Home. A familiar and reassuring atmosphere surrounds you as you’re sitting on your sofa, staring at the void after another attempt to try a conversation in Italian. Why I still cannot speak? – You ask yourself sighing as you dig into your head looking for the answer.
It doesn’t make sense.
You’ve been learning for years.
Remember those evenings bent over grammar books? Those lunch breaks with a fork in one hand and a book in the other? Those notebooks filled with new exciting words?
How can this happen?
Is there something wrong with me?
Am I supposed to never be able to speak?
Why is this even happening?
If this scenario sounds familiar to you, allow me to tell you you’re in good company.
For years, I had been studying English just like you. Filling my mind with words and grammar rules. Doing nothing more than memorizing. I would repeat my verbs aloud. One by one. And I would diligently do the grammar exercises that my teachers gave me. I had to pass the test after all. That would have proved that I knew English.
Then, my first trip to England arrived. I was so excited. I was 14. A plane and a bus later, a tiny Hampshire village welcomed me. I laid my feet on the ground as I went off the bus, ready to begin this new adventure.
Suddenly, a lady approached me and said something to me. Something that, to my inexperienced ears, sounded everything but English.
That was the moment I realized I was starting from scratch again.
I knew everything I needed to know but, somehow, I couldn’t take my words out. How could it be?
Let’s take a step back and see what happened to you and me.
When people learn a new language, sometimes, they expect to speak “fluently” just because they know words and grammar. But they couldn’t be more wrong.
Knowing words by heart, repeating verb conjugations, and memorizing grammar rules are not good ingredients for fluency. Surely, knowing them helps, but if you want to start speaking Italian you need to…. well, start.
Speaking is a habit, and if you want to be able to do it, you need to begin to do it.
“But how?” – You might be asking now. “No matter how hard I try, I freeze, I forget words, I stumble, I make mistakes…”
Well, my dear friend, there is something to take into consideration.
You won’t like your first attempts. You’ll need time before you can speak as you would like to do. Results don’t come overnight, they come after a time of practice, effort, and persistence.
So get ready to roll up your sleeves and see your hurdles as challenges, your mistakes as something to learn from, and your memory lapses as an opportunity to reach out and ask for help.
You might feel that talking to strangers is still too much for you right now, and this is okay. You don’t need to be fearless and extroverted to start speaking Italian (or any other language). You can allow yourself to stay in the comfort of your bedroom or close circle of friends and still build up your speaking habit step by step, at your own pace.
Here are some tips to help you know what to say and begin to speak without feeling like you have to go on stage.
Listen, notice, and use
You need to understand what to say before you actually say it. To begin to understand, choose an audio recording of a conversation that comes with a transcript and then try this procedure:
- Listen to the recording a few times without reading at first.
- See what you can understand if you understand the overall meaning of the conversation.
- Transcribe what you hear. Remember that you can play the recording as many times as you need.
- Compare your transcription with the original transcript and notice if there is any difference.
- Focus on those parts that get your attention. The ones that you think you will need in the future for your conversations. Notice how people really talk and what they say in each specific context.
- Write your own sentences with the new expressions. When and how can you use them in your day-to-day conversations? Think about it.
Prepare the scenario
Which situation are you going to face? Who are you going to talk to? Where? In what context? Is it going to be formal or informal? What are you going to talk about? Once you know this, you can write a sample conversation of what you think might happen. Of course, you can’t predict what exactly will go on when you actually go and speak to that person you have in mind, but a little preparation gives you an idea of what might happen.
- Who is going to begin that conversation? And how?
- What questions might the other person ask you?
- How would you respond?
- What unexpected things might happen during that conversation? Any misunderstanding? Any listening problems? Interruptions? What would you do to solve them?
- How would the conversation continue?
- How would it end? And how would you know that it’s ended?
These are all questions that might help you when thinking of your possible scenario. Knowing what you might hear and what might happen helps you feel more prepared to face that moment. It doesn’t mean that things will go exactly as you planned, but being familiar with the obstacles you might face helps you feel more prepared for that stressful moment.
Go for text messages
WhatsApp, Telegram, Instagram, Facebook… any App can do to exchange text messages with someone. If talking is still too much for you, you can allow yourself some time inside of your comfort zone by texting someone in Italian. You’re going to get the benefits of a spontaneous conversation and the time to think about what to say and what is being said.
You’ve been writing all this time, now the moment has come to train your speaking muscles and then gently start speaking Italian. You need to get used to saying what you wrote, and you need to feel comfortable when doing it. So take your time to read your written conversations aloud. Take them out, mark where the stress falls, and read the lines until you feel comfortable saying them. Until you know your dialogue by heart.
Don’t forget to repeat
When practicing, whether you’re writing or reading, never underestimate the importance of repetition. Doing something once won’t guarantee anything. Repeating the same task will make you comfortable with it. Try to repeat over a period of a few days. Even 10 minutes a day for one week will do. But don’t repeat for three hours in a row on the same day. Choose small persistent actions over gigantic ones.
Choose a friendly presence
If you feel ready to talk to someone but it’s way too soon to begin with a stranger, a friendly human, someone who won’t judge you, is a great place to start. You can have spontaneous conversations with them or try some role-plays with them. Ask them for help and feedback. Make sure that they can understand you, and don’t be afraid to ask for help if you don’t understand. Choose your buddy carefully, go for someone whom you can truly trust.
As you can see, beginning to speak and to feel comfortable with it takes a bit of time. It’s normal to feel frustrated at first. Like many other activities, speaking is a habit and, therefore, requires time, practice, and consistency. Feel free to add some fun to it, and you will find yourself having your first conversations in Italian easier than you initially thought.