My name is Davide Gemello, I’m the man behind Podcast Italiano and have been helping people learn Italian since 2017. But long before that, thanks in large part to the creator of this blog, I've been into learning foreign languages. I have also studied translation and interpreting, even if I never took it up professionally, and I’ve been fascinated by linguistics for quite some time.
Over the years, my passion for languages has led me down interestings paths, giving me insights about the process of language learning that Luca asked me to share with you. Here they are.
1. Don’t neglect your native language (Italian)
When I embarked on my language learning journey, it was incredibly easy to become wholly engrossed in the new languages I was picking up, like Russian, French, Spanish and English, spending most of my time with earphones on and constantly listening to podcasts or watching YouTube videos. This massive immersion, whilst crucial to learning a foreign language, led to a somewhat weird and disconcerting phenomenon: my Italian got worse.
The fluency I took for granted started becoming rusty. Foreign words would be constantly floating in my mind and I was becoming slower at retrieving their Italian equivalents. My Italian grammar was also being influenced by my L2: I was starting to construct sentences in odd ways that, upon reflection, were also influenced by my foreign languages. Once I remember using the made-up subjunctive form “introdusca” instead of “introduca” with my disconcerted girlfriend, who wasn’t aware that was a calque of Spanish “introduzca”.
This happens all the time to people who emigrate from their home country, lose contact with their native language and, with time, start speaking in a way that sounds odd to family and friends. I’ve been told that Russian-speaking immigrants in Italy can be heard saying things like брать автобус (as in “prendere l’autobus”, literally “to take the bus”, as we would say in Italian), instead of the correct Russian construction (“сесть в автобус”, “sit down in the bus”).
This doesn’t only happen to emigrants. I’ve noticed it happening to people who’ve never moved to a different country but for some reason don’t have a lot of contact with their native language in their daily life. I personally know people who spend all of their time consuming content in English and end up speaking Italian with weird calques and wrong grammar usages. After all, it’s not your physical location that matters: if you’re spending 90% of your day in a foreign language your L1 is bound to get a little rusty.
Language learning is one of the most enriching activities a human can do, but it's essential to ensure that our L1 stays strong and well-nourished. Think about it this way: if you’re living in your home country, your native language is probably your most important language. I’d go as far as to say that we, language lovers, should treat our native language as a foreign language, especially one in which we’ve achieved an extremely high level: with the same love, passion and care.
For me, that means having high-quality input (reading books and listening to speakers of the language who can use it articulately), reflecting on the constructions and vocabulary other people use, taking notes when I encounter a word I didn’t now or one that I understand but would like to adopt in my active vocabulary. It helps that I also teach Italian professionally, but I’d recommend it to everyone.
Oh, and don’t forget about the “use it or lose it principle”: you have to actively produce language (speaking and writing) in order to maintain your active skills, as mere exposure is helpful but not sufficient. As a matter of fact, my speaking is what I found most frustrating when I was obsessively learning Russian.
If you think about it, these are all strategies we use when learning a second language!
2. Language learning can be an endless journey (English)
English is by far my best foreign language. What I’ve learned over the many years of refining my skills in the language is that there is no finish line in language learning. There's always a new word, idiom, pronunciation rule, grammar construction waiting to be discovered. You can learn forever. To novice learners, this thought can be intimidating.
Don’t let that scare you: it doesn’t take nearly a lifetime to get good or fluent, as the most important words and constructions are the first and most common ones you’re going to encounter in your language learning journey. The point I’m making is that, as you improve, your learning is going to start yielding diminishing returns. The new words and phrases you will be coming across after 5 years of learning a second language are going to be far less crucial and less commonly used than the ones you learned in, say, the first six months.
Obviously you don’t have to keep learning and refining your target language indefinitely if that’s not your goal - you might be perfectly OK with your current skills, and that’s fine! You, as a learner, decide what your language learning goals should be. I do personally believe that knowing (at least) one language at a very high level has great advantages. Just don’t think you’re ever going to reach a natural finish line, because, as we saw with my first lesson, there isn’t one, even for your native language.
3. Use it actively, if that’s your goal (French)
My journey with French taught me a valuable lesson, which is connected to something I discussed in lesson 1 in relation to your native language. While my comprehension of French is reasonably good, speaking is a different story. I am hesitant, fearing mistakes and mispronunciations, using wrong words and, at the end of the day, not sounding as articulate as I’d like. That’s because I have never really used it all that much: I don’t have many French friends, I’ve never had that many French conversations in my life, I don’t go to France that often (despite living close to the country! I should visit more often…).
It might sound obvious to some, but to speak and write a language well you must speak and write it regularly. Passive comprehension doesn't naturally translate into active fluency. It is a necessary condition, as mathematicians would put it, but not a sufficient one.
