Note: This blog was originally shared on March 21, 2013, but updated today, August 11, 2016
In a blog post three years ago, I shared some of the things that I love about learning Italian. I've come a long way since then and even though I still have a long way to go, I feel confident about the language in a way that I hadn't in the past. When we were in Italy last fall I was able to carry on a conversation without switching to English. Apparently I was so good that another American that was staying at our hotel overheard me on the phone making a reservation at a restaurant in Florence and she came over to commend me on my language skills! I used to be so nervous on the phone and I still am a bit, but I can power through and that's so exciting for me, to be at that point on my journey.
Learning a language isn't easy. If you are serous about learning another language, perhaps you too might benefit from some of these tools that have helped me to study, memorize and move further along the path toward fluency (and yes, it's a long path). Note that all these services offer the ability to learn languages other than Italian.
1. Take a class or find a tutor.
While there are a million tools out there to help you learn, there is no substitution for talking to someone regularly. I've been meeting with a tutor or a tutored group every week for the last seven years and it's one of the main things that has helped to keep me engaged and always learning. There are also a bunch of Italian tutors who will teach over Skype or through the Net on italki, so that could be a possibility for you.
Byki is an amazing flashcard system that allows you to practice both the verbal and written aspects of the language. Byki is free for the flashcard portion only, and there is a deluxe version for $69.95 that comes with enhanced features, vocabulary lists and games to help you learn. I have Byki Deluxe but what I primarily use is the portion that is actually free, the flashcards. What I love is that you can create your own lists or you can use their community to download lists that others have created. Hands down this is the tool that has helped me the most when learning Italian on my own. It employs a great refresher system too that I love.
One of the best online language dictionaries on the Net, WordReference also has forums that enable language learners to ask questions and find answers. The forums are fantastic and are excellent for helping you understand idioms or things like how to write a formal letter, or how to translate a certain phrase. What I love about the dictionary is that it gives examples, and helps you determine which version of the word you want. For example, here is a section for the word "vado" which means in its most simple form, "I go." You can choose the WordReference dictionary or the Collins. I've chosen Collins in this example:
Forvo is a site for pronunciation, which may seem a bit odd, but when you are trying to learn a language and are practicing on your own, it's common to run across words that you aren't sure how they sound. That's where Forvo comes in. Search the database for a word and voila, you can click a button to listen, and if you want to know more about the dialect or region the speaker is from you can click through to see. For example:
You can also vote Forvo pronunciations as good or bad. If you can't find a pronunciation, you can add it into the Forvo database and usually within 24 hours someone will have pronounced it for you. You can also choose to help pronounce words in your own language and add to the database. I've found this tool incredibly useful, especially as I was just getting started and trying to understand the nuances of how the language is pronounced.
5. Online tools to learn Italian: Duolingo, Memrise and Live Mocha
Memrise is a free, fun site that lets you to plant the "seeds" of learning and then "water" them to refresh and grow your understanding. The site toys with using memory triggers to help you remember a word (see image below). You can use other mems that users create or you can easily create your own. On Memrise you can also connect with Facebook and see which of your friends are learning too. There are courses that you can choose from--the one I'm working on is 501 verbs. It employs a similar approach to Byki when it comes to refreshing your understanding of what you are learning. I'm also starting their "Hacking Italian" course, which uses some interesting techniques from lifehacker master Tim Ferris. I love Memrises's simple approach and easy way of learning.
Duolingo has risen in popularity over the last couple of years because of its fun, slick interface and easy way of learning. It tests and retests you on particular items and you can earn "lingots" for completing learning streaks, translating text and helping others. I also really love their mobile app. And yes, I know that my translation below is incorrect (off by one letter)! It's definitely a beginner's site, however, and it wouldn't take more than a couple of months to reach what they call "fluency." You can purchase lingots if you aren't earning them fast enough. Lingots help you buy new courses and freeze your progress so you don't lose learning streaks.
I blogged all about Yabla last year, so head here to find out more. I love Yabla! I wish I could Yabla-ize all my television shows!
I love being able to learn Italian on my commute and News In Slow Italian is a wonderful audio way to learn the language. It's not inexpensive but it's such a great way to really hear the language at a pace that is understandable. The online site and mobile app serve as a companion to the audio and I love turning to it after I've listened to the week's news to figure out the words I didn't know.
8. Dual Language Resources
I try to read primarily in Italian and use the dictionary to figure out words I don't know (if you read Italian books on Kindle you can buy an Italian dictionary and load that to look up words as you read!). But every once in awhile it's nice to try and read material side by side to understand a translation. ITALY magazine has a great dual language section. Bilinguis has a couple classics such as Alice in Wonderland and the Hound of the Baskervilles.
I also greatly loved Jhumpa Lahiri's latest book which details her decision to move to Italy and write a book. She wrote the book in Italian and had a translator render it back into English, which you can read side by side.
Having all these tools at your fingertips is really only the tip of the iceberg though. Not a single one of these sites will help you unless you first make the time to practice. Fifteen minutes a day will go far toward helping you absorb as much of the language as you can. Watching Italian movies or television and reading Italian magazines and newspapers are great additions to the above tools. But again, it goes back to taking the time to practice. Make it a priority and be prepared to make it a priority for years to come, unless you have the extreme fortune of living for a time in the place of the language you are learning to speak--then it may come a bit faster!