How should one go about teaching oneself to read a foreign language?
July 6, 2005 8:09 AM   Subscribe

Languages: I would like to teach myself a foreign language with the primary motivation of reading literature written originally in that language. (Italian, in this case.) For now, speaking and pronunciation are not as important as learning grammatical rules, sentence construction, and growing my vocabulary. Ideally, I would like to learn at my own pace, without having to hire a tutor or enrol in language classes, and I would prefer to skip general phrasebook greetings. Apart from a dictionary, what should I arm myself with? Are there any good resources on the web for this? How should one go about teaching oneself to read a foreign language? Thanks!
posted by Lush to Writing & Language (18 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: In one of my favorite children's books, the main character chooses a piece of writing that he knows intimately well. In his case it was the Gospel of John, "In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God...". He learns several languages by picking up a copy of the Bible in that language. You might pick a book or three that you know very well, and go get the Italian translation. I don't think word-by-word memorization would be necessary, but you'd want to remember the plot well enough to rely on it to carry you through the language.

(I have no idea whether this would work, but I've always loved the idea.)
posted by gleuschk at 8:27 AM on July 6, 2005

You should be able to find books containing english and italian versions of the same text; one page will have italian, the facing page will be the same text in english. When I took German, we read through Faust this way.
posted by boo_radley at 8:29 AM on July 6, 2005

Your most important tool will be daily practice.

I made a half-hearted effort at teaching myself Latin last winter. I gathered a couple text books, and a couple of Latin texts. (I used both classical texts and modern texts re-written in Latin (e.g. Harry Potter, Winnie the Pooh).) I found a box of one thousand vocabulary cards.

My progress was great for two weeks, during which time I was devoting at least an hour a day to the subject. I would go for long walks and read a chapter from one of my textbooks while I strolled the neighborhood. I'd do the exercises as I walked. I was pleased.

Then life interrupted, and my studies became more sporadic. I tried to carry the vocabulary flash cards with me, but found that I wasn't taking the time to look at them. From time-to-time, I'd find a week or so during which I could spend an hour a day at the process, and again my progress would be pleasing. Eventually, though, I lost the time and the motivation.

For me, at least, the most important aspect of learning a foreign language is daily practice. I'll bet you that once you have a passing familiarity with the grammar rules and the basic vocabulary, you can find some Italian web sites (news sites, probably) that you can peruse every day to reinforce your skills. But somehow get that daily practice.

I'd like to find a Latin class locally. It would force me to practice on a regular basis. (I cannot abide low grades, even if the marks have no practical application to my real life. A class would motivate me to study.)

Good luck! Learning a language is fun, like a gateway to another world.
posted by jdroth at 8:33 AM on July 6, 2005

DVDs, with the appropriate subtitles turned on. Choose movies that you know well and that have Italian subtitles as an option. As you're watching the movie, read the subtitles. It feels strange at first, but after a while you'll start to pick up where the subtitles don't echo word for word what is being said. That's the point where you're starting to understand sentence construction in the other language.

I guess this is just a slightly more hi-tech version of gleuschk's idea.
posted by veedubya at 8:36 AM on July 6, 2005

I would think the Berlitz books would be good for the grammar aspects of this. Or are those still published? Ah, yes, they are -- what I'm thinking of is the self-teacher series. (Libraries often have these.)
posted by JanetLand at 8:45 AM on July 6, 2005

Best answer: Good article and discussion at Kuro5hin about this:

Also, How to learn any language:

Language impact:

There was also another thread on K5 about learning French for Canadian citizenship, but the search there is broken right now.
posted by OmieWise at 8:52 AM on July 6, 2005 [1 favorite]

I'm sorry, I just realized I didn't code those links.
posted by OmieWise at 8:53 AM on July 6, 2005

Ok, here it is:

How I learned French in One Year

posted by OmieWise at 8:54 AM on July 6, 2005 [1 favorite]

There are various mailing lists for language learners. They normally pick a text and do readings/translations/exercises. Try Yahoo groups or just a Google search or DMOZ search. It's been 3 years since I participated in one of those (Latin), but they provide community & regularity.

OmieWise : There was also another thread on K5 about learning French for Canadian citizenship, but the search there is broken right now.
posted by Gyan at 9:39 AM on July 6, 2005

1) Practice practice practice
2) Get yourself a college-level introductory textbook (high school-level will probably include too much "conversational" vocabulary), to get over the initial grammar and vocabulary hump.
3) I second the dual-language DVD or book recommendations made above. In high school french, we'd often watch Disney movies in French or with French subtitles.
posted by muddgirl at 10:14 AM on July 6, 2005

There's a pretty decent book on the subject called "How to Learn Any Language" by Barry Farber.

I found the prose slightly pompous and arrogant, but he does have some really good suggestions for learning languages.

Good luck!
posted by mulkey at 10:17 AM on July 6, 2005

Oh, may I recommend The Little Prince in both English and Italian? It's a kids book, so it's not too hard, but it's a must-read and really helped my French conjugation and comprehension.
posted by muddgirl at 10:22 AM on July 6, 2005

all good suggestions, let me add two:

television -- RAI International is on satellite, just watch the news a lot, context will help you understand better, they also have some close captioned broadcasts.

and then, audiobooks. iTunes has plenty in Italian. buy a book (that you have already read in English) on paper in Italian then get the audiobook and listen. it'll help a LOT
posted by matteo at 10:51 AM on July 6, 2005

>Your most important tool will be daily practice.

