You Really CAN Learn Italian in Five Minutes a Day

When I was studying abroad my junior year of college, I developed an oddball pastime.

I'd go to the university's language library and dip into random dialects, listening to tapes on Urdu or Japanese, flipping through a Scottish Gaelic dictionary. (I was at Oxford, so the collection was pretty extensive.) I loved browsing around in the marketplace of languages, and fantasized about becoming fluent in some obscure yet fascinating tongue. 

Hanging out in the language center didn't mark the start of my career as a linguist or teach me a single language—I wasn't that disciplined. Over the years I've studied Spanish, French, Russian, and Chinese, but I speak only one with any confidence. And I figured that was it for me—no more dabbling. At most, I'd try to improve the skills I already (sort of) had.  

Then I started traveling around the world with my husband and two kids. And as our time in Italy went from a day to a week to who-knows-when-we're-leaving, I was inspired to try to go beyond "ciao" and "grazie." I spend a laughable five minutes a day studying—and nobody is more surprised than I am at how well it's working.  

For an excellent overview of language-learning apps, check out this story by my pal Nikki Ekstein. By the time she wrote it, I'd already gotten attached to a free iPhone app called Duolingo, which offers bite-sized interactive lessons that are just game-like enough to be enjoyable. In about a month, I went from knowing zero Italian to being able ask questions like, "Where are the forks?" and "Do you have gluten-free pasta?"—and understanding most of the answers. 

It definitely helps that I was surrounded by signs and conversations in Italian. Also that Italians have been generous with their language—waiters and hotel staffers fluent in English have asked if I'd like to converse in Italian in order to practice. And there are some downsides to the app. For one, the vocabulary isn't presented in order of usefulness—I learned how to say "whale" before I learned how to say "I'm hungry." Still, I give Duolingo a lot of credit. 

Learning a new language has renewed my awe and envy of people who are truly multi-lingual.  As much progress as I've made, it could be years before I'm able to understand the news in Italian, much less hold a really nuanced, detailed conversation.

That's OK, I'll just take it five minutes at a time. 

Sara ClemenceComment