Starting a New Language

Although I have studied several languages and speak a couple reasonably well, it has been about 7 years since I’ve started a new language from scratch. The last time was when I started playing around with Chinese before a six month teaching gig in Shaoxing , a small city of 4 million people 4 hours south of Shang Hai. Since my return to the States I’ve mostly been trying to improve on the languages I already know; French, Spanish and German. I’ve been using various study methods at home and then doing an in-country immersion program, generally of a month, followed by an in-country travel adventure with my husband. But as I mentioned in my “About” section, studying language for language’s sake and trying to perfect language skills when I’m not living in the country is really getting old. So, a new language and a new focus.

You would think that since Italian is also a Romance language, it would be a big advantage having already extensively studied French and Spanish, and it is. There are many things that are similar; vocabulary is the obvious thing, but also many grammar structures. In fact, although Italian sounds more like Spanish and the verb endings look more like Spanish, the grammar structures seem more like French. For example both French and Spanish use mostly present perfect (have eaten, have went) for spoken past tense and in addition, unlike Spanish, use two different auxiliary verbs, “to be” and “to have”, depending on the main verb, to form the conjugation. Thus “I went” and “I ate” in Italian and French would be more like “I am gone” and “I have eaten”. Spanish, on the other hand, uses the simple past,” I ate” and the present perfect “I have eaten”, much like it is used in English, of course there are regional differences and preferences for the two tenses.

But this wasn’t supposed to be a grammar lesson. The point I really wanted to make is that starting a new language from scratch really is starting from scratch. I may have many tools, study methods and preferences but I still have to be introduced to every word and grammar structure. I may recognize abitare as “to live” because I know habiter in French, and comprare as “to buy” because I know comprar in Spanish, but “to live” in Spanish is vivir and “to buy” in French is acheter.  So how do you know which language an Italian word will be similar to? Or maybe it will be completely different. For example “to close” is chiudere in Italian, cerrar in Spanish and fermer in French. Which becomes even more complicated when fermare in Italian is “to stop”, and while tener in Spanish is “to have”, tenere in Italian, conjugated very similarly to the Spanish, is “to keep”. So yes, knowing other languages definitely helps in recognizing vocabulary and understanding grammar structures, but still, everything must be learned from scratch and so I start at the beginning.

But how does one start? Tools and Methods

Because I wanted to focus on oral communication, specifically survival skills and even more importantly food related survival skills, I started with the FSI Italian Headstart program which can be downloaded for free. Since the FSI programs were originally produced by the Federal Government for Foreign Service diplomats, they fall under public domain laws and are not copyright protected.  Many of the programs are quite dated, teaching useful phrases such as “How was the crossing” referring to the Atlantic Ocean and “I’d like to place a person to person call.” But if you can get past all the ranks and titles for foreign diplomats and military personnel, there is good instruction. Italian Headstart, for instance, has a fairly extensive food sections for both ordering in restaurants and in the markets. Vorrei mezzo chilo delle cozze.

After using this program for a month or so, I realized that I really needed to learn more specific grammar structures.  The Headstart program is quite good at giving you useful phrases to practice but skimps on the related grammar structures. I became a huge fan of communicative language teaching, more specifically functional speak acts, while getting my Masters in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages – I specialize in adult education). The ideas is you learn the vocabulary and necessary grammar structures that will enable you to complete a communicative act such as ordering a meal in a restaurant, instead of the more traditional method of starting with articles and working your ways through the various tenses without any practical communicative objective.

 The problem I found using  Headstart was I had a hard time remembering the phrases without being able to fall back on a clear grammar rule. For instance, which direct object form do I use, me or mi?  I therefore decided to go back to basics and get a couple of grammar books. The danger is I like grammar and can get lost in doing grammar exercises and forget that I’m supposed to be learning to communicate. Definite nerd tendencies. Did I mention I’m a former accountant? But for me the grammar books did help. With a clearer understanding of the rules, if I couldn’t spit back a phrase without thinking I could at least try to reason through it. It is true, however, that grammar rules are just a crutch and to know a language is to just know it without needing to reason through rules. But for now, yes, I do need them.

That leads me to a wonderful recent discovery, ANKI, that can also can be downloaded for free. It’s basically a computerized flashcard system and anything that you would write on a blank flashcard you can put into ANKI. The beauty of it is that when you go to review your cards, it remembers which ones you got right and wrong and uses a system of spaced repetition, such that the cards you continue to get right will be spaced at greater and greater intervals; 1 day, then 3 days, then 7 days, then 2 week and so forth. This concentrates your efforts on what you don’t remember or what you have difficulty with. So for the moment those are my tools, FSI Headstart, 2 grammar books, and ANKI. What is seriously missing? Human interaction. I know it and really should do something about it, but for now will put that off until my trip in September.