Looking for the best way to learn Italian? Me too!
Since visiting Europe for the first time several years ago, I’ve been dying to learn both Italian and French.
I thought I’d be terribly intimidated at trying to speak a foreign language while traveling overseas, but was pleasantly surprised at how much I LOVED it. ❤️
I found it great fun to tell everyone good afternoon and good evening, please and thank you and learn the basics like open/closed, bathrooms, exit, etc.
So in 2019, I started toying around with learning both languages, but sort of petered out by mid-year.
In 2020, I decided to focus on Italian first, as I’ve taken college-level Spanish (though I can’t speak it worth a darn, more on that in a minute) and found Italian very similar.
One language at a time, I decided, was a better plan.
Italian came much more naturally to me than French. Plus, I’ve spent more time in Italy…
Don’t Learn a Language the Way They Teach It in School
It’s a sad fact that I took Spanish from seventh grade all the way through college and can’t speak it.
True, I never visited a Spanish-speaking country and was thus not “forced” to speak it, as is ideal, but it’s truly pathetic that with all that learning (and I was an A student, I’m here to tell you!), our academic system couldn’t do better than that.
Sure, you have to understand the basic grammar of a language as they teach it in school, but there is WAY too much emphasis on that and not of just immersing yourself in the language and learning practical words and usage.
The Best Way to Learn Italian in 5 Steps
I’ve played around and looked for different ways to learn Italian, and in a year or so reached, if not exceeded, my skill level of Spanish gained after 10 years.
I do KNOW more Spanish words, but I can SPEAK Italian much better.
I think I’ve found the best way to learn Italian, and so I’ve put together this list of 5 KEY techniques that have really jump-started my Italian comprehension and speaking.
Plus, I’ve been reading the book “Ultralearning” by Scott Young and taking his Rapid Learner course at the same time, so I’ve included some of his strategies to help you learn ANYTHING more quickly, as well.
Note: This post contains affiliate links for which we may earn a commission if you make a purchase after clicking through. Thanks for your support!
1. Get a Baseline Understanding
Of course, you do need a good base of understanding of how a language is structured. This includes things like:
- Masculine/Feminine forms of nouns
- Definite and indefinite articles (“the” and “a”/”an”)
- Regular verb conjugation
- Question formation
I got a good handle on this by using Duolingo, which is a free language learning software program online that works through repetition.
I like repetition, because you start getting to the point where things do or don’t “sound right” simply because you’ve heard them so much. I think this is a big step in language learning.
Once you’ve got those basics down, I think you can safely move on, though Duolingo can help with vocabulary building, and it’s quite fun, too 😃.
2. Learn by Listening to Podcasts
One of the BEST things I’ve done in learning Italian is to listen to podcasts that teach Italian. My favorite is Coffee Break Italian.
This is a completely free podcast, though there is a paid version with additional material. I’ve just used the free one, however.
This podcast has helped me tremendously by hearing the “explanation” of why the language is structured in a certain way, and it’s given me so much time in actually hearing the language spoken.
It’s super helpful to hear the things I’m learning spoken by a native speaker, simulating situations where it would actually be spoken.
Hearing it helps you get the intonation, accents and overall pronunciation embedded into your head, again, so things start “sounding” right.
Coffee Break Italian is great in that it explains a “structure” that you can replicate and use across multiple verbs, for example, or situations, using different vocabulary.
Plus, they build upon what they teach you in each episode, reviewing past topics as you go along to keep things in your memory.
TIP: If they are speaking too fast on your podcast, in iTunes you can speed up or slow down the speed. I like to slow it down for ease of understanding.
3. Practice Speaking 1 on 1
The single most important thing you can do is actually PRACTICE SPEAKING.
In fact, Scott Young, author of “Ultralearning” did a famous experiment where he learned four languages in one year by spending three months in each country to learn each language.
He and a friend did this together and agreed to use no English once they arrived in the country.
This is truly the way to learn a language: by full immersion. I’m not brave enough for that, though! But I recognize that’s what I was missing when it came to Spanish.
One way to overcome this in a slightly less terrifying way is by speaking with a native speaker via Skype or Facebook Live, etc.
Numerous programs offer this type of practice, but I chose to go with Live Lingua.
Note: This is a referral link for which I may earn a credit if you make a purchase after clicking through. But all opinions are my own and this is a product I know, love and highly recommend!
Live Lingua pairs you with a native speaker and teacher, who either teaches you the language over Skype or helps you converse in the new language.
Honestly, I put off this real practice part of things, because I truly was terrified to speak with a “real” speaker 😉!
But I knew this was the ONLY way I was going to make REAL progress, so I finally got up the nerve and signed up for my trial session on Live Lingua.
Much like trying to speak the language while in Italy, I found I LOVED it. It’s super fun and excellent practice! I ended my first lesson with a GIANT smile on my face 😃.
Now I’m doing a weekly lesson on Live Lingua (prices are around $25 per session) to quickly improve my conversational Italian skills.
I love that I can ask my tutor questions about things that I’m confused about and get a sense of how “real” Italians speak to learn things you won’t find in a textbook like the word they use colloquially for “texting” as one example.
You can try Live Lingua, and when you use my referral link, you’ll get 20% off your lesson purchase. Thanks for your support!
4. Listen to Real Italian
Another great technique to quickly improve comprehension is to listen to actual Italian being spoken, in addition to your tutor, on television, in movies and in other situations.
It’s helpful to start with something that has English closed captioning at the bottom to help you understand.
You can find these things in abundance on YouTube.
You can also listen to full Italian podcasts.
