University lecturer, director of Italian Services
Learning Italian might be challenging, but it is something manageable. Speaking Italian, especially for adults, may be daunting but NOT impossible. Here you will find 7 golden rules to overcome your Italian speaking block.
The speaking block is something that everybody has experienced in life: How many times did you have a speaking block even in your native language? Dozens, hundreds, thousands of times? There is no fixed answer, everybody is different. Personality, age, gender, background are key factors to consider when working on the speaking block.
It is very curious that when it comes down to speaking, the students who generally excel in my groups are not always the ones who stand out when we have some speaking lessons or workshops. Some of them manage to get by with fewer words, gestures, and innate empathy. Of course, their Italian doesn’t skyrocket all of a sudden, but it is something noticeable especially when they are compared to those who generally do much better in other areas of learning (such as listening, reading, writing).
While there’s life, there’s hope: stay focused, identify your problem areas and work on the fixes I suggest here below.
Golden Rule 1. Know thyself.
Personality, age, gender, background are key factors to consider when working on the speaking block. What are you actually afraid of? Nobody expects you speak perfect Italian, but if you hide you won’t get anywhere. As I always say to my students “Learning Italian in class is like visiting a zoo, going to Italy and dealing with Italians is like throwing yourself in the middle of the jungle”. Suggestion: work on a weekly story to tell your teacher and your Italian partner/friends. Learn new words and sentences weekly, things you might be using with Italians in certain contexts (for instance, restaurant, hotel, transports, and so on).
Golden Rule 2. Don’t be self-centred.
The students who struggle with conversation during lessons are those who are much more interested in talking rather than listening. Not to mention the fact that they rely too much on their digital devices and on speaking English with other students to formulate basic sentences, which they should know very well at that point of their learning. By doing so, they miss the opportunity to interact in Italian. Even saying in Italian things like “puoi ripetere, per favore?”, “non ho capito, scusami”, “come si dice football?” helps to keep the conversation going. Suggestion: Use your teacher and friends to fill the gaps in Italian. It is more fun and more fruitful.
Golden Rule 3. Switch off your inner voice.
The little voice that speaks to you while you are trying to listen to your buddy or that dialogue which is preventing you to fully enjoy your Italian experience. That little voice is telling you that you are not good enough. Trust me: it is not true and some of what your class-mates say can be often be re-used and give you the clue or even the words to be able to respond (i.e. Di dove sei? à Di Napoli; Da dove viene? à Viene da Roma). Suggestion: kill your inner voice, there are already too many people in the room.
Golden Rule 4. Lead the conversation.
My students often forget that I am a professional getting paid to work with them on their Italian. They come to say and say “Italians speak much faster than you normally do, their accent is less understandable” or similar – well along those lines. Somehow it is true: my profession has definitely influenced the way that I speak, which is much clearer than how a lot of Italians speak. Unfortunately, I am the exception, not the rule. Suggestion: Lead the conversation; Find topics that you feel comfortable talking about; Control the speed; Ask Italians to slow down, to repeat. Avoid crowded, noisy places with busy people; Opt for 1-on-1 conversations; Keep eye contact; Don’t get distracted into speaking English with your buddies (it’s not polite and your Italian interlocutors may lose interest in talking with you); Don’t apologise for your Italian; Don’t seek perfection. Does it always work? No, not always. But my question is: Would you be interested in speaking with someone who doesn’t make any effort to be understood?
Golden Rule 5. Practise your smile.
Some foreigners ooze tension, which can often be mistaken for lack of manners, while, in reality, it is pure fear, especially when it is about something important like getting on the right train or looking for a hospital. Suggestion: Italy is the country of smiling, smile and conquer.
Golden Rule 6. Homework.
You can’t understand a word that you’ve never heard. When people come to me and say: “my listening is very good, but my reading is terrible”, I take a deep breath and prove them wrong as tactfully as I can. The four areas of comprehension grow at the same speed: if you have never used the word ‘cane’ (dog) and you don’t have a clue what it means, I’ll bet you my house that you won’t catch it in conversation. Suggestion: ask your tutor for advice on how to complement the homework with some extra-activities such as watching films, listening to songs, reading and translation. Too much? Maybe! But it shortens the pain of boredom, saves you money and time, and the success is guaranteed!
Golden rule 7. Travel to Italy as much as you can.
Some of my students enjoy learning Italian so much that they book holidays in France, Spain, Greece, and only God knows where else. Why? I wish I knew. Suggestion: If it is fine with you learning Italian and going elsewhere whenever you can, do it. However, going to Italy is the most exciting part of learning Italian: embrace Italy’s history, culture, way of life.
This is my takeaway for today: Learn, love, eat, relax. This should be your new mantra.
My students and I are working on improving our speaking and listening skills during our Overcome the Speaking Block focused on Music, Chats and Slang (here). During my career, I found that one of the greatest misconceptions Italian learners have is that conversation lessons are moments of absolute freedom and carelessness. If you attended one of those, you wasted your money. Maybe it was fun, but you haven’t learnt what you had to. Activities, games, quizzes, slides, and grammar and topic inputs are only a few of the things that a good tutor should include in speaking classes.
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