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Learning Italian in lockdown: How to boost your language skills during Covid-19

Learning Italian in lockdown: How to boost your language skills during Covid-19
Learning Italian may be especially hard during Covid.19. But there there are still immersive ways to practice. Photo: AFP
Is language learning through immersion still possible during a pandemic? Despite social distancing and reduced opportunities to practise ‘la bella lingua’, there are still ways to take your Italian to the next level.
As a foreign language learner and teacher, I’m used to the process of acquiring a second language. I know the rigour and discipline you need to parse a new tongue.
 
Words and language intrigue and delight me. I find rapture in their etymology and marvel at a person’s ability to flourish in a foreign language, no matter how long that takes.
 
As part of my degree, I lived in Germany for a year. By that point, it was the third year of the course and I was already at an advanced level in German. My grounding was much more solid than when I moved to Italy, just six months before the pandemic hit.
 
Due to studying another language previously and the well-known benefits of language immersion, I often heard, “Oh, you’ll be fluent and chatting to the locals in no time! You have an aptitude.”
 
That was setting me up for a fall.
 
I hadn’t studied Italian, save for playing on language-learning apps here and there. My fiancé and I spoke exclusively in English, as he was already fluent. Even now, we default to English as his language level is so high and it’s simply become our norm.
 
So, I arrived in Italy with a few basic sentences under my belt. Certainly not enough to make friends and chat easily for hours over dinner.
 
I was full of high expectations and good intentions, though, and wanted to learn as much and as fast I could.
 
Unfortunately, it’s not a case of simply living in Italy and absorbing the language through an osmosis-like process. Magari! As Italians would say.
 
 
Even everyday tasks can be daunting when you first become immersed in a new culture and language. Photo by Gabriella Clare Marino/Unsplash
 
Surrounded by my partner’s friends and family merrily chatting away at native-speed (in Italian, that’s lightning speed), I desperately tried to catch any word to get the gist of what was happening.

It can make for a lonely and anxious experience. It can even put you off wanting to learn the language, as it feels like you’ve been thrown into an exam without ever having gone to a single lesson.

So, I smiled. A lot. If they thought I was an idiot, at least I’d come across as a gracious one.

Initially, I felt like I’d lost my personality. I couldn't join in the rapid-fire jokes and witty banter, like I would in my native tongue. I didn’t enjoy feeling like a lesser member of society, unable to contribute.

In fact, they really didn’t view me like that and I’ve found Italians to be very kind in their response to your attempts to converse. So much so, that when you utter anything, they exclaim ‘Brava!’ and continue talking to you like you already understand every word.

Creating your own immersive experience

When the country went into national lockdown in March last year, my language learning seemed to hit a roadblock, just as I was starting to get going.

Looking at it from another angle, though, it was also a chance to reset.

In fact, lockdown saw a spike in foreign language learning. People wanted to explore other cultures and imagine future travel and work opportunities.

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I could now take some time to learn Italian at my own pace. Neurologists have found that stress impairs memory and learning, so learning calmly could perhaps help me retain more of what I read and heard.

I was no longer rushing around, commuting to my job as a teacher in an international school and dashing to students. There were no more aperitivi or dinners to try and ‘revise’ for.

Turning lockdown on its head, there’s now a chance to study that tricksy subjunctive tense or to get a handle on verb conjugation.

It’s even an opportunity to watch more films in Italian. Initially, I had no energy left and wanted to let my brain unwind with English content, be that podcasts, books or movies.

But you can create an immersive language learning experience on your terms.

No single method or source is the holy grail to fluency. Learning a foreign language is like working a muscle and it needs to be built up through exercise over time.

In daily life at home, we’ve got ‘Alexa’ set to Italian, so now I’m using the imperative (or command) form like a champ. Okay, it’s not discussing third world politics, but it does add up to normalising using Italian in everyday life.

My partner has, I believe purposefully, made this a challenge though. I have no problems with saying, ‘Alexa: accendi sala,’ to instruct her to switch on the living room light. When he set the sound system to ‘amplificatore’, however, I think he was testing me.

Now I’m walking around the house muttering six-syllable nouns so I’m prepared for switching on the TV.

I’m also getting better at perfecting my Italian accent when speaking English. This is more important than I could know. Italians use lots of English words, but they do so with an Italian accent.

If you say it in your native accent, they might not have a clue what you mean.

READ ALSO: Ten English words that make you sound cool in Italian

For example, ‘lo smartworking’ has become a buzzword during lockdown. It may be an anglicism, but to be understood, you have to give it an Italian twist. It’s not ‘sm-aht-wur-king’, it’s ‘smarr-t-werr-kee-ng’.

Thanks to Italian Alexa, I’m getting tons of practice at this. “Alexa: riproduci De Killerrrs”, means “Alexa: play The Killers”.

Facile.

Communication during lockdown

Even though lockdown has taken away most real-life interaction, paying for your supermarket shop aside, I have found some authentic ways to communicate in Italian.

As my Pilates classes moved to an online platform, I continued my workouts from home in Italian.

I’ll admit, I sometimes struggle with understanding all the names for parts of the body when I’m not there in person to copy the instructor or others. 

Still, it means that I’ve learned more terminology in the target language such as ‘la scapola’ (shoulder blade) while getting a workout at the same time. Now that is smart working.

QUIZ: Are you fooled by these Italian 'false friends'?

