“Are you fluent in Italian?”
I am often asked this question in conversations at wine tasting events, or in chit chat with fellow lovers of Italian wine & food.
I usually explain that it really helps to speak the language when trying to build a deep relationship with Italian winemakers. When doing business in Italy, you need to focus on the relationship first, and business comes second.
If you can speak even basic Italian, it’s much easier to build trust and genuinely get to know the person.
“Well, how did you learn Italian?” is almost always the next question. I took Italian night classes at Portland State University for 5 years taught by a Roman ex-pat, but classical language learning isn’t really the best way to quickly learn Italian.
After doing some extensive research on the latest methods for learning languages, I’ve found 3 ways to quickly learn Italian. Follow one or more of these methods and you too can be reasonably fluent in just a few weeks.
It’s all about immersion, baby.
The fastest way to learn Italian, or any language for that matter, is to completely immerse yourself in the local culture and language. When you’re surrounded by native Italian speakers, you’ll be forced to ‘figure it out.’
Think about it. How do babies learn how to talk? Through total immersion, lots of trial and error, and repetition. Babies listen, absorb and speak.
This may sound crazy, but by simply traveling to Italy and spending a month there, immersed in the culture and language, you’ll walk away with enough Italian language skills to ask for directions, order in a restaurant, buy things in a shop, and have basic conversations with new found Italian friends — all with minimal “book learning.”
Throughout Italy you’ll also find immersion classes where you can accelerate your Italian learning. You won’t hear a stitch of English in the most effective classes, and you’ll struggle at first, but within just a week or two you’ll be fluent enough to carry on a conversation with the locals.
Italian in 15 minutes a day.
While the idea of taking a month off to travel and live like a local in Italy may sound like great fun, most of us can’t afford the time off or the expense. Even taking night classes can be a challenge. There must be an easier way.
Enter Duolingo, the free language-learning app developed by scientist & entrepreneur Luis Von Ahn. Duolingo helps you learn Italian (and 15+ other languages) using proven modern techniques that accelerate language learning. Duolingo is available on the Web, for Android devices, for Apple iOS devices, and for Windows Phone devices. Millions of people use Duolingo to learn Italian, as well as other languages.
I use Duolingo daily to polish up my Italian language skills. I make it a priority, first thing in the morning while I enjoy my coffee. It takes just 15 minutes of my time, and greatly helps me practice more complex parts of the Italian language.
Let me walk you through some of the basics of the Duolingo app. These are screenshots from my iPhone, but the app largely works the same whether you’re using an iPhone, an iPad, an Android phone, or on the Duolingo website.
Full language support
In Duolingo, each section of the language is organized sequentially. You start with the basics and move up to more advanced language elements as you complete each section.
If you already have some familiarity with Italian, you don’t need to start from scratch. You can “test out" and get credit for sections up to your highest level achieved.
Image based learning
Duolingo has a rich set of image-based learning. The app first exposes you to a new Italian word with a selection of images you select from.
As you become familiar with a word, you are later tested using images (like in this example, la isola, or island). You’re also tested with the proper form of the word “the” and with correct gender.
Translation to/from Italian
Along with multiple choice questions, Duolingo quizzes you on how to correctly assemble a sentence in Italian.
Shown here, you are expected to translate the Italian sentence into English, using a collection of words you use to assemble the sentence.
What's cool about Duolingo is the pronunciation testing feature.
The app will pronounce a sentence in very clear Italian, then ask you to repeat it. It then checks to see if you've pronounced the word properly, including inflection and pronunciation.
Don't forget to roll your R's ;-).
On the web-based app, it will also ask you to speak the translation of an English sentence into Italian.
Daily progress tracking
As you complete each section, Duolingo keeps track of how close you are to reaching your daily goal. You can set your daily goal to be 1, 3 or 5 sections per day.
I have challenged myself to complete 3 sections every day, with each section taking about 5 minutes (that’s just 15 minutes a day). You can always exceed your daily goal by completing more sections, but you must do at least the number of sections you’ve set as your goal if you want to keep track of your “streak.”
As you can see here, I’m on day 105 of my Italian streak, meaning I’ve completed 3 sections every day for 105 days in a row. That feels good.
Gamified learning makes it fun
The team at Duolingo have “gamified” the app, making it fun and like playing a game. You can earn “lingots” as you achieve new learning levels, like when you complete a 10 day streak, or when you learn a new language skill.
The lingots only have value in the app, and you can use them to buy bonus learning sections (like “flirting” and “idioms & proverbs”) to extend your skills, or dress up “Duo,” the owl mascot. It's all in good fun.
Learn with your friends
Duolingo let’s you connect up with your friends who are also using the Duolingo app, allowing you to compete, cheer on (or taunt) your friends, and let the world know what progress you’ve made.
You can check out my progress on their site here.
Getting the Duolingo app.
Meet-Up with fellow Italian learners
My third and final recommendation for quickly learning Italian is simple: meet-up with fellow Italian fans who are learning the language, just like you. But how do you find them?
Well, as you might imagine, there’s an app for that. It’s called Meetup, and they help organize and get people involved in groups with a common interest. Meetup makes it easy for anyone to organize an Italian language group, or find a group where people are already meeting up face-to-face to learn the language.
Of course, Meetup covers much more than just learning Italian, but for this article we’ll focus on the language learning.
Sign up, tune in, and join a group.
Finding fellow Italian language learners is as easy as going to meetup.com and search for “Italian language.” You’ll be astonished at how many language learning groups there are. Here are just a few I found with a quick search:
- Italian Chat is a New York City collection of 1600 Italian speakers (some native, some learning) who meet up 2+ times a month to chat and practice their Italian language skills throughout the city.
- San Francisco Italian Language Meetup Group has over 1500 Italian language fans who meet up at least monthly in Italian wine bars, pastry shops and pizza joints throughout San Francisco.
- Portland Italian Language Meetup Group is 960 fellow language learners who meet up regularly to practice speaking Italian, build vocabulary, and share Italy travel stories and plans.
When searching for a Meetup group near you, try searching with phrases like “Italian language,” “Italian conversation” or “Italian chat.” Don’t worry if a group you find is relatively small, join in the fun.
Just for fun, search for “Italian wine” and “Italian travel” as well — you may be pleasantly surprised to find fellow Italian wine lovers & travelers who get together regularly in your home town.
To participate in a Meetup group, you need to sign-up for an account on meetup.com, which is free and painless. Once you find a Meetup group that’s interesting, just click the “Join Us” button and the Meetup group manager will add you to the group and tell you more about the next Meetup event.
Start learning Italian, it’s easier than you think.
Picking up the Italian language can be wonderfully rewarding, especially if you’re a fan of Italian wine, food and travel (and you must be if you’ve read this far). It’s easier than you might think.
Check out the Duolingo app, it’s the quickest way I know of to learn the language, and the most fun.
Join an Italian language Meetup group in your home town or city and make some new lingua Italiana friends. The members are just like you, eager to learn the Italian language and share in the culture.
If you can make a “total immersion” trip to Italy work, do it — it will be one of the most exciting and memorable experiences of your life.