At some point in your journey you have to start activating the language and ramping up your speaking and writing time, otherwise you can become an excellent “understander” —if you'll allow me the creative liberty—but a bad active user. There are literary translators who understand their L2 incredibly well but aren’t necessarily very good at speaking or writing it. And I’ve personally met lots of students who understand Italian incredibly well, but have never spoken it all that much and thus never developed that active skill.
So if your goal is to actually speak well (which it probably will be for most people), open up, chat, discuss, and converse! As we’ve seen in lesson 1, if you don’t use it you’re going to lose it.
4. Languages help you explore different parts of yourself (Spanish)
Speaking Spanish has always been fun for me. Beyond the vocabulary and grammar, there is a fun spirit to the language and its speakers. I’m normally a quiet person and have always considered myself an introvert more than an extrovert. When I engage in Spanish conversations, however, I tend to feel a bit different than in other languages, more playful and light-hearted.
When people ask me if speaking different languages changes my personality, I think the answer is “yes and no”. Let me elaborate: yes, because, as I’ve just said, I do tend to show different sides of my own personality depending on the language I’m speaking and people I’m speaking it with; no, because those are sides that already exist in my own personality and happen to come out more or less strongly. It’s like a magnifying glass highlighting parts of my identity.
Why does that happen? I don’t think it’s the language itself (as in its words, structures, etc.) that’s changing your personality, but rather the cultures of the people who speak that language. After all, languages are always used by people, they don’t exist in a vacuum. In my experience, Spanish and Latin American people tend to be quite talkative and cheerful and that translates into me wanting to behave like them and showing that side of my personality. On the other hand, if I’m speaking Russian I tend to be more serious, because generally Russian speakers are a bit more reserved and discreet in their social interactions.
I think it’s worth noting that I’m someone who tends to unconsciously mold his personality depending on his interlocutor: if I’m speaking to someone who’s very serious I tend to become serious too, when I’m with a more playful person that side of me comes out more, and so on. That’s probably part of the reason I tend to act differently based on the language I’m speaking: I’m naturally not too rigid in the way I act and interact with other people, irrespective of the language.
I think it’s really important that we keep our identity malleable and open to slight changes and modifications when we’re learning a new language. That’s going to make it easier to feel like part of the tribe of native speakers we should aspire to join, which in my opinion is really important in second language acquisition, and is a great way to step outside the comfort zone of one's primary language identity.
5. Don’t go crazy with the grammar (Russian)
Russian is one of the hardest languages to learn, according to some people, and definitely the hardest I have tackled. Its intricate grammar, full of cases, declensions and verb aspects can definitely be daunting to a learner who’s not familiar with these grammar concepts. I was learning the language at university and I can easily see (because that happened with my classmates) how I could have gotten caught up in the grammar web and become really demoralized and given up.
Fortunately, thanks to the great advice shared by people like Luca and other renowned polyglots and thanks to my own previous experience with other languages, I knew that input is king and set out to get massive input from day one. University was when I would be focusing on grammar. At home, I would do what was fun and most useful.
With Russian, I realized the importance of focusing on language constructions. Instead of merely memorizing rules, I began understanding how phrases (some people might call them “chunks”) are naturally formed and used in daily conversations and how concentrating on these can lead to a more intuitive grasp of grammar.
For instance, a phrase like “in my town” in Russian would be “в моём городе” (v moem gorode). If you memorize that sentence you’re actually using the prepositional case (which in Russian is used to indicate location) both in the adjective (“moem”, meaning “my”) and its noun form (“gorode”, town). Now, let’s say you’re learning another phrase like “in this case”, which would be “в этом случае” (v etom sluchae). Now you have two different words, but the construction is the same. You might notice the “om” ending in the adjective and that it shares an ‘m’ in the ending with the adjective in the previous phrase we encountered and, once again, the -e ending in the noun.
If you’re being exposed to thousands of sentences like that you’re going to acquire those patterns unconsciously, but also become better at consciously detecting them. As Steve Kaufman puts it (affiliate), your “ability to notice” improves. If you instead tried to recall the prepositional form of the adjective and the noun (which, to complicate matters even more, have different classes, so you have various declensions) translating that very sentence would be quite a difficult task.
By the way, I do think some deliberate grammar learning is beneficial, and having a glance at your declension tables or verb conjugations from time to time can help. However, I don’t think rote-memorization is particularly effective or a worthwhile usage of your time. It’s better to let context be your guiding star and get used to learning phrases and exposing yourself to the language and not focus too much on the intricacies of grammar. With enough exposure and a little bit of deliberate practice you’re going to get the grammar.
In wrapping up, with each language I’ve learned I’ve gotten a bit better as a language learner. As you embark or continue on your language learning journey, remember to relish every challenge and celebrate every milestone. The world of languages is vast and endlessly fascinating—immerse yourself and enjoy the voyage!
Written by Davide Gemello
Davide Gemello is the creator of Podcast Italiano, a project aimed at helping foreigners learn Italian and spreading the love about the Italian language, mainly through his podcast and YouTube channel. He loves foreign languages and linguistics.