A real boost to my Italian conversational skills has come from adopting a dog.

When we came through the first wave in May last year, the first thing we did with our relative freedom was to visit a dog shelter.

We heard about a poor pooch who had been there for three years of his young life and, full of empathy, we decided we’d get him out of doggy jail.

Since making him a part of our family, I’ve been walking a lot. He’s a big breed, a Belgian Shepherd mix, and so needs hours of exercise a day.

With that comes endless opportunities for conversation with the locals. “What breed is he?”, “How old is he?”, “Is he good?”, “Where did you get him?” and so the stories unfold. Before you know it, you’re striking up conversations with strangers on the street, such is the power of owning a dog.

Owning a dog in Italy means you'll have endless opportunities for conversation practice. Photo: AFP

We also had to hire a dog trainer (educatore/educatrice), because he needed lots of work on the lead and with other male dogs.

For that to work, I had to follow her instructions and understand her explanations. This kind of immersion has taught me all kinds of vocab such as ‘il guinzaglio’ (lead), ‘addestramento’ (training) and ‘irruente’ (impetuous). Now you know his personality.

If getting a dog isn’t an option for you, you could offer to walk an elderly neighbour’s dog. That means extra conversation practice thrown in and tighter bonds forged with your community.

Keep up your language ‘input’ with movies and apps

In your downtime, watching movies and TV series is a great way to learn Italian in context. It’s never been easier, thanks to Netflix, Amazon Prime and Disney Plus, just to name a few.

Depending on your level of Italian, you can watch with Italian audio and English subtitles or even better, with Italian subtitles.

It might mean that you press pause a few times if there’s a term that really impedes your overall understanding, but it’s a succinct way to match sounds and words and to follow the flow of dialogue.

READ ALSO: The top ten Italian words that just don't translate into English

I now have a mini Italian dictionary next to the sofa for this. I use phone translators too, but I find dictionaries really useful for extra information, such as gender, plurals and examples in context.

There is also a raft of language-learning apps available to help keep your skills up while distanced from others.

The popular Duolingo app will always have a place on my phone, as it’s a good resource for building up your word-bank and for basic checks of grammar. The free version is solid for short, daily practice. There’s a premium account if you want to learn with no limits to the mistakes you can make.

To hear the language in context, though, I listen to the podcasts of Italian Pod 101. The conversations are in Italian with English translations and explanations. There’s a grammar point to each lesson and I found it valuable when on-the-go or, lately, while I’m cleaning the apartment.

The Beelingua app is also worth a try, as it provides stories and the news in Italian with an English translation beneath. You can listen to the Italian while you read it and pause it at any point. There are also quizzes afterwards to check your comprehension.

If you want to increase your active skills, such as speaking and writing, you could look into finding an Italian tutor online. The market is huge for this, but Preply and italki are good places to start.

Be kind and take breaks

It takes dedication and a whole load of acceptance that learning Italian is an evolving process. It also takes a lot of breaks and self-care. If it becomes a chore, you may want to throw in the towel and retreat to an English bubble.

If, on the other hand, you can keep the language learning fun and fresh, you’re more likely to want to keep doing it. 

No matter where you are in your language-learning journey, there is always something new to grasp. A new aspect of grammar, new vocabulary or a new idiom.

One day, human interaction and immersion as we knew it will return. Until then, we can embrace learning at our own pace. Tranquillo, andrà tutto bene.

Are you working on your language skills? See more in The Local's Italian language section.


Member comments

  1. My wife and I are highly considering retirement in Italy. I’ve made more than a dozen trips to various regions over the years for stays of between 2-6 weeks. I finally decided to knuckle down and try to learn the language. I’ve tried several apps – like Duolingo and even started an in person class well before the pandemic. None helped. I was hopelessly lost pretty quickly. I recently started using Pimsleur Premium and its going much better. There are 150 lessons in total. I’m on #8. The app says you should be able to do each session in 1 day for 30 minutes. I find myself having to do each lesson in 15 minute increments and then a full review one more time – so about 2 lessons a week. But so far, so good. I find the vocab really sticking in my head now and my hesitation for coming up with the appropriate words is better than I would have expected. I still need to train my ear more and learn to speak at a normal pace, but I think those will come in time. My goal is to keep this up for the 5.5 years we have remaining until I can retire – with hopefully some trips in between when we are past COVID.

  2. I recommend https://academy.italymadeeasy.com/
    I’ve been a student for a couple of years after trying to learn Italian for many years previously. It’s the best course I’ve come across and if you can’t afford to pay for a full course, they also produce a lot of free content.

  3. I’m really happy with Italki. If you go to their site there are dozens of short videos of the teachers introducing themselves. Choose one that seems nice, and do a trial short conversation. I was super nervous at first because conversation is my greatest weakness and my vocabulary has big gaps. But I’m finding my weekly Skype chats with my teacher super helpful, inspiring and confidence building. I love her gentle corrections and her helpfulness in finding the words I need. She types the words she’s introduced in the chat box in Skype so I can review them later. I’m glad I didn’t wait. Another useful online resource is reverso.net. It’s like an online dictionary, but it is based on artificial intelligence, and you can search for phrases, not just words. So for example, if you type in “se è il caso” you’ll see lots of examples of how that phrase has been translated in various contexts. Sometimes the artificial intelligence system gets it wrong and the translations it chooses are off, but I find the benefits of seeing a myriad of examples of usage outweigh this.

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