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Imparare l'italiano

Learning Italian

In honor of the annual "Settimana della Lingua Italiana nel Mondo" (Week of the Italian Language in the World), I am re-posting my favorite ways of studying l’italiano.

1. Fill your ears. Modern Italian sprang from the volgare, the rough-and-ready street Latin of ancient Rome. Spoken for centuries before the vernacular was captured on paper, Italian remains a language for the ear.   Listening primes the brain for understanding. Downloading podcasts and listen on planes, trains, buses and places in between.

2. See it, say it, stick it.  Train yourself to say the Italian word (if only to yourself) for things you look at every day: il cielo for the sky, la sedia for  the chair; il pane for the bread. Put a post-it note with the Italian name on objects, such as la porta (the door) or lo specchio (the mirror), around the house. Don’t remove one until you’ve memorized the term.

3. Read. Go to onlinenewspapers.com for a sampling of Italian language papers. Just scanning the headlines will give you a sense of common words and names in the news. Try to get your hands on Italian comics (seriously). They provide a fun way to improve your vocabulary and reading skills.

4. Watch. You can find news, documentaries and popular shows on RAI's website. Various sites and networks, including Netflix, offer Italian language movies. If they have subtitles, by all means read them,  but leave the sound on so you can absorb the rhythm of the language.

5. Sing. Even if you can’t carry a tune, singing along with popular Italian songs can introduce you to everyday vocabulary and improve your pronunciation. At www.youtube.com you’ll find everything from charming ninnenanne (lullabies) to pop tunes like Volare and famous operatic arias.

6. Play. Word games in any language strengthen the brain and boost memory. In Italian giochi di parole, such as cruciverba (crosswords), enigmi (puzzles) and anagrammi (anagrams) add the extra bonus of building your vocabulary.  Or you can ask an Italian to teach you card games such as Scopa and Briscola. (Just don’t bet any money on them.)

7. Mingle.  Watch a soccer match in an Italian bar or restaurant. Take cooking classes taught by Italians. Go to Italian street festivals. Enroll in a class at schools, community centers, Italian cultural organizations — or, best of all, in Italy.

8. Don’t be afraid of tripping over your tongue. “Sbagliando si impara,” Italians say. “You learn by making mistakes.” Focus on communicating, not speaking in diagram-able sentences. And by all means, use your hands. That’s molto italiano.

9. Spend time in Italy every day. If you don't have time or money for a trip abroad, bring a little Italy into your life. Drink an espresso. Enjoy some gelato. Wear something Italian (shoes are a great choice). Visit the websites of ex-pats, happy wanderers and travel bloggers.

10. Be swept away. I fell so madly, gladly, giddily in love with Italian that I spent years researching and writing a biography of the language.  The more you know about how Italian became Italian, civilized the Western world and enriched every aspect of our culture and life, the more Italian you’ll want to know.

Dianne Hales is the author of MONA LISA: A Life Discovered and the New York Times best-selling LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Languagenow available as an audiobook.

For something entirely different, sit in on an Italian class with Monty Python: