, ,

I’ve been learning Italian for just over 10 years now, on and off. I started learning it at university. In that first year we were required to attend classes for 4 hours a week and learn 50 words each week. That meant that by the end of the first semester I’d learnt 500 words, and 1000 by the end of the year. I had sticky notes with vocabulary all over the house and car, I recorded myself reciting words & vocabulary and I played those voice notes to myself on constant repeat in the car. It was hard at the time, but I’m so thankful now ~ those words really have been firmly cemented in my brain!

After I graduated, I took an adult class here in Sydney. I met a wonderful bunch of Italophiles who I’m still good friends with, and we all went right through to the most advanced stage they offered. The classes were great fun and very inspiring, but I still couldn’t really hold a fluent conversation or understand Italian spoken on TV. I remember arriving in Verona shortly afterwards and feeling so frustrated that I really couldn’t speak or understand as much as I thought I could.

Then, by chance, I was at a ‘going away’ party of an acquaintance who was retiring to Tasmania, and I was given the name of his Italian teacher. He told me I’d be lucky if I was taken on, as he only takes on a new student if one moves away. Only recently I discovered that my professore has had one student for 29 years! Seriously! I had been having weekly lessons with him for 6 months before he spoke more than a few words of english to me. He doesn’t make it easy, but that’s the point.

Here’s the thing about a private tutor. There’s nowhere to hide. You have to speak. You will make a complete fool of yourself. You’re going to make mistakes, and you’re going to get caught. There’s no avoiding it. We have conversations each week, he notes my mistakes or words I don’t know, and I have to learn them and then use them in conversation the following week. Each week we discuss a different topic, sometimes related to Italian history or culture, sometimes we discuss something interesting he’s found in the news, sometimes we simply discuss what we’ve done that week.

I notice that my Italian disintegrates when I’m stressed or nervous, and I really struggle to think in both languages at the same time. I’d be a terrible translator ~ if I’m thinking and talking in Italian, my English just falls apart. I also know that I have to work on it every single day; whether its reading, listening or watching something, or sitting down and doing some grammar exercises or learning vocabulary ~ I find if I don’t, the words just evaporate. I watch YouTube videos, watch Rai TV online, read the news, I listen to italian radio programs… sometimes actively, but sometimes I just listen while I cook or while I’m driving. If I’m tired or just don’t have much time, I don’t really listen, I just let it wash over me while I do something else.

I still wouldn’t say I’m fluent, but I feel I can hold a conversation fairly well. The last time I was in Rome I was able to go into an ottica (opticians) and buy new pair of prescription sunglasses and specify the tint and so on and have another pair for my husband delivered to us here in Sydney without a single word of English. Every time I put those sunglasses on I feel they mark a certain level of language proficiency for me… Better than any certificate of achievement.


Me passing my first Italian language proficiency level. (btw I didn’t buy those ones!)

I’ve almost finished reading my first book in Italian; Il Tempo Che Vorrei by Fabio Volo. I’m loving it. It’s very philosophical, and yet contemporary at the same time. As I read, I underline the words I don’t know, and then I write a translation in the margin. At the start of the book there were so many words I didn’t know I couldn’t fit them all in, but now I’m underlining about 5 words or less per page. It contains vocabulary that a student would never learn in any class, no matter how many classes you took!

I haven't yet quite passed level 2 proficiency...

I haven’t yet quite passed level 2 proficiency, but I’m almost there…

Reading my first book in Italian marks another level of proficiency for me too. I’ve spoken with many friends who are bilingual and not one of them had forgotten the name of the first book they had read in their second language. It seems to be an unspoken goal when learning another language.

Leggere mio libro primo nellla lingua italiana è anche un segno di un altro livello di conoscenza per me. Ho parlato con alcuni amici che sono bilingue e nessuno ha dimenticato il nome dello primo libro che è stato letto nella lingua seconda. Sembra essere un obiettivo tacito quando si impara un altra lingue. (I welcome corrections!) 

I wonder if other people feel the same way? What are the landmarks for achieving fluency?

What’s the next goal? I’m not sure ~ but I hope I’ll know it when it approaches.  😉