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Why am I struggling to learn Italian?

Il Maestro

Il Maestro

University lecturer, director of Italian Services

Ciao everyone. Whether you are here because you are struggling to learn Italian or you quit at some point in the past, I, the undersigned Il Maestro, have some good tips for you.

Learning Italian is not easy, but a film on Netflix; the last Champions’ league match; an unrestrained, and yet sudden passion for any kind of sport or beer competition are not good excuses to quit. I am here to save you from perdition.

Before we start: who said you’re not making any progress? Let’s assume that the tutor you chose has all the qualities we talked about here; you didn’t waste time and money on depersonalised classes of 30; you didn’t miss many classes; bla bla bla… From my experience, the majority of the students underestimate themselves, so I often make sure to leave some time at the end of the lesson to motivate them. At the end of this confidence boost, I tell them these exact words: “Do you remember when you first met me and I asked you to write down all the Italian words you knew in 5 minutes and most of them were food-related? Look at you now! Look how far you have come!”. Suggestion: Instead of choosing a detrimental self-pity attitude, why don’t you look at this experience from the right perspective? Enjoy the classes, make friends, book holidays to Italy, explore, have fun. Most of my students, with the exception of the youngsters, have not been forced to learn Italian: why on Earth do you need to make it stressful for you and for the others in your class?  

Got it? Good. Let’s assume now that you are amongst those who have not been progressing as much as they could. What have you been doing wrong?

1. Poor course attendance. Missing lessons is never a good thing. Missing 1-to-1s for a week or more is not recommendable: it’s not like not eating a cake for some time, the next lesson you will have will be anything but sweet. Missing lessons from your first beginners’ course is even worse: it removes the foundations on which you will build and you will fall behind. Some people don’t really mind and they keep attending courses: If you try to build on weak foundations, your learning will collapse or will have some serious gaps which need to be filled! Suggestion: If you miss some of the foundation, if you think you are good but there is something that doesn’t add up, then the wisest choice is to ask your tutor for some 1-to-1s to complement your group classes.

2. Join lessons already exhausted. I hate to see my students joining the class already exhausted. Ok, work is work and there is nothing we can do about it, but when they sit down for the lesson still sweating because they’ve just finished a 20-mile bike-ride, some high-intensity interval training, or a 10-mile run right before the class, the only thing I can think is “Damn!”. I used to do lots of sport myself and I know the feeling: You’re not quite there; your metabolism is too high; your body is working on recovering, and if you don’t eat during the lesson (which I find distracting for the whole group!), your sugar level is so low that you cannot focus properly. Suggestion: I understand that we need to challenge ourselves, but Please! Give up heavy physical activities right before the lesson. Go for a walk, take some fresh air, check on your loved ones, whatever.

3. Wrong coursebooks and materials. People tend to buy books online without any clue of their usefulness and as if this were not enough, improvised tutors give the final blow by contributing to this trend.  Some books are good, but they are used way too early or too late. Some others are not so good on their own but are great as complementary additions. Suggestion: Let it fall on deaf ears when you hear your fellow students suggest books. Save time and money, protect your investment: ask the teacher. Everybody is different, we all need different things and not all at the same time. You would not buy the fridge that Dodgy Mario recommended without seeing whether it actually fits in your kitchen, would you? Then why do you want to buy books that may not fit in your brain?

4. Random self-studying. Wasting time and money on apps, improbable and improvised conversation language exchange with hands-on Dodgy Marios and native speakers who think they know it all, but who in fact know very little; watching random movies with subtitles; staring at flashcards on the train… all in a scattered order. Damn! Learning Italian, like any other thing needs commitment, method, perseverance and a good guide. If you found the latter, why not listen to your tutor? Random learning only brings useless broken Italian which won’t be of much help when you are in Italy. Suggestion: if your tutor is good, they are already working on a plan for you. You don’t want to follow it? You think you are good enough to do it on your own? I disagree! What you do on your own should complement and not replace what your tutor assigns you (especially if you are a beginner), however if you are so stubborn, don’t forget to organise a weekly schedule with precise Italian time slots and stick with the plan. Let your brain know when it has to be ready to work for you.

5. Homework: The Mother of our success and our failure. Let me be honest with you: I try to make most of my lessons are fun and engaging, but I also ask my students to sweat and bleed. However, my powers are limited: a structured, logical, tailored plan of weekly homework should be followed religiously. Some of my students are so smart and clever that they could be reasonably fluent by now: Unfortunately, they are not so keen on doing homework. The result is: they are good, but not as much as I (and they) would like. Suggestion: If you are building an IKEA bed, follow the instruction manual. Likewise, follow teacher’s instructions and do the homework. In both cases, falling in the middle of something hurts really badly.

This is my takeaway for this article: Have you ever heard the word sprezzatura? Baldassarre Castiglione, a Renaissance Italian author, diplomat and courtier, defined it in his The Book of the Courtier as “a certain nonchalance, so as to conceal all art and make whatever one does or says appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it”. This is what you like in Italian people: the impression they make. And this is most likely one of the reasons why you decided to study Italian unless you have another compelling reason (such as work, study, family, and so on). Bad news is that their style is innate, good news is you can learn it. And the key to a world of beautiful things is language: language shapes the way we are; the way we produce Art; the way we think and act; the way we gesticulate; the way we speak. I will never be tired to emphasise that standard courses are good, but they’re not enough. This is why I organise workshops on Italian music, cinema, cuisine, slang and grammar, of course. No pain, no gain. No pain, no fun.

Suggestion: If you don’t commit to it under the supervision of a qualified tutor, you are just prolonging the agony of guaranteed failure and never-ending boredom.

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