How can I learn to understand and produce speech in a foreign language as well as I can write it?
August 29, 2007 6:09 PM   Subscribe

I'm learning a new language (Italian), and as with other languages I've learned, I have no trouble with the written form. But, as with the others, the spoken variety gives me trouble.

The front page part may be all you need, but in case it helps, here are some specifics. I'm starting to learn Italian through a university course. I already know a fair amount of Spanish (4 years of high school) and a little Portuguese (one semester in college) so I took the accelerated course that moves faster than the typical intro. FWIW, probably 4/5 of the class is majoring in another Romance language; I am not. (This probably doesn't matter other than they have more experience with a course not being in English.)

I'm not sure if I buy into the whole visual/auditory learner distinction, but I do know that in every language I "know" (including, to a lesser degree, English), I am much more proficient at reading/writing than listening/speaking.

This is the first course I've had that is given almost exclusively in a foreign language, so it's also the first time this has really been an issue. I've got a pretty good handle on conjugations, vocabulary, and the like when I write it, but when I speak, I get all tangled up. It's not primarily a pronunciation thing -- I know how most of the letters sound (even if I throw in some Portuguese-style long Es at times) -- but just can't get the words right, like throwing in a gli for an i, etc.

I got some good info from this thread but it seemed more applicable to non-academic settings. (While having a beer before my lunchtime class isn't out of the question, it's not really a solution for me.)

I'm in my last year, so the grade isn't really a big deal. (If it was, I might not even worry about this!) I'm taking the class because I'd like to actually learn Italian. So, polyglots of MeFi, how can I become better at comprehending and producing a spoken foreign language?
posted by SuperNova to Writing & Language (15 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Practice practice practice. If your University has a language lab, use it. Or find podcasts, TV broadcasts, movies. Don't expect to understand everything, but it helps train your ear.

My college had "language tables" where people could meet up for lunch once a week and practice a given language. Both beginners and native speakers would show up, and it was a great way to get some informal practice in. If something like that doesn't exist, think about organizing one- I'll bet you're not the only person on campus wanting to practice their Italian.
posted by ambrosia at 6:14 PM on August 29, 2007

See if some of your favorite television shows are available on DVD with an Italian track (the Simpsons are pretty good about this). If you find something you like, mess around with the subtitles and/or the dubbing options. Sometimes I like to turn the volume off, but the subtitles on, and speak the show out loud, reading it off the titles. If I'm familiar with hearing the episode in the foreign language, it's easy to mimic the prosody. All of this will help you get some practice casting those new sounds out of your mouth quickly!
posted by iamkimiam at 6:19 PM on August 29, 2007

immersion. can you travel at all?
posted by thinkingwoman at 6:24 PM on August 29, 2007

Dish network carries Italian TV RAI international.
posted by francesca too at 6:55 PM on August 29, 2007

I teach English as a second language, and what you are describing is perfectly normal in language learners (more facility with reading and writing than listening and speaking). That's mostly because when you read and write, you can work at your own pace and you can use references like dictionaries or grammar books. Listening and speaking, however, are different: there's more pressure on you to understand immediately and get it right the first time. It takes practice, but in time, you will be able to get your listening and speaking up to speed too.

I think the others above have made really good suggestions for improving your listening and speaking, but I wanted to add that it's important, when listening, not to get too hung up on understanding every single word. It's better to relax a bit and try to get the gist, or main idea, of what is being said. Often when I teach I'll be speaking to my students and all I can see are the tops of their heads as they madly look up words in their electronic dictionaries. Meanwhile, they haven't heard the last five sentences I've said. (Mind you, I noticed the same behaviour in myself when I took an immersion-style French class, and I practically had to force myself to put my dictionary down and try to understand the gist of what she was saying!)
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 7:14 PM on August 29, 2007

In a similar vein, I hear the phrase "train your ear" a lot -- is there actual empirical evidence for this phenomenon? I'm learning a language right now and people keep telling me just to listen to it even if I don't know what they're saying so I can "get used to the sounds." Valid?
posted by proj at 8:00 PM on August 29, 2007

Rent DVDs of italian movies and/or tv shows with an Italian track. I had the same problem backwards (I am italian) and English movies and tv-shows helped a lot.
There's also a fairly large archive of RAI TV shows and news here, plus a live stream of RaiNews24, all-news sat channel here.
Also, most radio channels broadcast live online, so you shouldn't have any problem in honing your listening skills.

I think listening to a lot of spoken language would also help you for subtleties as mistaking "gli" for "i" (which, I am happy to inform you, in some dialects such as Venetian is not a mistake). I think most of those will solve by themselves once you got into the gist of the language. The rest comes with practice.

Kudos on taking Italian, because the grammar is really hard.
posted by _dario at 8:21 PM on August 29, 2007

Memorizing things helps me -- conversations, bits of short stories, famous lines. Songs that get stuck in your head or movies you love enough to watch enough times that you can anticipate what the characters say next.
It's a spoonful of sugar!
posted by lullabyofbirdland at 8:28 PM on August 29, 2007

Uh, do the beer beforehand at least a couple of times. It really does help. Find another classmate, meet somewhere and talk in that language. If you don't know the word you are looking for, still try to state what you are saying with other words that come close. Talk around things and your partner will get it and say the word out loud.

Take the pressure off with one on one work. This can be fun. Learn words for what you talk about regularly. Talking to yourself in the language also helps, or maybe I'm just crazy.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:32 PM on August 29, 2007

Absolutely keep listening to it. Listen to RAI radio, leave itunes on a Milanese radio station. I found in studying Italian that I first couldn't distinguish words out of the conversation. Keep listening, and you'll be able to separate it out into words and phrases.
I think that your Spanish may be only half-helping you. They're similar enough to make it really dangerous.
FWIW, I speak Italian, French and Spanish and studied abroad in Italy.
posted by lilithim at 9:33 PM on August 29, 2007

I'd vote for practicing speaking. A lot. Over and over and over until it becomes second nature. Find a pretty Italian poem or even just read some paragraphs from your text book. Read over and over. Read with confidence. Maybe even try to memorize something. Also practice common phrases and idioms so they flow better ("Ciao, come stai?," or my favorite, from an ashtray my parents picked up in their travels, "Dagli avvocati e medici, mi salvi dio")
posted by radioamy at 11:30 PM on August 29, 2007

Just to add to what others are saying above, Netflix has a pretty large stock of Italian movies dubbed in English. Search the foreign films for Italian and you will find plenty. Some really good movies to boot.
posted by wile e at 3:36 AM on August 30, 2007

I've got excellent German, passable French (well the French probably wouldn't agree), and extremely rudimentary Spanish (native English speaker). When I'm alone I translate everything I'm doing into the language at hand out loud to myself.- no witnesses and I can stop and look up a word if I need to. This won't help with understanding what is said to you of course, but it really works in getting past the inhibition of speaking a language because of the utter absence of stress.
posted by nax at 4:06 AM on August 30, 2007

The LearnItalianPod podcasts will give you lots of spoken Italian to listen to, repeated at a pace meant for English speakers to follow. There are beginner and intermediate series.
posted by nicwolff at 8:30 AM on August 30, 2007

Thanks for all the very helpful tips. Honestly, I feel like I could've marked almost all of them as "best". You've given me some great places to start and some good ideas of where I'm at and where I'm going. Grazie!
posted by SuperNova at 9:41 PM on August 31, 2007

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