This is true and is a cue for me to recommend Supermemo. Don't be put off by their rather cluttered website; the program is simple and effective. It's essentially just a flashcard program - but what makes it unique is that it has a very well-designed scheduling algorithm so that each day you are presented with a small selection of items from your library. Items you remember well get spaced out progressively longer until, essentially, you'll never see them again. More difficult items show up more frequently. You grade your own memory and you can design cards just about any way you can imagine.

I've made somewhere around 20,000 items in my supermemo collections and every day I'm see a couple dozen. Unless I'm busy adding new material, it only takes me 10-20 minutes and this has completely solved the problem of "how do I retain the stuff I've already learned during times when I can't devote hours each day to language stuff?". It also essentially solves the problem of balancing review with new material - you do your review, every day, and then if you still have time you can add new stuff.

I tend to read a lot of stuff from the internet so it's easy to cut and paste into supermemo. I insist of having things in context - not only does it make individual words easier to remember, and teaches the correct and colloquial usage of them and builds up a web of associations that makes acquiring new words easier. The collections of just isolated words that you can get from the supermemo library are not worth the time; make your own contextual items from what you're reading and what you're interested in.

Here's a short supermemo article on a nice language-learning website.

Oh, and make sure you learn enough that you can speak stuff out loud. Even if your primary intent is reading, I think you won't get that sense of having your newly-acquired material running around in your head unless you can "hear" what you've read.

(Incidentally, I just went on a trip to Hungary; I haven't been there for years, but I hardly encountered a word I didn't know, and credit's due to daily practice with supermemo.)
posted by Wolfdog at 11:13 AM on July 6, 2005

I recommended BBC Itelian Grammar in this previous thread and will mention it again here. I learned a ton from this little book.
posted by teleskiving at 11:46 AM on July 6, 2005 [1 favorite]

Especially for a language like Italian, supplement the dictionary with a reference grammar (ideally)--a grammar book presented by topic rather than in progressive lessons. If you can't find/afford one, then the most comprehensive textbook you can find. A college textbook (or even a high school one) usually has meatier grammar than the typical general-audience "learn X language now!" books.

At the very least, see if you can find verb conjugation tables, because that's the killer for romance languages.

Get a GOOD dictionary, a "college" or "unabridged" one--spend at least $30 on it. You can jump in and start reading simple texts right away, but most authentic texts have vocabulary that far outpaces what you'd find in cheaper dictionaries.

Simple-ish books that you can find in both languages are a good place to start.
posted by Jeanne at 11:47 AM on July 6, 2005

I've tried the exact same thing, even with the same language, and failed. I can speak Italian well enough to hold long conversations, and I'm a speed-reading demon with the children's books, but I can't read the Italian literature that was my goal from the start. The very things that make literature so compelling (original form, words, phrasing, etc.) make it maddening for a struggling reader. YMMV.
posted by letitrain at 2:27 PM on July 6, 2005

Response by poster: Wow, what a wealth of resources to look into, thanks everyone!

OmieWise, those links are great. They really help in putting a language-learner in the right frame of mind, especially the second one, which cautions against like memorizing lists of words without context. Meaning I should continue ignoring the main selling points of the books I encounter in the local bookstore for books listing xx number of words or for learning the language in yy amount of time (the shortest and easiest ways possible!!!1), which don't really fit my purposes.

I really like the idea of pitting familiar texts vis-a-vis Italian versions of the text, and variations like using Italian DVD subtitles, cable/satellite TV channels, audiobooks. I'm glad muddgirl mentioned The Little Prince because it is beloved to me; it was the first "real" book I read as a child and have been searching for writing like it ever since -- beautiful and lyrical, deceptively simple, layered, symbolic, precocious, universally encompassing, wise. I have found this in Italo Calvino, and really, really want to read his works in their original Italian. In the thread teleskiving links to, Calvino partly inspired the question-asker, too. Full circle!

(Unlike the other thread, though, I have the opposite problem: limited access. I wasn't sure if I should put in the disclaimer that I live in a Southeast Asian country where the variety of books is limited (no public libraries, stilted access to questionably-stocked academic ones, bookstores carrying mainly only more popular titles). And in that other thread, languagehat recommends The Italian Language Today which looks really promising in a "wow this sounds exactly like what I am seeking" kind of way.

Also, thanks to answers in both threads, I just got an idea: check out the Italian embassy!)

Flashcards never even occurred to me but now that the concept has been introduced, it makes perfect sense - for building vocabulary and as regular practice. Jeanne makes a good point about investing in a good, big dictionary. And for syntactic rules, that BBC Italian Grammar book recommendation seems a fitting complement.

letitrain, I'll keep that caveat in mind, though I wonder what specific hurdles you encountered. Maybe I should pay extra attention to irregular structures?

In case anyone wants to do the same thing, I asked some offline friends about this, too. One recommended partnering up with a language buddy at MyLanguageExchange to practice usage, which goes with joining a language group like Gyan suggested.

Thanks again to everyone who commented. Each answer was really, truly helpful.
posted by Lush at 1:18 AM on July 7, 2005

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