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Learning Italian Italian

Study Techniques to Speak Italian Like a Native

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One especially common method for learning Italian, especially for beginners, is to memorize dialogue. That is, to practice scripts such as survival phrases or how to ask where the nearest museum is.

A member of the About.com Italian Language forums posted the following idyllic:

"I envision putting together a very, very thick book of not hundreds but thousands of randomly selected sentences of A/B, A/B, A/B, where A is the American Italian version of a sentence, and B being the Italian Italian version. There would be no grammatical explanations, just A/B's on their way to infinity. If anyone seriously seeking to trade in their pseudo Italian for the real stuff would ritually read those sentences, I think the metamorphosis would be almost guaranteed to happen. Sounds excessive, but it would work without the dreamy trip [to visit Italy]."

Ballare Come un Cavallo
Keep dreaming. It is excessive, and you'll waste your time. At the risk of sounding discouraging, a lot of language learners just don’t get it, and never will. It’s similar to taking dance lessons. You can put cut-out feet on the floor with numbers on them and take lessons from an expert, but if you don’t have rhythm, and you don’t have that swing, you’re always and forever going to look like a klutz on the dance floor, no matter how many lessons you take and how much you practice.

So what do you do if you’re not a good dancer and weren’t born with natural rhythm?

First off, I’m diametrically opposed to learning scripted responses in foreign languages. Every textbook for beginners devotes many pages to dialogue that’s stilted and simply doesn’t occur in real life. So why teach it?! If you ask a person on the street "Dov’è il museo?" and he doesn’t respond according to the script you memorized, then what? You’re stuck, because there are an infinite number of potential responses, and none of us has enough time on the face of this earth to memorize them. And that person on the street is going to keep on walking, because he’s got an appointment, anyway.

There is no secret, no Rosetta Stone, no silver bullet, when it comes to learning a language. You have to listen and repeat ad nauseam.

Those thousands of randomly selected sentences of A/B, A/B will never translate into real-time speaking competence nor will you understand the musicality of the language. It’s like looking at a musical score and expecting to be a master violinist just because you've memorized the score. Instead, you have to play it, and play it again and again. Likewise with the Italian language. Play with it! Practice! Listen to native Italian speakers and mimic them. Laugh at yourself trying to pronounce "gli" correctly. Italian, more so than many languages, is musical, and if you remember that analogy it will come easier.

No English Speakers Need Apply
So many people approach language as a science and get completely tongue-tied—I see it all the time in the e-mail questions I receive. Learners obsess over minutiae, as if the language can be dissected, instead of speaking Italian and interacting with native speakers. Imitate them. Mimic them. Ape them. Copy them. Let go of your ego and make believe you're an actor trying to sound Italian. But please—no more books with something else to memorize. That turns off students immediately, and is not effective in the least.

If there’s one bit of advice I can offer to anyone studying Italian, regardless of your level: stop thinking in English! Forget English grammar—you’re wasting a lot of mental energy trying to translate literally and construct sentences according to English syntax.

Let go of your fear of making mistakes. Your goal should be to communicate, not sound as if you have a Ph.D in Italian grammar (you’ll never do it, anyway, since there are only a small number of native Italian speakers who are even that well-versed in the intricacies of their own language. But most of them can certainly communicate their every emotion, fear, want, and need.) Your biggest mistake, and what will hold you back, is using English as a crutch and being afraid of opening your mouth wide and singing that lovely language called la bella lingua.

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