Language Learning, Living Abroad, University Abroad

The inconvenient truth about learning language the American way

October 24, 2015

Ciao Tutti!

The program I am in is the CSU International Program, Florence. The first six weeks of our 9 month program is dedicated to language learning. They call it the Preparatory Language Program. Now, I am no expert in Italian. Far from it. But now that PLP is completed, I wanted to take some time to reflect on the language learning process.

It has become abundantly clear over the course of the last two months that, when it comes to language, American students are products of our educational and cultural system. We are heavily trained in the USA to pass a written test. This means that, for the most part, the students who took Italian before they got here are decently good at reading and writing. Which is great, on paper. It is however not so great when you are walking down the street and someone asks you if you know of any good coffee spots, or how to get to the river. I know people who have taken years of Italian before they came here and cannot engage in conversation. In the USA you can hear someone ask both “Do you know Italian?” and “Do you speak Italian?” because oddly enough, in America those questions are not synonymous.

The funny thing about knowing a language is, unless you are studying Latin, at some point you have to speak it. And listen. Your mouth has to learn new muscle memory to make new sounds, and you have to train your ears to recognize new words. It’s an interactive thing, like playing catch. Someone asks you a question, and they pass the ball to you. If you respond, you can pass the ball back. I know many Americans who can catch the ball, but because they were trained mainly to write conjugations and prepositions, they have no idea how to pass it back. They catch it, and hold it, and don’t know what to do with it.

So what can you do about it? How do you learn a language in a way that is practical and fluid? Here are a few tips from me to you:

  • Pick a language that is really interesting to you. Languages are hard, but it is easier to work hard at something you enjoy.
  • Start thinking in your new language AS SOON AND AS OFTEN AS POSSIBLE. Even if your sentences sound like a child, it is important to internalize the meanings of words and phrases.
  • People watching is a great way to practice thinking in your language at any level of fluency!
  • Watch and listen to your new language with subtitles in that language. Really try to hear what the written words are supposed to sound like. 10/10 recommend Alberto Arrighini’s videos for Italian.
  • Don’t worry about getting the meaning of every single word, the general idea is good enough in most cases.
  • Speak it! Talk to native speakers, to other students, talk to yourself. Talk.
  • Do NOT try to translate everything you hear back into English. It throws a real wrench in the whole process.
  • Be kind to yourself. Remember, it is okay to be wrong.

The good news is that the Italian program at SFSU is exceptionally good with results compared to the other schools I have seen in the CSU system (Go Gators!) but that doesn’t mean it isn’t hard work. There is still a painfully distinct difference between people who learn the language because they want to use it, and those who take classes because it is required of them.

If you are required to take language to graduate anyway, why not learn to really speak it?


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