I even found multiple apps on our Roku that allow me to watch Italian television. And as a Catholic, I can watch the Pope lead mass or speak in Italian as even more practice!
There are quite a few TV shows and movies in English that use a lot of Italian.
“The Godfather” film series comes to mind… 😉. Or if you like comedy, try Aziz Ansari’s “Master of None” on NetFlix.
5. Memorize, Memorize, Memorize
Memorization is never a bad thing when it comes to learning a language, as the larger your vocabulary, the more you can say and understand.
But to speed things up, try to focus only on learning vocabulary that you’ll actually need.
For example, Duolingo teaches you all the names of animals. Unless I’ll be visiting an Italian zoo, somehow I don’t think it’s helpful for me to know much more than dog or cat or possibly horse or cow. I’ll skip learning monkey, lion and giraffe, thanks very much.
Though you may want to know “wolf” or “lupo,” since a common Italian phrase that means “good luck” is “in boca al lupo,” which literally means “into the mouth of the wolf.” Apparently, it’s like the American “break a leg,” which also makes no sense when you think about it!
Sidenote: The appropriate response to “in boca al lupo” is “crepi,” which means “may he die.” Weird, huh?
Rather, I like to start pretending I’m having a real conversation and think of all the words I’ll need to know and jot them down.
Then you can use Google Translate to look them up on your phone and/or create flashcards of just these words.
It’s also helpful to write down any words you don’t know from your Live Lingua Skype lesson to work on before the next lesson.
The Best Flash Cards Programs
Flash cards are also helpful in trying to memorize a lot of words, which is key to learning a language. Memrise is a website and app that uses space repetition systems to show you these words at the best times to help you memorize them efficiently.
With Memrise, you can enroll in one of their pre-created language courses within the app, or on the website, you can easily create your own flashcards or use a set that someone else has built.
For example, maybe someone has already created a set of flash cards for irregular verbs. No need to reinvent the wheel!
I largely built my own set of flashcards on Memrise by adding words that I learn listening to podcasts, in my weekly Skype lesson or elsewhere that I don’t know but realize I need to know or that I’m struggling to remember.
I then practice these via the app on my phone every day when I have some downtime.
One thing I really like about the Memrise pre-created courses is that they film little snippets of video in the country where the language is spoken, showing you a native speaker saying the word. First of all, for Italian, I LOVE seeing little snippets of Rome :).
Plus, it’s very helpful to hear how it should be correctly spoken.
Another flash card system that many people recommend is Anki. I found Anki to be too complicated to use, but if you like to get technical, feel free to give it a go. I recommend looking up a beginner tutorial online to get started.
BONUS: Employ “Ultralearning” Techniques
Lastly, I wanted to share some of Young’s “ultralearning” techniques to help you learn ANYTHING, including a language. Here are some of his top tips, but read the book for more help.
1. Use immediate recall
The best way to remember something, according to Young, is to try to recall it immediately after you learned it without looking back at your notes.
So if you just listened to a podcast on Italian, as soon as you’re done, see how much you can remember.
This helps create new circuits or pathways in your brain.
Then you can go back and look at your notes and see what you missed and focus on brushing up on those items.
This also ensures you spend your time on the things you really need to work on.
2. Make sure you understand the reason
Don’t just memorize the words or the structure. Ask yourself why it is the way it is.
When it comes to language, think of a sentence or situation where you can use what you just learned. How would YOU use it?
Or think of how you could use it in another context besides the one explained.
Why? When you understand things, you remember them better. Very often there is an interesting answer that can help you remember it.
The Coffee Break Italian podcast I listen to really helps give me the reason behind many things about Italian, which helps me better remember.
3. Narrow down what you need to know
When you’re trying to learn something quickly, don’t try to learn EVERYTHING. Figure out WHICH things you really need to know and focus on those.
For example, if you’re learning Italian primarily for travel (mostly my reason, aside from just because it’s fun!), there are certain situations and phrases and words that will be more helpful.
Like the animal example above, you don’t need to learn the names of African animals, as that’s filling your brain with information that is not useful.
Or maybe you just want to be able to read a book in Italian. In that case, focusing on speaking the language or hearing the language is much less important, so spend little to no time on those.
4. Focus on where you need the most help
Once you start learning, you’ll figure out where you’re having the most difficulty.
Maybe it’s conjugating verbs or memorizing irregular verbs or asking questions.
Then, you can spend more of your time on those areas instead of on areas you’re understanding just fine.
For me, it’s simply memorizing the vocabulary and practicing listening and speaking. I’m much better at reading and writing.
This may be where you ask for help from your online tutor as well.
5. Use images and mnemonics
To help remember words, try creating a visual of what the words sounds like to you.
For example, mela in Italian means apple. That sounds like “melon” to me, so I might envision a big red melon, which will help cue me to is not a melon but it IS red. Oh yea, that means apple!
Another example could be occhi, which means eyes in Italian.
Perhaps here, you envision okra, since that sounds like occhi, and put eyes on them. Plus, okra are round. When you see occhi, you’ll bring to mind round okra with eyes and that will help you remember that the word means eyes.
This is how I’m learning Italian, and I’m super pleased with my ability to understand about 70% of what Italians say (speaking fairly slowly) and now, after about a year, able to speak, not perfectly, but enough to convey what I mean in Italian.
I hope to take the official European language test at some point to see if I can pass the A2 level (it goes from A1-C2). Eventually, I’d like to get to B2. I’ll keep you posted!
What tips do you have for learning Italian or other languages? Any questions? Please comment below.
Want more about Italy?
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