How to go from clueless to following a conversation in Italian

Do you feel like listening to Italian is like being on another planet? Like catching Italian words is like catching butterflies in a field? Like following a conversation in Italian is like running from one place to another, trying to figure out what is going on around you?


I remember the first time I arrived in Spain. I got here knowing a bit of Spanish, hoping I could use it to get by and manage my day-to-day life.


But reality proved me wrong.


I was faced with an unfamiliar accent. People spoke way too fast for me, and managing bureaucracy clearly was no fun.


As you can imagine, my first Spanish conversatons were a bit stressful. I couldn’t understand what people said, I got more and more tense, and I ended up questioning my abilities.


If, like me, you suffer from – excuse me the word – performance anxiety, you surely understand what I’m talking about.


You get stressed out for not understanding, and if you have low self-esteem as well, you see your “performances” as a proof of what you can or can’t do. The moment something doesn’t go as expected, you’re ready to call it a failure and give up on yourself.


Hower, don’t forget that


Following a conversation in Italian is neither a performance, nor a proof of your skills.

It’s a skill in itself, and you can get better at it with practice and time.


SPOILER ALERT: there is no special trick.


Following a conversation in Italian


If you want to begin to understand Italians, one thing you can start doing is some old good preparation. Just like you prepare yourself to speak, you can train yourself to listen to some natural Italian speech.


Then, I will never stress this enough, being mindful and cultivating presence not only helps you stress less, but it also increases your focus, which is something you need when you’re following a conversation in Italian.


When you’re mindful and you deliberately decide to be present, you


– stop listening to your self-talk

– leave the feeling of overwhelm out

– free your mind and see learning opportunities more clearly


Having said that, there are also a few more technical tips that you can put into practice.


Let’s have a look at them.


Choose your material carefully

During your preparation phase, choose your listening material carefully. Be aware of your strengths and struggles and choose something accordingly.

Is your listening material too slow? Too fast? Or at the right speed for you? Is it about a topic you’re familiar with? Can you potentially understand most of it? Or would you have to look up every single word?

You want to make sure you get the right amount of challenge and excitement. You don’t want to finish your listening practice and feel discouraged. Choosing your material wisely helps you stay motivated along the way.


Use transcriptions

It might sound banal, but listening to something and being able to see what you heard helps you close the gap and make the unfmaliar familiar.

This is why I like to give transcriptions in my Speaking Practice Club.

Whether you listen attentively or hear distractedly, there will always be something that you won’t be able to catch at first. With a transcription, however, you can build a connection in your brain between what you heard and how it’s written.

This helps you recognize words that, perhaps, you didn’t know existed (or thought they were pronounced in another way). Once you’ve created this connection, you will be able to detect these words the next time that you hear them.


Take notes

Listen to the audio track once. Then listen to it again and write down what you hear.

You want to see what you can catch out of what you hear. Not because your’re going to test yourself. Forget it. But you want to have a clear and objective idea in mind of what you can and can’t understand… yet.

So, pay attention to the audio track, listen to it a few times, and write down the words and sentences that you hear.

Don’t put any pressure on yourself. If you want to go through a word or a sentence, go through it as many times as you want.


Following a conversation in Italian


Compare… and accept

Now that you have your notes, it’s time to compare them with the transcription of the audio track.

Again, don’t take it as a test. This is simply a tool to see what can you learn from this listening practice.

If you notice discrepancies, don’t judge your performance and, most importantly, don’t jusdge yourself.

Acknowledge these differences. They will be your precious source of learning.

Say for example that you spelled a word wrong. Is that really a big deal? You now have the correct spelling under your eyes. You can do something with it. 🙂

You didn’t catch a word or a whole sentence? Again, no big deal. You can now listen to the audio track while reading the transcript. And you can do it as many times as you want. No one is chasing you. There is no pressure except the one that you put on yourself.

Take your time, take your breaks, and enjoy the process.


Listen attentively

Now it’s time to listen carefully to the audio track a few times.

Start by listening while reading the trascription. Your brain needs to create the connection between sounds and written words. Pay special attention to how words sound like when they’re close to other words.

After that, put the transcription aside and focus on the audio track only.

This is one of those moments when you have to remind yourself to be present. 😉 Shut every judgment out. Forget about that little voice telling you that “this is too hard” and that “you’re so bad“.

Take a few deep breaths and play the audio track.  Needless to say that you can listen to the track as many times as you want and that you can always use the transcription when you need it.


Choose to focus

When you notice something that you still struggle to understand, focus deliberately on that.

Play the audio track again, go back to the transcription, and focus on that specific sound and how it’s written.

In particular, focus on:

1) specific letter combinations, like the ch sound

2) parts where sounds blend in together, which are something you can observe every day when following a conversation in Italian

Pay a lot of attention to these elements and go through them several times if you need to.


Following a conversation in Italian


Direct your attention

Now that you have more awareness, listen again to the audio track attentively.

Move your attention towards one of those sounds which were once “a pain”. Look for it in the audio track (no effort needed, your selective attention will do the word for you. 😉).

Allow your brain and ears to absorb it.

Do the same thing for all the other “painful” sounds. Focus on one sound at at time and allow yourself time to process it.


Let it sink in

You need time to detect sounds without effort, so give yourself the right amount of work and breaks.

Begin by listening attentively, then move to a more laid-back listening. Alternate attentive and laid-back listening to give your brain a tolerable dose of training.

Last but not least, dilute your practice over a period of a few days.

Doing 10 hours in a row won’t do you any good. But dedicating 10 minutes every day to your practice, will increase your chances to let the new sound sink into your brain. It’s called spaced repetition, and it applies to all areas of the language, not just listening.


As you can see, following a conversation in Italian is absolutely achievable and not at all impossible. All you need is the combination of the three magic Ps: preparation, presence, and practice.


And now, over to you:

– what have you done for your listening so far?

– have you ever tried these steps?

– what track can you choose to prepare yourself?

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