Learning a language has always seemed a daunting challenge to most of us. For most not native English speakers, like me, most of our childhood years included language classes in at least 1 language. Needless to say, it’s not an experience most people crave for.
The truth is, most people don’t even consider learning a new language as adults. It’s a common belief, after all, that children are much better at language learning, and therefore even trying is futile. What’s more, most people also believe that there is a language gene, which you are either born with or not!
Both of the above beliefs are wrong. It’s proven that adults are as good, if not better, learners as children, as well as that, with the right process, anyone can learn anything. But, still, isn’t there a more efficient way than spending years in a classroom?
Learning Challenge: Italian in 3 months
In my recent articles, I’ve mentioned the major challenge I’ve undertaken for the second quarter of 2018. Starting from knowing absolutely nothing, I aim to reach conversational fluency in Italian in 3 months. Indeed, I plan to reduce years of language learning to such a short amount of time.
This challenge has already started since April 1st, and I had allocated the first 10 days to consuming various resources and building a process that will allow me to achieve this goal. In this article, I describe the process and the material I’ve chosen, as well as the reasoning behind my decisions.
Use this article to gain insights on how to structure your learning, so that you can achieve goals that seem impossible. Of course, you can use this as a guide to learn Italian too!
Minimum Effective Dose
1200 words is all you need
Tim Ferriss, whom I’ve mentioned multiple times in my articles, has based his life’s work on a concept called “Minimum Effective Dose”. This concept is based on the 80/20 rule, which states that 80% of the results derive from just 20% of the inputs. In his metalearning book disguised as a cookbook, “The 4-Hour Chef”, Tim Ferriss states that approximately 1200 words are enough to be conversational in any language. That much amount of vocabulary is what I aim to attain in these 3 months of learning.
The importance of auxiliary verbs
Beyond that, Tim also offers a couple of tricks and techniques to accelerate language learning, which I’ve decided to use. To begin with, in the first 10 days, I’ve already worked on learning various auxiliary verbs, like must, can, want, which in most languages are followed by the infinitive form of a verb.
That way, in the beginning, I only have to learn verbs in the infinitive form to use them and learn the conjugation for only a few. Even though I’ll learn the full conjugation, later on, this technique helps me start speaking Italian faster, therefore immersing myself as soon as possible.
13 sentences to understand the language
In his book, Tim also suggests starting to learn any language by figuring out the translation of 13 specific sentences. Once you have these, you can grasp the structure of the language and get a first understanding of its grammar. I tried it, and it worked wonders. It made it easy for me to identify similarities to English and Greek, as well as any differences. You can find the sentences below, with the Italian translations:
- The apple is red. – La mela è rossa.
- It is John’s apple. – È la mela di John.
- I give John the apple. – Do la mela a John.
- We give him the apple. – Gli diamo la mela.
- He gives it to John. – La dà a John.
- She gives it to him. – La dà a lui.
- Is the apple red? – La mela è rossa?
- The apples are red. – Le mele sono rosse.
- I must give it to him. – Devo darla a lui.
- I want to give it to her. – Voglio darla a lei.
- I’m going to know tomorrow. – Lo saprò domani.
- I can’t eat the apple. – Non posso mangiare la mela.
- I have eaten the apple. – Ho mangiato la mela.
The sentences are the ones Tim Ferriss suggests, and I found the translations here.
Absorbing the language
Top 100 verbs
My primary tool for learning vocabulary in this challenge is Anki. I’ve written about Anki and spaced repetition before, and why it is the best tool to learn and memorize bite-sized information, like vocabulary. In the first 10 days of this challenge, I’ve already used Anki to learn the 100 most common Italian verbs with 100% retention. This has already helped me understand and form sentences much faster. Below you can find the list of the top 100 Italian verbs:
Benny Lewis, the creator of Fluent in 3 Months, and one of the most amazing polyglots, often talks about the power of cognates when starting to learn a new language. Cognates are words that are almost the same between two languages, like problema-problem or temperatura-temperature. Learning these cognates allows for a quick start in learning the new language, as it provides a vocabulary set to start from. I’ve compiled an Anki deck of cognates using the information from this post.
625 Word Lists by Fluent Forever
Through my research, I discovered an amazing resource from Fluent Forever, in the form of well-structured word lists. Gabriel Wyner, the founder of Fluent Forever, has compiled 625 words by theme, and provides them with illustrations to improve retention. You can get the English one for free on his website here, or you can buy the translated ones for $10 along with the illustrations.
