My first French teacher (who was not even French) was a complete idiot, and never really bothered to explain anything. If a student is struggling with understanding the material, I feel it is the teacher's obligation to spend extra time on certain areas of question, either with everyone in class, or on a one-on-one basis. Apparently this was not how my first French teacher operated. Upon entering high school, with my mother's request, I repeated the first level. It all began to eventually sink in, as my teacher's were much more proficient at explaining things.
It was not until I got to the university, from which I gained my BA, did I begin to work backwards again. My first professor for French was horrible and rude. He loved to belittle all of his students for their mistakes. Being a shy person, and for fear of making mistake, I rarely ever spoke. I continued taking French the following semester, and began yet again to grasp the grammar of French, as I had an intensive grammar class. That was my last French class I took, and began learning Italian.
Let me just say that I absolutely loved my Italian classes. There was no one to belittle me, and all the teachers encouraged students to speak, even if they made mistakes. Just to know you were trying was good enough for them. From having learned French, I quickly picked up Italian, but it was not until I began taking conversation courses that my Italian skyrocketed. Though I did have to work very hard to achieve the level that I am at now. Even in the conversation classes, we were required to do readings and debate about the different topics that arose. With the readings we had to do, our teacher would say, "read the readings without a dictionary. Try to at least understand the basic concept behind the article/story."
Well this did not work for me. Instead, I read the entire article, stopping at each word I did not know.... which was usually every other word. With my dictionary in hand, a highlighter and pen, I highlighted the word I did not know, and wrote the translation above it. It was quite helpful when the word was used more than once! Other times I wrote the translations in the margins. You can imagine how colorful my copies were! After reading through it once, and not having absorbed anything because of how long it took me to get through what I was reading, I re-read it with the translations.
It was during my first conversation class that I decided to make the leap to study in Italy when everyone in class jumped at the opportunity. And I have not looked back since.
So what have I learned about learning a new language from all this? Here are some tips:
1. Make sure you have a teacher who actually likes to teach the language. If possible, change your class for a new teacher. Learning a new language should be fun, not the cause of your nervous breakdown.
2. Do not be afraid to speak. It is important that you practice. Find a classmate who enjoys learning the language, and is not just taking the class for an 'easy A' (so they think). In fact, surround yourself with those who are equally passionate, and practice with them.
3. Study abroad! I cannot stress how important this part is... if you have the opportunity of course. Immersion does indeed help, though if you have a basic knowledge of the language. If you go to an area with non-English speakers, it will force you to use the language and not revert to your native tongue. If a study abroad option is not available to you, find a conversation group, such as the Dorothea House in Princeton, New Jersey.
4. Listen to music. This is probably the most simple way to pick up new words and begin to hear the distinction between each word, and not just hearing sounds. The sounds become words the more you listen to them. (If you understand what I mean.)
5. Read. Even if you have to sit there with a dictionary in your hand, reading is a great way to learn. It helps you learn the sentence structures of the language and of course teaches you new vocab. If it is too tedious, read a little bit at a time. Set a goal for yourself, like say, 5 pages in one sitting, depending on the complexity of the material.
What was/is your experience like learning Italian? Share with us your story!