very strict on your grading), look at which section of the exam was the most difficult and work with your tutor on a plan for improvement.

4.       At this point, you should have an idea of how to learn a language in a structured but mostly self-guided way. I want you to commit to actually taking the CILS B1 exam in a set timeframe. If you passed the A1 exam, make it one year. If you did not, then a year and a half. No excuses. You will not be able to schedule the exam until it is just a few months out but you must commit to the date.

I wish that I had taken the B2 exam in my first year of studies. I would have made a lot more progress much more quickly with a firm goal. When I finally fixed the date for my C1 exam I became completely focused and made more progress than I would have thought imaginable in such a short period of time for being at an advanced level. People talk about hitting an intermediate plateau, but I shot right past it. I did, however, spend nearly a year at the B2 level doing close to nothing due to lack of focus and issues that arose at work. The fact is, I could have managed the problems better and retained focus if I had had shorter-term goal like the B2 CILS exam.

This brings me to what I would have done differently if I had to do it all over again but retain my knowledge of another Romance language. As I mentioned above, the very first thing would have been scheduling and taking a B1 or B2 exam before taking the C1 or perhaps the C2. I really feel that the wasted 9 months that I mentioned in the paragraph above set me back more than just the time that I didn’t study as assiduously as I could have. I also lost ground in that time. I realized during a language exchange, the only speaking practice I had during the period, that my speaking ability had degraded substantially in comparison to my partner’s level of English. When we started, he was only slightly more advanced than I was. By the time I realized what was going on, he was clearly an entire CEFR level ahead of me. Here is my breakdown of other things I would change and I should note that these strategies can be used by intermediate learners who don’t have a background in another Romance language and numbers 1 and 3 likely apply to beginners as well.

1.       I’d abandon Memrise and stick with Anki. Memrise was a great help and I love it still but it lacks the flexibility that I need. I tried hard to make more advanced types of exercises in Memrise but it was always trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. I am a strong proponent of cloze exercises and those are just impossible with Memrise.

2.       I would take a more structured approach to vocabulary acquisition. I’d start with an intermediate word list of some sort and start working on adding those to my vocab using Anki and Reverso. I would not, however, attempt to use Anki to learn higher frequency words. It’s just not worth it unless you are having trouble remembering specific vocab. Higher frequency problem words can go into your deck, but adding verbs like diventare to SRS is simply creating busy work for yourself. You will see and use this word nearly everyday in your studies.

3.       I’d record my lessons and actually review them. I never managed to get myself to do this as regularly as I should have and I think it’s important. This is the single hardest thing to do as a learner. Obviously, something I would not change is doing these lessons and language exchanges on a weekly basis at the least.

4.       I’d memorize or mostly memorize monologues or pieces of text from audiobooks or listening exercises. I don’t mean memorize it cold to the point that I can perform it like an actor but to where I can recite it with some prompting. I’d use this to focus on proper diction and to improve my speaking skills. In our native languages, we have sections of speech that we reuse regularly. These set phrases only need to be seen in the contexts in which they are used by natives and then memorized. I was learning these types of set phrases far too late in the game.  

5.       I would make my own cloze exercises using articles that I read with a focus on verb tenses and adverbial phrases and adverbs of different types (allora, anziché, purtroppo, etc). I started doing this when I got serious about prepping for the CILS exam and I think that of all the work I did for the exam, this had the most impact on my productive language skills (speaking and writing).

The five items listed above all have a common theme running through them that isn’t readily apparent: meta-learning. They all require me to choose examples of natively produced language and use them to produce my own learning materials. The fundamental strategies of language learning are not complex or difficult but the daily tactical choices that we make of how we go about carrying out those strategies can be quite complicated and we need to manage them in a way that is both clear and timely. All advanced learners come to a point where they must begin to take charge of their own learning, learn methods for evaluating their own weaknesses, and produce materials that are specifically targeted for those weaknesses. I have known this for years but putting it into practice consistently has always been challenging and if I am honest with myself this is where I have failed the most as a learner over the past year. So, this is it. August is coming up fast and I am offered a chance to use my knowledge to make my learning more efficient, more durable and more focused. And I think I need another goal. Maybe I will schedule the C2.

What really matters in life?

Is it a sprint or a marathon?

And what if finish lines make us happy?

Or are we just glad we can run at all?