Culture and language: these two entities are so intertwined that it is impossible to experience one without the other. Italy is no exception – in fact, I would argue that it is the epitome of this concept – and so it is no surprise that many Italian travelers take it upon themselves to learn a bit of italiano before their trip to the Bel Paese so as to optimize their experience living la dolce vita. We’ve already given you a few helpful phrases here but for those of you looking to delve deeper into the language of Dante, this post is for you.
In addition to being Italian and Croatian travel specialists, we’ve got a few hidden talents up our sleeves, mine in particular being the fact that I have a MA applied linguistics and second-language acquisition. Just like with experiencing Italy, I believe that learning a second language shouldn’t be a drag, and so have written my top tried-and-true ways to make your Italian language learning experience easy, effective, and fun!
If you like to watch movies, this one is a no-brainer. And with so many Italian masterpieces, like Oscar winners La Vita è Bella (Life is Beautiful) and La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty) you will not run short on selection.
- For beginners: When the gap between what you know and what you’re watching is too great linguistically, you’re probably not going to absorb too much. Stick to trailers to be sure you understand all that is said and don’t be ashamed to pick up a children’s film. They are made specifically for the language learning of native-speaking children, and you can’t get better than native.
- For intermediate learners: Buy an Italian movie in the States and try with English subtitles. Watch the movie several times and check your comprehension of what you’re hearing with what you are seeing. Try watching children’s movies with Italian subtitles; the language is simpler and this will allow you to work on comprehension without an English crutch.
- For advanced learners: Italian movies with Italian subtitles. Sometimes the mere accents or dialects of the actors will throw off even the most advanced second-language speaker. The subtitles allow you to check what you hear.
- Language learning secret: While watching a movie your brain is already working full time to absorb and understand the content. Add a second language, and you’re asking it to work double time. Do a little research about the movie plot before you watch. Sometimes I will also pick up an American movie that I’ve already seen, dubbed in Italian, so I know what to expect, when I’m flying through an Italian airport. Not flying through any Italian airports anytime soon? These movies are also available on Amazon, and will play on most computers.
Want to learn Italian grammar? Read. How about improve your vocabulary? Read. Remember what the smartest kid in your elementary school class did? Read (ha, English can be tricky too!). Reading is power and there’s no exception for second language learning.
- For beginners: This is where children’s books or online children’s stories is a must. Get your hands on some, break it down page by page, and then read it out loud. Do this several times. Maybe repeat reading the same book once a week.
- For intermediate learners: Short stories, fictional tales (maybe try your hand at Pinocchio), and newspaper blurbs. Don’t translate everything but try to gain overall understanding the first time you read through. Read through again, underlining key vocabulary that impedes your comprehension. Read through again and if you still don’t understand, then look up the vocabulary. Once you have a good grasp, read out loud.
- For advanced learners: Add Italian blogs about topics you like to your morning RSS feed. Scroll through Italian news (ansa.it is good for short, news worthy articles), or pick up a full-length book about a topic you’re interested in (I’m reading Vino Ti Amo: Storie di Corraggio by Oscar Farinetti in which he interviews 12 Italian winemakers, including Marilisa Allegrini and Piero Antinori, and can’t put it down).
- Language Learning Secret: Be attentive as to what you select! Most importantly, the content needs to be something interesting to you. Secondly, similar to the film point I made, choose something for which you already have a schema built. Of course you will be frustrated if you pick an article about the upcoming bill to be passed on Regulation 3815 regarding treatment of solid waste on Trentino Alto-Adige if you know nothing about the legislation or the key players mentioned in the article.
Besides being a pleasant way to pass the time, music is also a great pneumonic language learning tactic. Your brain processes a catchy tune in a way that it sticks, and you’ll find yourself not only humming the notes, but using the grammatical structures and vocabulary you learned without even thinking, too! Print out the lyrics, try to directly translate each line until you understand, and then play and sing along several times.
- For beginners: You can use the children’s tactic for this, too but if you’d like to stick to adult songs, pick ones with simple grammatical structures and literal meanings: pop songs, definitely not rap. I learned some of my Italian with Raf and the ballads of Claudio Baglioni. And at the risk of being cliche, I love Con Te Partirò by Andrea Bocelli for future tense practice.
- For intermediate learners: Stick with simple but you can try some more poetic songs with complex grammar. Certe notti by Ligabue is a good one with some advanced structures but literal meaning.
- For advanced learners: Pick any song that you feel catchy and work away! Be warned that some rap and super poetic songs will have structures that you will never use, but might have idiomatic wording that you can surprise your Italian friends with! I love hip hop and old school rap, so listen to Fabri Fibra and Caparezza (not for the faint of heart) as well as Jovanotti (more family friendly).
- Language learning secret: try YouTube-ing some of these big names in Italian music to see which style you like: Jovanotti, Ligabue, Raf, Andrea Boccelli, J-Ax, Zucchero, Gianna Nannini, Franki hi-NRG, Emma Marrone, Negramaro, to name a few. Use YouTube’s handy similar-video-on-the-right-hand-side matching strategy to explore. It’s good to stick with one artist for several songs; as you get used to their voice the comprehension will come easier.
Interact with Native Speakers!
Not everyone is as lucky as we are here at Select Italy to work with Italy and Italians every day, but there is a wealth of opportunity at your fingertips! Meet-ups (our own Justin Anderson is the organizer of Chicago’s) and other interest groups – such as Professionisti Italiani a [Your City] and the various Italian American Chamber of Commerces – around the US provide regular speaking and conversation activities. Italian Cultural Institutes in major cities host events (the Chicago one has Tuesday night films). And there are online language exchange forums with Italian speakers who want to learn English.
- Language learning secret: Everyone is scared when they first begin speaking with a native speaker. Don’t be. Firstly, Italians in general are extremely receptive and welcome your effort. Secondly, it always helps to keep in mind that they probably feel the same way about English- we’re in the same boat (siamo nella stessa barca!). Lastly, if neither of the first two help, there’s always that study that a moderate amount of wine intake lowers your inhibitions and allows the words to flow free.
…are an easy way to get some learning in when you’re on the go. Beginners will want to stick with children’s podcasts and language podcasts. Intermediate and advanced should pick something they know a decent amount about with an accent they can comprehend easily. I personally listen to Decanter - a food and wine radio show broadcasted on Rai 2 – to practice my language and catch up on the latest in the Italian world of cibo e vino. Rai radio stations are a good place to start- they have great variety and are high quality content.
- Language learning secret: you will probably not understand it all. Play it again! And again! And again! Take notes the second or third time to really process what you heard.
It doesn’t have to be extra work!
If it is, you’re much more likely to say ciao to your efforts. Choose topics that you’re interested in or would be reading about otherwise. Sometimes I look up US news in Italian so I can get my news and practice at the same time. It’s also interesting to see how Italians perceive American news. Don’t like documentaries in your first language? What makes you think you’re going to enjoy it in your second?
Bottom line: have fun! And while you’re having fun a whole new Italian world will open up to you.
Have any tips of your own? Share with us below!