One of the most frequent problems for us language learners is not knowing what to say. And if you’re like me, I’m sure you couldn’t care less about talking about the weather, am I right? You want to engage in something deeper. And talk about topics that are meaningful to you. But how can you do it if you’ve never done it before? If despite all those years learning Italian, you still feel like a beginner?
I’ve got some good news for you.
If you’ve been learning Italian for a while and you can understand most of what you read it means one thing:
you already know a lot of words.
And what does that mean? Well, it means a lot. Words are a pillar in your learning. The more words you know, the more you can do: you can understand more when you read and when you listen, you can write more, and you can speak more.
It feels good to know, right?
Input, output, and the debate
If you already know a lot of words, it means also that you have access to a lot of input. And input is a crucial part of your learning. Too little input can damage your learning outcome so, you as you can imagine, it’s beyond necessary to use and consume it.
But input alone is not enough and it won’t make you speak out of the blue, despite what you might read out there.
If you want to start speaking, you need to, well, start.
And there’s more. Speaking (and writing too) will make you even more aware of the structure of the Italian language.
If you just have to listen or read, you can understand even without knowing everything. But speaking and writing will draw your attention to the details that you would, otherwise, miss. Decoding (what you do when you listen and read) and processing (what you do when you speak and write) are two different skills.
So, don’t believe those who say that if you can understand, then you can speak. Somehow, you need to have opportunities to push your words out.
Hello, planning, my old friend
Ma non l’ho mai fatto prima! (But I’ve never done it before!)
I know. This is why I’m going to introduce you once again to a friend that I mentioned in a previous article: preparation, or better, planning. This means taking the time to think about what to say and maybe even take some notes.
I said it in that previous article and I’m going to say it again because repetita iuvant (which is Latin for “repeating does good): planning helps you do a lot of extra work in advance so that you won’t have to think about what you have to say while you’re talking.
According to research, around ten minutes of planning can be enough to have good results. And by results, I’m talking about being able to create more complex sentences and speak more fluently.
So, in the next few lines, I’m going to show you an exercise that will help you bring what you know from your mind to your mouth, as I usually say.
The exercise that I’m talking about is the same one that I introduced in this previous article. I called it “say it again”, but it’s actually called “retelling”.
How retelling works
Here is how it works: you either listen or read a short passage and you retell what you listened to or read. This is a great exercise because it gives you the time to go through the topic and make it familiar to you before you talk about it. And this is something that falls under the “planning” category.
This exercise is great not only to help you speak better but also to remember new words that, otherwise, you would easily lose.
So, let’s get started. Below you have a short text. Take some time to go through it and then retell itwithout looking at it.
3…2…1… Let’s go!
I portici sono una caratteristica di alcune città italiane. Servono a proteggere dalla pioggia, ma sono usati anche come decorazione. I portici più famosi sono sicuramente quelli di Bologna, che sono anche i più lunghi d’Italia. Sotto i portici di Torino ci sono diversi bar, dove si possono mangiare cibi tipici e dove si può bere la bevanda tipica della città. Sotto i portici di Cuneo, invece, ci sono diversi negozi. Ci sono poi anche i portici di Padova, che hanno diversi stili, e i portici di Bolzano nella via principale della città. Ci sono anche i portici di Chiavari, in Liguria, che sono lunghissimi e i portici di Cava de’ Tirreni, in provincia di Salerno.
To sum up
- If you know a lot of words, you can do a lot. You can understand more, write more, and speak more.
- Input is vital for your learning, but it’s not enough. You won’t start speaking by magic just by reading or listening a lot.
- If you want to start speaking, you need opportunities to push your words out.
- Planning what you want to say can help you have better results when you speak.
- A good exercise to start speaking is the retelling exercise.
Folse Keith, The Art of Teaching Speaking: Research and Pedagogy for the ESL/EFL Classroom, University of Michigan Press ELT, 2006
Joe, A. & Nation, Paul & Newton, Jonathan. (1996). Vocabulary learning and speaking activities. English Teaching Forum. 34. 2-7.
Nation Paul, Newton Jonathan, Teaching ESL/EFL Listening and Speaking, Routledge, 2009