I also discovered the individual words translated into multiple languages for free (just without the illustrations), and I used this to create an Anki deck. You can find the words here, and note that this list has been enriched with approximately an extra 100 words.
Finally, I also discovered a site with multiple free resources on languages, by Neri Rook. The thing that caught my eye was a 5000 sentences list with translations, sorted from easy to hard. There is also an Anki deck already available, which makes it very easy for me to use and review.
Adding up all these, I’m learning about 850 words or more already, which will form the basis of my language learning. I’m coupling that with the usage of sentences to understand the context and improve my ability to create my own.
Duolingo is a free language learning app that has been featured as the top education app for years. It also is my bread and butter when it comes to language learning. When the goal is to become conversationally fluent, the focus in language learning should be vocabulary. Therefore, Duolingo is a perfect addition to the Anki system above, as it provides a gamified experience in teaching both vocabulary and grammar.
As it also offers, on the web version, tips on the language’s grammar, Duolingo is also my primary resource for learning grammar in Italian. I compile all the tips in a Word Document and review it as I would a grammar book. The difference is that it’s smaller and way more compressed, making it much less tedious to study.
I also found this 8-page compressed cheatsheet on Italian verb conjugation in Duolingo’s forums. There are amazing resources hidden there, waiting to be discovered.
There is also a new update in Duolingo (the crown system), which has increased both the number of exercises and the maximum difficulty possible. Thanks to this update, Duolingo will accompany my learning for the whole 3 months, as the primary way to interact with the language.
Interaction with the language
Every language learning expert will agree that interacting with your target language is a major element in learning. It is also important that the material you consume is interesting to you. If you don’t care about politics, then don’t read about politics!
Following that advice, I plan, in the near future, to purchase a couple comic books in Italian, which will provide a fun, yet effective, way for me to interact with the language. Another plan is to watch Disney movies, which I love and know by heart, in Italian with Italian subtitles, along with Julia, my girlfriend, who is learning Italian too.
Finally, I’m also considering, for later on in the quarter, to watch some Italian YouTube videos, as well as maybe a couple Italian movies. The goal is to maintain a steady percentage of interaction with the language throughout the quarter.
Immersion is, by far, the best way to learn a language. But, it is not so straightforward if you don’t plan to travel to Italy, in my example. The truth is, though, that there are ways to practice immersion from home.
Personally, I plan to use a free app, namely Tandem, to connect with other language learners, and get the chance to practice directly my Italian. I also plan to use iTalki to make a video call in Italian once every 2 weeks, starting in the second half of April. These calls will cost less than 10$ per hour, and will be with Italian teachers. It is through that, that I plan to evaluate my progress at the end of the quarter.
Of course, as I mentioned before, having Julia learning Italian with me is very important. It provides an opportunity for daily practice, as well as sharing insights, resources, and knowledge. She also follows approximately the same process as I do, in order both of us to be at the same level throughout the challenge. Our plan is, when May comes, to start speaking as little Greek as possible when we are together, and to speak mostly Italian.
An important part of maintaining such a challenge is stakes. While I’ve considered many ideas to keep myself accountable, I decided that the best thing is sharing this challenge with all of you. I can’t really back down now, can I?
Using the resources above, I plan to become conversationally fluent in Italian in 3 months. It is entirely possible to do it all for free, which illustrates how much you can do without having a budget. Personally, I’ve allocated 100$ for this challenge in the next 3 months, to use for resources that will make the whole process a little more convenient. At the bottom of this article, I’ve also linked to many of the resources I consumed to set up this process.
Call to Action
You know what would be awesome? If you tried the challenge alongside me. In case you want to try, I’d love to learn with you. Even if you don’t, though, I’d love to learn about any questions you have about this process, or any suggestions you may have. Post on the Facebook group, or contact me directly!
Resources I consumed to build this process
- The “Meta-Learning” section from The 4-Hour Chef by Tim Ferriss
- This amazing post by Benny Lewis
- How to Learn Any Language in 3 Months by Tim Ferriss
- How to Learn (But Not Master) Any Language in 1 Hour by Tim Ferriss
- Another amazing post, this time by Gabriel Wyner
- Various articles from the Fluent in 3 months blog, by Benny Lewis