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Embracing the inner Brad Pitt: Confessions of a language coach learning Italian

By Memrise Blog

Inspired by the Polyglot Gathering in Berlin this year I decided to test my language learning skills. Having advised so many LinguaLift students, I thought it was time to employ my own tips.

I’ve learned languages in the past, and with so many handy tools and scientific knowledge about learning it should be a piece of cake for me to do it again, right? I was about to learn how it is to retreat to square one.

Goal—3.3% of fluency in a day

I’ve never  been interested in learning Italian. I knew some basic phrases, like buon giorno or arrivederci and seen a few operas, but have never felt a push for a linguistic adventure. This time however, I had an [extrinsic motivation]. I was going on holiday to Italy.

Having a trip sitting firmly in the calendar provided me with two important factors: time pressure and a precise goal.

It was scary to realise that is what I could achieve in 30 days was 100%, then missing a day would be lowering my potential “fluency” by about 3.3%—I definitely couldn’t afford that!

The goal was quite simple: learn the so called “tourist phrases” to cover situations I might encounter abroad. Simple, right?

Sure! But having a clear and simple goal doesn’t mean the learning process will be easy…

How my ideal plan worked

As the old English saying goes: ‘make hay while the sun shines’. I’ve booked my first trial italki class before departing from the Hauptbahnhof to the airport.

Booking a class required decisions that made me further specify my learning goal.

  • Do I need a professional teacher, or a community tutor?
  • What are the skills I can’t work on alone and what would I prefer to outsource to a teacher?
  • What other materials would I be using?
  • How often do I have time for a class?

The skill I wanted to focus on was speaking, and for the highest efficiency thought it would be best to have an hour class twice a week. For further learning materials I turned to Memrise and [their Basic Italian course]—after all what I needed mostly were useful phrases and vocabulary. I complimented this with [Mosa Lingua Italian], which in addition to customisable flashcards has handy dialogues for a variety of common tourist situations like booking a hotel room or getting a taxi.

How my ideal plan failed

In theory, everything would be going smoothly. So, let me tell you now how my plan failed.

Not knowing I had to adjust my timezone in italki I mistakenly booked my trial class for 4am. Thankfully my easygoing Italian tutor was understanding and allowed me to move the class to a different day. However, this delayed my learning by five days— a disaster for a planning freak.

I also realised that online tutors are… people too! I had to reprimand my internal 3 year old (“I want Italian and I want it now!”) and adjust to the tutor’s schedule. This meant I could only fit in five sessions before the trip.

I was so keen to learn that on the first day I probably spent 40 minutes doing flashcards on Memrise. Next day I had so much to review that even looking at that number was tiring. That’s [a prime example of binge learning]. Next time I stopped learning before I got tired— 5-10 min of flashcards a day is enough.

Embracing (my internal) Brad Pitt

Being a perfectionist I have an aversion to speaking. I would usually not open my mouth until all the case endings are in place and all the articles are mastered. It was precisely because of this mental predicament I knew I had to challenge myself and start speaking with a tutor as soon as possible.

In the past I have learned some Spanish and even though my Spanish was largely “dormant” it proved enough to understand about 60-70% of spoken Italian. It gave me a deceptive sense of confidence, because when it came to opening my own mouth … no words were coming out.

I had to get used to hearing myself butchering the language: I wrongly used “Italianised” forms of Spanish verbs, the same article for every noun, and added an “o” to English nouns. The only thing that came to my mind while doing that was the legendary scene from Inglorious Basterds where Brad Pitt “speaks Italian”.

In addition, I experienced some unexpected linguistic inferences from… Esperanto: a strong urge to use the accusative ending.

Breaking personal barriers

It’s hard to break the speech barrier. What gave me comfort was the realisation that tutors are usually used to hearing their mother tongue being slaughtered in the mouths of foreigners.

Here are a few strategies I used, which in the long run brought good results:

  • Speaking about myself and learning phrases I would be likely to use again. Thanks to this I will now forever remember full sentences like: sempre saputo che volveo lavorare con le lingue. A quite complex phrase for a beginner!
  • Composing sentences about what I or we did to practice verb forms that I would be most likely to use. Stiamo cercando per il nostro gato.
  • Speaking to my boyfriend to practice the second person: hai mai mangiato il gelato vegano?
  • Talking to myself about things what I’m doing or feeling at the moment. Molte persone mi annoiano.

This way I have amassed quite a few phrases to learn, enough to even make my own little course on Memrise. Go me!

Transforming talking into the truth

The time has come to go to Italy. You know that moment when you pass the passport control your mind goes crazy attempting to piece together the foreign reality? It’s like the opening credits from the Matrix, where random letters float around trying to form words but mostly failing to do so…

You could say my linguistic adventure was a failure. Most of my attempts at communication in Italian ended with the menace of the linguistically globalised world: Italians replying in English. Deep inside I think I expected to be “perfect” in Italian, and that didn’t happen. However, let’s see what I have achieved:

  • Confidently greeted people in shops and cafes— not a small achievement for a shy person.
  • Understood 60% of a conversation of my Italian friends.
  • Understood menus.
  • Said a whole sentence about the internet to a hotel receptionist, in order to get the wifi password.


We found better internet than this, but it was too hilarious not to photograph.

Where did I go wrong?

A few things were lacking in my study plan. If your goal, like mine, is to learn to communicate in the language, here is some advice for the future:

  • Seek out contact with native speakers. Start the same conversations with different people—the first two times you will by shy, the third time you’ll have practiced enough to gain more confidence.
  • Don’t think too much: speak the language before doubt settles in and you switch to English. After having defined the language environment as being English speaking it’s much harder to revert to a foreign language.
  • Before going for a trip, set yourself little tasks to complete and make yourself accountable to your travel buddy. The tasks can range from simple: say hello to the waiter, to more courageous, like: come up to a street musician and say you like how they play.

What’s next?

Since returning and reflecting on my learning experience I have purposefully put Italian to the side. Once your language mission was achieved, there is no need to add working on an extra language to the long list of your daily tasks. Responsibility is knowing when to say “stop”.

Written by the lovely Guest blogger, Marta Krzeminska from LinguaLift!