Imparando l’italiano

I recently mentioned that we’re excitedly returning to Italy in a few weeks, for our fifth visit to the country. This isn’t just because we like to vacation there; we’re legitimately conspiring to move there in a few years. Regardless, these frequent visits have started to chip away at the feeling of being a tourist, and instead have helped it feel like a place we know well and in which we fit in. Except, as long as we’re English-speaking visitors, we’ll always be stranieri, or foreigners.

Which is why I’m learning Italian.

Granted, I’ve had a membership with Rosetta Stone for years now. Apparently, simply buying an annual subscription isn’t sufficient to teach you the language; you have to actually use the site/app in order to make any progress. (Who knew?) Well, after finding myself grateful for Italians making the effort to speak English with me on four separate trips there, I’ve come to feel embarrassed at my complete lack of effort to return the favor.

And honey, I’m making up for it. I am motivated.

First, let me just say, learning a language in your 40s is hard. I’ve grudgingly conceded that the only way this is going to work is if I really make a consistent effort, and keep at it every day. So I’ve started doing a few different things, in an attempt to shotgun my way into learning the language.

Actual photo of my failing miserably to speak Italian

It started fairly small, with me occasionally actually using Rosetta Stone. It’s helpful, certainly, but it doesn’t actually explain anything, it uses the sort of immersive approach that kids get when they’re very young: you’re responding to photos, and identifying commonalities in terms of colors, objects, etc. in various shots. You gradually start to figure out which portions of the photos all relate to the word on the screen, and you begin making mental connections.

This doesn’t, however, help at all with learning the rules of grammar, how to conjugate verbs correctly, and some very important ways that Italian differs from English (especially with verbs and the formal/informal approaches.) Fortunately there are many similarities to Spanish — and I have an extremely basic understanding of some of the grammar in Spanish, thanks to years of high school and college classes that I’ve mostly forgotten — to be familiar with these.

Then I discovered that my university allows students and faculty a free subscription to Mango, another language site/app. I like Mango better than Rosetta Stone, frankly, because it’s mostly auditory and repetitive, and it actually pauses to explain things as you go. But, the combination of the two approaches is interesting to me, so I’m keeping both in my arsenal.

I’ve also started trying to use translation apps to start practicing how to say common words and phrases. Sometimes I’ll get on a kick and start texting my husband and our neighbors entirely in Italian, which requires some translating back and forth, but I figure the repetition will be helpful. Plus, I have a self-imposed rule that says that I must always say the Italian words and phrases out loud, whether I’m sending them or receiving them, so that I get practice forming the words and hearing them.

I’ve started reading books on my phone from people who’ve moved to Italy, and they often sprinkle their pages with phrases and sentences in Italian. When they don’t include a translation in the original text, there’s a nifty feature in the Kindle app that lets you get a quick translation yourself, so it’s proving to be a good way to pick up some key words and phrases. I’ve gone so far as to get a couple of books that are fully translated into Italian, including Interview with the Vampire and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. I figure these will be very slow going, certainly, as I’ll probably be translating every other sentence to make sure I’m picking it all up, but I’m looking forward to the challenge.

My biggest discovery, however, is that Netflix has an entire collection of television shows and movies that are dubbed in Italian. I’d looked for iTunes movies that were dubbed in Italian, or even had Italian subtitles, and found very, very few of them. But now, seeing the vast amount of programming available in Italian on Netflix, I’m encouraged. (It turns out that all of their original programming, which is a rapidly growing list, is available in Italian!) I tried watching the animated show Big Mouth in Italian, but it was too much for me… Too fast, and I figure that’s probably not the best sample of Italian language for a beginner. (If you haven’t seen it, it’s a comedy that’s incredibly crude; it makes Archer look tame.) Imagine my delight, however, when I found that That 70s Show is available dubbed in Italian! I watched my first episode tonight, and while I’m definitely struggling to follow along, I’m pleased at the small portion that is making sense to me.

This is a lot, to be sure… but my goal is to try a little bit of everything, as frequently as possible. Ideally, I want to do one lesson in Rosetta Stone, one lesson in Mango, a few pages of translated Italian in a novel, and at least one short episode of a television show dubbed in Italian, every single day. That’s ambitious, and I suspect I’ll end up calling it a win if I do at least one of these things every day, but I’ll see how much I can consistently make time for.

Sono pronto, cominciamo!

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