Learning a second language: Part 2

second language2

Awhile back, I wrote an article called Learning a second language as an adult, and shared some language learning resources.

I got a lot of positive response to that article, so I thought I would share an update. I’m still at it, and I’ve learned a lot. I’ve improved my language skills, but I’ve also learned a lot about the learning process, and discovered some excellent additional resources that I wanted to share.

This article is a bit long, (indicative of my efforts!), so if you are not interested, you can skip this, and I’ll be back with regularly scheduled programming on business leadership next week.

Mission accomplished… sort of…

I’m very pleased to report that I have met my initial goal of being able to communicate in Italian. I can now meet a new person, and speak for an hour or more without ever needing to switch to English to understand something.

So do I feel like I am finished learning to speak Italian? Not. Even. Close!

I have so many friends who speak multiple languages with ease, and it’s not really a big deal for them, but for me, this was a major deal. It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.

My life is better!

Let me jump to the outcome, and then I’ll go back to the process and the resources.

The outcome I want to share is probably the most exciting and heartening part of this whole process. I have made so many new, real friends.

There is no reason or way that these people would be in my life, let alone be my friends if it were not for my efforts to learn to speak Italian. My life has been enriched by these new friends in ways that I could never have imagined. Many of them came from other parts of Italy to come and visit me in Firenze. Some of them have come or are coming to visit me in California. I have always loved Italy, but now, I feel the world is open to a whole new level and type of friendship that was just not possible before.

So a big heartfelt thank you to all my new friends (in roughly the order that I met you) Maura, Priamo, Rosa, Vittorio, Piero, Elena, Serena, Luca, Daniele, Andrea, Stefano, Stefano, Ryoko, Momo, Riccardo, Sonia, Simone, Emanuele, and Cinzia. And people who always make me feel welcome in Firenze: Marco, Gennaro, Damiano, Carolina, Valeria, Sylvia, Giuseppe, and Alessandro.

Grazie infinite!

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When I started learning Italian, my thought about “fluency” was that when you were fluent in a language you were 100% functional.

To me fluent meant that you could handle any social, personal, or work conversation, you could understand all TV shows, and news and movies…

But now I’ve come to realize that the idea of being fluent in a language has many levels and facets.

If I’m in a conversation with someone willing to be a little patient, you might say I’m fluent.

If I’m in a conversation in a loud bar with a group of people, I’m barely hanging on.

And if I’m watching a movie or listening to the radio where lots of people are talking fast in a very natural and informal way, using short cuts and idioms – there are still times when I don’t understand it at all. That frustrates me!

So although I have reached my initial goal of being able to have meaningful conversations in Italian, I’ve also realized that it’s only because a conversation is a partnership.

In a conversation, the other person has a motivation that you understand and that they understand you. When there is a hiccup or a stall, there is an opportunity for repetition or explanation. When I am in a conversation with a motivated partner, I am almost 100% functional, and pretty comfortable.

Where I am not comfortable or totally functional in a conversation is when the other person is an impatient taxi dispatcher, or there is a dispute about a train ticket, or the hot water in the apartment isn’t working — the stress level goes up, and the other person has no patience or motivation to help me understand. At this point, the other person typically resorts back to English and I feel like I have failed.

But why I want to share my experience at this point is that I have learned a lot not only about the language, but I have also learned a great deal about the learning process itself.

I had no idea what I was in for!

When I got started, I had NO IDEA what I was in for. It was like I was thinking I was going to learn how to bake chocolate chip cookies – a pleasant and finite endeavor.

But instead the task was to learn the global history of the agricultural development of chocolate, and the key economic and political drivers of the chocolate market, the chemical properties and associated farming, sourcing and processing of wheat, eggs, and dairy, and how to build a supply chain with multiple factories to produce and distribute cookies along with other types of food.

In other words, the task is so much deeper, broader, and endless than I had ever imagined!

3 different processes to become fluent

What I have now learned is to become truly fluent and functional in a language requires thousands of hours, not just 30 minutes a day with a clever app.

I have learned that for functionality, fluency and comprehension to happen there are 3 separate and significant parts of the process:

1. Learning
2. Language acquisition
3. Practice


Awhile back, in my first article, I shared my experience with the Learning part. I have learned that the learning process is necessary but not sufficient.

In that article I listed the many different resources that I used to begin my learning. All of those resources were useful to me, but in that first year, I made two mistakes which I’ll note here and explain more fully below:

1. The first was to focus on “learning” only instead of focusing also on “acquisition”
2. The second was to not practice speaking frequently enough.


The turning point in my efforts happened when I met a language exchange partner (more on this later) online. Andrea is a mechanical engineering student who wants to learn to speak English both for the enjoyment of it, as well as the opportunity to pursue a masters degree in an English speaking country.

My first conversation with Andrea was almost 2 years into my study. We started our conversation in Italian and he was complimentary of my ability. He told me in Italian that he was a beginner that been speaking English for just 30 days. So when we switched to English, (thinking of my own experience) I was expecting to be helping a beginner struggle talk about very basic things. Much to my surprise, his English was fantastic! It was highly functional and not at all shallow. I was amazed. 30 days!

