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One Year Italian

One Year Teaching Myself Italian

This past Wednesday I officially hit one year as a self-taught Italian Student. I have been a lover of languages for as long as I can remember. I'm not someone for whom learning languages comes super easy, but I do alright. Italian was actually the first language I attempted to learn, when I was maybe 10 or so. I made practically no progress at all at the time. The only word I can still remember is "radio" which is... you guessed it, "radio." I can still hear the speakers voice from the tape (made off a record) with the Italian pronunciation/accent. 

Skip ahead to 5th grade, while living in Maine. Since Maine was so close to Canada and their large population of French speakers we had some French lessons. About once a week for an hour or so, as my memory has it. We did some basic nouns mostly. I don't remember if we did much with verbs at all, and if we did we certainly didn't go beyond the present tense. I recall very little of this, but I do remember the words to a song, all about food. 

Flash forward a couple more years and I'm signing up for classes in 8th grade. At the school I attended this was the first year you could take a language. I actually really like how they did it. You could start in 8th grade, and if you did you basically spread the first year of content over 8th and 9th grade. This allowed you get a really solid foundation in the language you chose, or, if you found you didn't like it, you could switch to a different language and still get the full four years in highschool. I signed up for French, as I enjoyed it (an I do have a little French ancestry). However, when the schedule came down I found myself in Spanish. I decided to stick with it and end up taking 4 years of Spanish (spread over 5 years).

Had the school offered Italian (or Latin) I certainly would have taken that instead. In the long run, my pretty solid backing in Spanish (I'm far from Fluent) really helped when I decided to commit to learning Italian on my own. Clearly both are Romance languages, so right off the bat you can expect many similarities. Of the Romance languages Spanish and Italian are the most alike. In Spanish you have "ar," "er," and "ir" verbs. In Italian may of these verbs are exactly the same they just end with an "e". The conjugation is similar, but different enough to trip me up at times. 

In my self-taught adventures I was helped mostly by two free apps: Duolingo and Memrise. Both are platform agnostic (iOS and Android). Much later in the process I also started to use the website Lang-8 and its companion website/app HiNative. I started out using Duolingo, most people who are curious about learning a language on their own are probably aware of this app. It's one of the most popular apps in general, and the most popular for language learning by far. They're a regular feature of the AWS keynotes as well. I want to discuss each app/website in turn with their strengths/weaknesses then give some general thoughts on trying to learn a language on your own.


What I really like about duolingo is that it is a language learning app first and foremost. This includes the pronunciation lessons which, while fare from perfect, are nice to get you speaking the language on your own. Each language is presented as a "tree" and you work your way through the tree. Each tree is made up of rows, and each row has 1-3 skills, and each skill has several actual lessons. All the content is first user generated by high level people and is vetted by community members and then it's release to the public. After release to the public members can flag certain lessons for not accepting certain answers, or to say it's just plain wrong or whatever, so it continues to improve as time goes on. 

As such course very greatly from language to language and while a lot of the "main" languages you think of are supported, plenty that people want just aren't available (yet). For example, while Italian had plenty of content, you can't learn Japanese though them (yet). Apparently a Japanese course has been in the works for several years now, so that's another major downside, when everything is crowdsourced your content is only as ready as your users allow. 

For Italian the course was pretty complete, I had 39 rows with 68 skills. If you go to the website and login there, then click on the words tab you can also get the "number of words learned" which for Italian works out to 3058. Now, this counts an infinitive as one word and each verb conjugation as a different word, so it's not quite as impressive as it sounds, but it's certainly a solid base to work from. With my daily goal set to "serious" (3 lessons per day) it took me well over 200 days to work through the entire tree. 

They do a lot of "gamification" to help people actually stick with it. That said plenty people pick up a language and never finish. I don't believe duolingo ever publishes the statistics (if they do, I couldn't find them after a quick search) but they do at least allude to the fact that the people who finish any tree are in a significant minority. In the android app they also recently added badges, as another prong in their gamification approach. 

Lastly, one relatively recent downside was the introduction of ads. One of the primary reasons duolingo gained such widespread love was that it was free, without having to resort to ads. The ads now show up after completing every, single, lesson and require you to stay on your toes to exit out of the ad properly. They've changed the process 3 times now on android. You *can* opt out of the ads... for $9.99/mo. Way to much in my opinion. If you're going to pay for a language app you're probably better off going the rosetta stone route. 


