I’ve been learning Italian on and off for the past few months now. Things started off strong, but as is always the case, life got in the way. The holidays came around and there was a lot of other work to do.
Despite this, I still progressed quickly to quasi-conversational level. I owe a lot of this progress to systematically approaching the language from a differently, instead focusing first on the sounds and how to speak them. This meant that I spent my practice either listening or speaking to native speakers from a swath of resources. The most important parts of this process involved meeting and talking to as many native speakers as possible.
But I found that it’s not enough to simply be efficient. I found that the best way to maximize the fruits of my labor was to go back and review my mistakes often.
If I hadn’t cultivated the habit of reviewing bad habits where I fell short, then it would have taken me a lot longer to fix them, let alone notice them. By applying this principle to your own language goals, you’ll likely see progress faster than expected. As a good friend of mine always said, “you don’t know what you don’t know.”
Watching the Tapes
First, I needed raw material for feedback. For me, I recorded what I was doing – which is why I used italki to have most of my conversations and recorded my skype conversations using screen-recording software. There are lots of free programs for Windows or Mac. I use Quicktime for Mac (File > New Movie Recording) and you can use i-Spring for Windows. The important thing is that you record your webcam so you can see what you’re doing. If you want to just record audio, you can also record yourself against other mediums, like Idahosa does with Flowverlapping.
After, I reviewed the recordings for tough topics that came up or things I said wrong that I could have said better. I started to notice patterns when I wasn’t sure how to respond to a question. I wrote them down; these were areas of improvement.
You may not even be sure what you’re doing wrong. In that case, it’s best to start by asking the other person to point out anything that’s off and correct it in the moment. Then you have an easy place to start from when you review things later.
Identifying Biggest Issues
For most conversations, there were already things I could do well:
- Good pronunciation for the things I already knew how to say
- A few key scripts to start off conversations with new people
I also narrowed down my biggest issues in areas where I needed to think on my feet:
- Stalling, thinking of words out loud
- Failing to reciprocate new questions to the speaker
There’s nothing wrong with stalling per se when you don’t know how to respond. But becoming a master at it is one of the keys to fluid conversation. In my own, I had a bad habit of saying things like “umm…” and “uhh…” when I really should have been replacing them with useful conversational connectors like “that’s a great question, the word’s not coming to me,” “how do you say X in [target language]?” I quickly found that this has become one of my most-used tools in this area.
The other major issue was (and I’m sure most of you can relate) that conversations tended to be one-sided. It’s not that I didn’t want to talk back. It was rather that I wasn’t in the habit of asking simple questions to show I was actively listening. I did this all the time when I was first starting out.
Fixing this accomplishes two things: it show them that you’re engaged and makes it look like you’re on their conversational level. Although I was the one doing 10-20% of the actual speaking, it still looked like we were having fluid conversation. Now they’re the ones who actually do more of the heavy lifting by using longer-form answers.
Although the goal is to actually switch that ratio, for now this is a great place to start and you can always build from there.
Planning For Round Two
The idea behind Post-Game Analysis is to come back stronger with a way to fix your mistakes. I took things slow and only focused on one thing at a time. Where I was hesitant and meek before, things started to naturally improve with each day.
As I learned from Idahosa Ness, retro-active scripting is my go-to method for branching out in a language. I plan to fix my bad habits by taking a scripts-based approach.
- Learn phrases related to conversational connectors
- Learn phrases related to asking questions
- In topics where I felt there was little to say, I’m writing a new script that answers that question
Learning new scripts is frustrating, but there is no faster way to rewire your brain to speak and sound native.
Notice that none of these things have to do with learning vocabulary or grammar alone. It’s less about “I need to study prepositions and past participles.” I’m only recruiting the help of these tools towards the ultimate goal of better and less sucky conversations, so I will just go to them when I need them.
It’s not enough to say that I’m going to improve in these areas. I needed to put in the “mat time” of getting sets of scripts and questions memorized. Trust me, it pays off big time, even if you’re early on in the language as I was.
For me, I’ve learned that the methods for how to speak a language really does come down to a lot of the same methods that actors and musicians use to hone their craft. By “watching the tapes,” I have a solid base for improving one week at a time, in only a matter of a few months.
Stay tuned as I’ll be wrapping up my own mission for now in the next week or so.
Got a similar experience? What are your own strengths and weaknesses? Share them in the comment below.