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Is there really a formula for how to learn a language well…to reach a level where you can proudly tell friends and family that yes, you speak Italian?
I’ve only been learning languages seriously for a few years now, but after navigating Italian, Mandarin Chinese, and Spanish, plus hearing advice from polyglots on not only how, but why they learn languages, the answer, to me, is unequivocally yes.
Now, when I say “formula”, here’s what I mean. To me, it’s an underlying structure that helps guide one along as they create their own blend of strategies to get them to some desired result.
So, for example, I don’t believe that the method Luca Lampariello used to learn 11 languages is the best method for everyone on the planet. (Although I think his method is awesome, so I tell everyone about him.)
What I do believe is that there are a handful of characteristics that tie successful language learners together.
When the Hungarian polyglot Kató Lomb wrote her book How I Learn Languages, I think she hit the nail on the head with her formula.
In order to follow this formula, it helps to embody particular characteristics, and to describe the ones you need, the Finnish word sisu comes to mind.
Amanda Ripley, author of The Smartest Kids in the World, via Time magazine, defined it as “…a compound of bravado and bravery, of ferocity and tenacity.”
So while there isn’t a defined set of steps to follow to learn each language (which, frankly, would be boring anyway), there is an underlying framework here, similar to the ones that novelists use when crafting a story.
But when you’re in the thick of learning a language and dealing with frustrating grammar principles or your own shyness, what can you do to follow Lomb’s formula or show up with tenacity and bravery?
For me, it comes down to making decisions, so here are five I’ve found to be essential.
1.) Choose to Challenge Yourself
There is immense joy that comes from the satisfaction you feel after being challenged to surpass your limits. It’s an even greater feeling when you’ve failed 1 or 3 times and finally feel like you’re having a breakthrough.
Luckily for us, learning a language offers a aperitivo-buffet variety of challenges for you to choose from, and each one will show that you’re more capable than you realized.
Choose to listen to the podcast lesson that’s just slightly above your level. Spend five minutes everyday reading the comic book in Italian that you think is too hard for you. Watch the Italian TV show or movie you love without captions for a few minutes.
You can challenge yourself in baby steps for now, and one day, you’re going to realize it takes less effort and energy than before.
2.) Choose Self-discipline, Not Control
I’ve seen people finish these long, laborious intensive courses and be so burned out that they don’t want to touch the language anymore.
They move onto something else to rest from their exhaustion because they’re so turned off.
They have overburdened themselves to “save” time and sacrificed the point of learning a language as a result.
Self-discipline is more loving.
As the mystic Osho says, it gives you permission to pursue the things within the language that delight you instead of following the rules someone else set for you.
It awards you freedom.
Instead of guilting yourself for not learning well using someone else’s method or feeling bad about not studying enough, you use your energy to do what feels best for you.
So, filling out workbook exercises becomes time to dive into a rabbit hole of idioms you’ve been curious about.
Or maybe you rest with an episode in Italian, and you return more energized the next day or the next week.
Instead of guiding yourself by guilt, “shoulds”, or by being your own personal drill sergeant, you’re fueled forward by love, creativity and genuine enthusiasm.
3.) Choose to Find Your Blend of Organization
While it might sound counterintuitive, one of the best ways to find freedom is within structure.
You don’t need an hour-by-hour schedule to learn a language, but you do need a few core pillars that make up your foundation.
Working within a system minimizes doubt, encourages you to deepen your practice, and saves energy for learning.
The only way I know to find a structure that is customized to each language learner is through a lot of experimentation.
While it may feel like you’re wasting time trying lots of new resources, methods, and learning strategies, you’re actually still learning Italian while also picking up not-so-random pieces that will serve the foundation of what works best for you.
Keep experimenting and holding onto the pieces you like best.
As you learn more, your strategies and your structure will evolve, and that’s a great way to know you’re making progress.
4.) Choose to Confront Personal Junk
When you learn anything new, you realize rather quickly that you’re your own worst enemy + your greatest, most loving savior.
This is because humans are tangled inside, and language learning has a tendency to summon demons – ugly things we don’t want to confront.
But when we choose to ignore them, we slow our progress.
We hold ourselves back and then wonder why we can’t have a proper conversation after six years of learning.
So when you realize that you can’t speak in Italian because you never have any conversations in Italian, book your first session on Italki for thirty minutes.
When you notice that you’re not making progress in Italian because you don’t have enough time to devote to it, make time by listening to podcast episodes on your commute, getting up 10 minutes earlier, or borrowing 15 minutes from your lunch break.
Recognize the methods you sneakily use to get in your own way, and confront them with honesty and kindness.
5.) Choose to show up every day.
Choosing a routine and maintaining a study streak are the life force of learning a language, particularly when you’re in the beginner and intermediate stages. While you won’t get the same quality of study out of each day because of exhaustion or busyness, progress happens when you decide to show up every day.
What do you think? What’s your next step to making progress with your Italian?