Probably a little over a month into my studies with duolingo I started seaching around for other apps/sites/etc to augment my learning. One that had a lot of praise was memrise. Now, memrise is not actually designed as a language learning tool. This is a spaced repetition memorization tool, that also happens to love languages and has thus produced a number of courses for different languages as well.

Since they are not a language first application they don't have an engine for speech to text recognition, so you won't find any speaking lessons here. Lessons are broken into one of 6 types: Learn New Words, Classic Review, Speed Review, Difficult Words, Listening Skills and Meet The Natives. Not all types are available for all languages, and not all types are available in the free package. 

You first learn the words, in a process that grows a little flower each time you get it right. Once you have it grown (6 times getting it right) you've "learned" the word and it will move into the review sections based on that spaced repetition stuff. Basic lessons are "tap the right answer" working either direction (they give you Italian, you tap English or vise-versa). They give you the English and you type out the Italian. and tap the words to complete the sentence. The last ones are for listening. They'll either give you the word and you have to select the right (out of 3) audio clip, or they say it and you need to spell it out or tap the right answer.

One of my favorites is actually the "Meet the Natives" lessons. These are available for a handful of languages (luckily Italian was one of them) and mostly for later lessons, focused heavily on full sentences. The company got a bus and traveled around Europe to get natives to say some of the phrases and words from their lessons. Unfortunately some of the lessons have been having trouble loading in android lately, hopefully this is just a temporary issues. 

Over all, I have to say I think I probably like memrise better than duolingo. Memrise does a lot of work building up phrases as well as the words. Not that duolingo doesn't use sentences as part of their approach, but a "word" in memrise will be a full sentence that you can learn and build off of. As you get to later lessons they do a good job of teaching you a few words for the section, then the last few "words" will be sentences that use those words. 

I can't speak to the other languages, but Italian has 7 courses with a wide range of "words" while I've been using it for nearly as long as duolingo I haven't yet even started on the 7th course so subjectively feels like there's more content, even if it turns out there isn't (I haven't run the numbers). 


These websites are pretty great. I found out about Lang-8 first, and this is one you want in you back pocket after you've been working with the language for awhile, but HiNative can be useful pretty early on.

The whole point of Lang-8 is to get you writing in your target language. You pick your language then write a journal entry in that language with or without a version in your native language (to help others figure out what you actually meant). Once you post a journal entry then other native speakers of that langue can read it and offer corrections. They can offer straight corrections, are just as helpful, in my experience, more idiomatic phrasing. I have probably about 50+ entries up in Italian right now. 

Clearly the biggest limiting factor here is this is where you go out on your own and try to actually say something in the language instead of parroting back what the different apps have been teaching you. It can certainly be daunting, but I've found the community to be very encouraging and helpful. There's also no minimum you need to write, a lot of people start with just trying to get one sentence thrown together. I typically try for three. I found it does help to keep it on the shorter side, if you go and post a full essay you'll have fewer people who will bother to read the whole thing to give you feed back. 

Of course, the other side of this is that you should also help people with your native corrections. I've correct as many entries in English as I've written in Italian. The more you correct others' work the higher your rank, and the more prominent your entries will be as well.

The other website, HiNative, I just started using much more recently but it's super helpful and easy to use. There's a few set question formats such as simply "how do I say ____." and one of my personal favorites, "what's the difference between ____ and ____." The system is a lot like Lang-8. You post the queries in your target language, and you can answer such questions in your native language to increase your ranking in the community. 

General Thoughts

As a lover of languages I have to say this is a great time to be a self-taught student. Apps like duoling/memrise and various websites are making the process much easier than the tapes/books of yore. The biggest hurdle for the self-taught student is still there though, both finding others to practice the actual speaking with (though this is easier, by far with the internet and skype) but the biggest hurdle will always remain: finding the courage to actually do it! I've been teaching myself Italian for (just) over a year now, and I still feel too afraid to actually move to that next step of trying to have a conversation with someone else in Italian.

Lastly, all of the apps and sites that I've been able to find focus on a modified "immersion" style learning technique. This mirrors closer how one learns their first language, and it's probably great for working being more "fluent" when you just know what to say instead of thinking about the grammatical rules to conjugate the verb "to be" when talking about the present, formally to a group of people... That's all great, in theory, but even native speakers still take grammar classes at some point. Also, a year in and I still don't even know the alphabet in Italian... so part of my next steps will probably be looking at some grammar books and the like from Amazon. I'm also tempted to start trying a web based tutor to practice my speaking. I've found a couple websites that specialize in this, but haven't taken the plunge yet. Perhaps in another year I can review some of those services as well.

Ci vediamo dopo!