There were two very important things I learned from Andrea.

1. Although he had only been speaking for 30 days, he had been speaking almost every day.

I realized that in comparison I was speaking with a tutor for an hour only once every 1 or 2 weeks. Andrea accomplished 30 hours of speaking in 30 days. But for me to accomplish 30 hours of speaking it took about a year!

2. Andrea also shared his approach with me which was focused more on “language ACQUISITION” than “language LEARNING”

The Language Acquisition Process

Andrea shared this video below with me about the importance and value of the language acquisition process.

It’s about a half an hour (and an amusing throwback stylistically to the 70’s!) if you want to watch it, but I’ll summarize the most important points (for me) here.

I haven’t done the research to say that this is the final word on how to learn a language, but I will say that these ideas closely mirrored my own (and Andrea’s) experience, and these ideas were immensely helpful to me.

• There is a specific part of the brain that houses the machinery for acquiring language
Every human brain has this capability for language acquisition
• Acquiring language is the step that enables you to use the language naturally
• This language acquisition process is subconscious – you can’t force it through active learning
• The best way to maximize the acquisition of language is to feed this acquisition machinery in your brain “comprehensible input”
There is no more useful thing (no study of grammar, vocabulary, or any other active learning) as important for truly learning to use a language than to feed this part of your brain comprehensible input
• Though every human brain has this capability, the thing that makes one brain less likely to absorb a new language than another is stress and anxiety
Acquisition is much slower compared to the active learning process which is conscious and fast
Active learning can get in the way of language acquisition, and it can be a trap because people (like me) are attracted to the active learning process because it seems faster and feels more satisfying and more controlled.
• When you actively learn things, while you may learn them in an analytical sense, they don’t become accessible to you in conversation because you have learned them but you have not truly acquired them.

Stephen Krashen on Language Acquisition

Finally, a breakthrough!

Well this was a big eye-opener for me.

After 2 years of slogging away (as an excellent student) at the active learning process, I was still not functional. And it was painful.

I was working so hard that I actually became an inspiration for others to never try to learn a second language!

The other thing that really puzzled me, and frankly bothered me a little is that I would find that I would suddenly know things in Italian that I didn’t remember learning.

I am a very deliberate student. I know when and how I learn things. When I would suddenly know something that I didn’t learn, I found it very upsetting… I am aware of exactly what I learned — and I didn’t learn this. “Why do I know this?”

Slow and steady…

Once I understood about the slow and steady, subconscious language acquisition process a few wonderful things happened for me:

1. My anxiety level (finally) went down
2. I stopped trying so hard!
3. I began feeling glad when I would know things I that I didn’t actively learn
4. I started talking in Italian every day
5. I started listening to radio and podcasts and watching TV and movies for fun – and I trusted that this input was helping me progress, — even though I wasn’t aware of or in control of the learning

Within 30 days, I had huge breakthrough.

My comprehension went way up, and my ability to speak became more fluent and functional. It was not a subtle jump forward. It was big… Finally!

Here are the things that I have determined worked best, as well as great resources that helped me in each of the three phases, 1. Learning, 2. Acquisition, and 3. Practice.

1. Learning (the beginning phase)

Based on how the language acquisition process works, you need to feed your brain comprehensible input. But the problem is at the beginning there is no input that is comprehensible. You can’t just start listening to natural, full speed stuff. It won’t trigger the acquisition process in your brain because it is not comprehensible. So you need to start somewhere.

The beginning is where the active learning process is most useful and necessary.

This is where many of the resources I mentioned in my first article can help like the following:

Pick a beginner option that motivates you and start learning. Find a frequency dictionary and learn the most frequently used 2000 words in your target language. Use flash cards with Ankysis.

Learn to describe things

This was a hard fought battle for my early teachers. They kept showing me pictures and asking me to describe them.

The problem was NOT that I was afraid to say something wrong, or that I didn’t know how to say what I wanted to say — it was that I had absolutely nothing to say!

I would look at the picture and not be able to think of a single thing to say about it. Even in English. There were no words.

It was because I did not get the value of the concept of simply describing something.

I am accustomed to talking about things that are interesting and meaningful and valuable, and as an introvert I DETEST SMALL TALK. I never just talk to talk.

Well, when you are learning a language, you need to just TALK!

I realized that there is a fundamentally important step in learning a new language that has nothing to do with the new language.

You need to develop the ability to be able to say things in different ways — in your own language. And developing the skill of describing something in a different, non-direct way is the way to do that.

For example, in the beginning, if I wanted to ask a waiter for an ice bucket, and I didn’t now the words for either ice or bucket, I would simply stall and give up. Mission impossible. I would say nothing. Game over.

I did not have the skill to say (even in English), “Could we have a container to hold the frozen pieces of water for the purpose of the wine to be cold”

That’s not elegant, but it works.

Getting your point across, no matter what!

To become functional in another language you have to learn to get your point across when you don’t know the specific words for things, or know the best way to say it. You can’t just give up. You need to say something. If you can’t say it, find a way to describe something related to it.

