Before entering Italy, I’d never taken an Italian class. I picked up a few useful words and phrases from the internet so that I wouldn’t be 100% helpless, but it only brought me down to maybe 98% helpless. Now, only three months later, Italians ask me how many years I’ve been speaking their language. How did I become conversational in three months? I have some tips to help you out—outside the classroom.
* TL = target language.
1. Learn your favorite TL songs.
I can’t count how many times I’ve been in conversation and paused to run through some song lyrics and find the vocabulary I couldn’t remember. I never thought “Lividi sui gomiti” (“bruises on elbows”) would come in handy until I got a livido on my eye from someone’s gomito in the metro and had to explain to my professors what gave me the black eye. Learning language through music is an entertaining way to repeat vocabulary until it sticks—here’s the strategy I used to most effectively learn vocabulary from my favorite music.
- Choose a song you won’t get sick of. Start on the slower side until you’re more comfortable listening to and speaking your TL.
- BEFORE looking up a translation, try translating it yourself. Don’t get discouraged if you can hardly understand a word—just trying and taking guesses will familiarize you with the sentences.
- Now look up the official translation and correct your mistakes.
- Next, make flashcards (I use quizlet) of the most vital vocabulary words in your song. Study the flashcards outside of the song’s context.
- Listen carefully for the vocabulary you learned. If you listen regularly, eventually they’ll stick, and the filler words between will become second nature!
2. Use Bumble BFF.
It can be hard to find native speakers to practice your TL with while studying abroad. Fortunately, at least in Europe, locals regularly use Bumble BFF to meet new people. This feature on Bumble allows you to meet others in the area who are looking to make new friendships—if you indicate in your profile that you’re looking for a language exchange, you’re sure to find people eager to help you learn your TL and who are looking to practice their English with you. Making friends with locals is one of the best ways to learn everyday vocabulary like slang, cultural references in language, and commonly-used phrases you won’t find in a textbook or on Duolingo. Plus, you’ll make meaningful connections!
3. Let yourself take up others’ time.
I used to really struggle here. In the pauses where I had to let my brain catch up with my mouth, or think of a way to explain around a word I don’t know yet, I often switched into English just to fill the empty space as quickly as possible. The core subconscious fear was that I was wasting their time—a very real fear when speaking a second language. But learning vocabulary and conversing are two very different skills, and in order to learn to converse in your TL, you first have to learn to push through these moments that you see as awkward. In reality, whatever time you have to take to think is almost always insignificant in conversation, and goes completely overlooked. It’s a hard lesson to learn, but I promise you taking your time and allowing yourself to take up a bit of someone else’s is worth the struggle.
4. Read a book in your TL.
Whether you’re waiting for a class to start, waiting on a friend, or waiting for your cafe order, you’ll look infinitely more mysterious if you take out a book to read than if you scroll through your phone. But if that book is in Italian, not only do you get to look well-read and cool—you’ll learn vocabulary and perfect your sentence structure along the way. Make sure you have Google Translate on hand, because you’ll be learning lots of new words. This will be most effective if you read a book you’ve already read in English, because you’ll already know what to expect and won’t become confused with the plot. One day, you’ll be rewarded with the realization that you no longer have to translate each sentence, but can read entire paragraphs just by inferring the meanings of the words you don’t know.
5. Surround yourself with people who don’t speak English.
If you’re able to choose your accommodation location, choose somewhere outside of a city center where people are more likely to speak English. Many of my American friends live toward central Milan where most people speak English, and although it makes day-to-day errands more convenient, it removes the need to communicate through a language barrier. For example, when I struggle to say something in Italian, most Italians who speak English—with only kind intentions—switch the conversation into English to facilitate my speech. But in the area of Milan I live, where most don’t speak English, that’s not an option. If I struggle saying something in Italian, my only option is to find another way to explain it. Although it’s uncomfortable at first, it eventually taught me to become comfortable even in those situations—as I realized that nobody ever became frustrated with me when this happened, I became more confident getting my points across in Italian, even though my language abilities are often butchered.
Pair these tips together with a class in your target language, and you’ll be conversational in no time. Stick with it and be confident in yourself—speakers of your TL will be impressed with your attempts, however imperfect!
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I'm Abigail, a junior studying English and music at Macalester College, and I'll be in Milan, Italy for the spring semester. This is my first time leaving the country, and I want to share my experience as a low-income never-traveled-like-this-before student with you. My interests include writing stories, making art, writing music, learning languages, and exploring the outdoors.