This description skill took me a long time to develop because it was really unnatural for me.

The way I finally broke through was to instead of thinking about these describing exercises as non-valuable conversation, I began to treat it like a game.

When I was presented with a simple picture, I would challenge myself to say as many things about it as I possibly could. The game itself created the interest and the meaning, which enabled my non-small-talk-equipped brain to have a purpose.

Describe this picture. What do you see?

For example, as a game, how many things can you say about the following picture, even if you don’t know the word, “matchstick”. (Thank you, Luca for this picture.)

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There are 14 of these objects
These are objects used for beginning fire
You begin fire by moving the top part along something rough
They are made of wood
Normally they are about 2 inches tall
They are on a white background
They are parallel to each other
There is green spot at the upper left of the image
There is a darker line along the bottom and the right side
The parts at the top are 5 different colors
The colors are blue, yellow, green, pink, orange and red
There are 3 blue, 2 green, 2 orange, 2 pink, 2 orange and 3 yellow
The objects are a similar size, but not exactly the same size
The color of the wood is not the same on all the objects
The amount of space between the objects is similar but not exact
There are more blue than green
There are the same number of pink, red, and orange
The bottom of the sixth and twelfth ones are higher than the others
The one on the right looks the tallest
The color of the wood on each of the objects is slightly different
The objects of the same color look identical to each other
This is an object that is not always made of wood, sometimes it’s made from something like strong paper
These can be used to start cigarettes
These can be used to start candles
These can be used on as a source of light in the dark
The fire they create lasts for only several seconds
You could go on and on…

While none of this is Shakespeare, it includes a lot of very useful language for describing lots of other things!

By challenging yourself to simply describe things (in any language!), you go a long way to being able to get your point across, even when you don’t know the specific words to say.

In the beginning, if I did not know the work for “match” I would have been silent.

But once I got my brain trained on this game of saying as many trivial things as I could about something, instead of descending into utter silence by trying to think of something interesting or meaningful to say and coming up short, I could finally speak!

I really owe a lot of gratitude for my early teachers (especially Maura!) for their patience of trying to explain this to me — and me not getting it — at all!

I wasted too much time getting frustrated that I couldn’t say things the way I wanted to say them, instead of just saying something!

2.Language Acquisition

You need to feed your brain comprehensible input to activate that specialized language acquisition machinery in your brain that I mentioned earlier, to start doing its thing behind the scenes.

So you need to find a steady source of comprehensible input.

I’ve found a few really useful resources.

News In Slow Italian

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This service is available for Italian, French, Spanish and German. I mentioned this also in my first article, but I now understand why and just how important this resource was for me because it is an outstanding source of comprehensible input.

You get to listen to your target language spoken slowly and clearly and read along in the transcript if you wish. It also allows you to mouse over tricky phrases and get an instant translation.

This is an extremely valuable tool. It triggered the language acquisition process for me and increased my confidence.

Watching Italian TV Shows and Movies

I also mentioned in my last article, buying movies from Amazon.it and getting a multi-region DVD player. I’ve also learned that the detachable DVD drive for my computer easily switches between regions.

I find the best way to watch an Italian movie for the first time is to read the plot in Italian on the internet (Someone has described the plot of pretty much every movie or show on the internet!) In doing this, I also learn a lot of new vocabulary.

And for me it works well that I don’t need to be figuring out the plot and the language at the same time.

Then I watch once or twice with Italian subtitles. (English subtitles do your brain no good, you’re just reading a story in English so it doesn’t not trigger the language acquisition machinery in your brain)

Finally I’ll watch it a couple more time without subtitles.

Listening to and watching FUN things

Because optimizing the language acquisition ability of your brain requires you to be relaxed and without stress, I realized that only listening to news, and even watching whole movies was not fun enough to be relaxing. So I started watching Friends, Simpsons, and Star Trek Next Generation episodes dubbed in Italian!

At first it was very difficult — impenetrable. The language was so fast and informal compared to News in Slow Italian, or to my patient conversation partners and teachers that it was almost impossible.

But I found that the more I relaxed, the more I could understand. And watching those shows fed my brain comprehensible input that was much more like natural conversation than a narrated news program. And because it was fun, my stress level was very low.

It was kind of funny, to think of the task of watching an episode of the Simpsons as a way developing my brain instead a way of turning it off!

For Italian Learners, A wonderful book!

non puoi

My friend and on of my language teachers, Sonia is also an author. She has written a book available on Amazon which is fantastic. My experience with other books is that if you try to read a standard novel or non fiction book in your target language, it’s too difficult. And if you read a book focused on language learning it’s deadly dull. Sonia has created a wonderful book for Italian learners called, Non Puoi Essere Tu, that I can not recommend highly enough. It really useful for Italian language learners but would be entertaining even for a native Italian speaker.

iTunes country switch

I’m a little envious of my new friends who are learning English because there is SO MUCH content available in English. I was wanting to find a rich array of podcasts in Italian, but when I searched the internet for “Italian Podcasts” I always came up short.

I found a great trick to search for podcasts in your target language in iTunes. Simply scroll down to the bottom and select “change country”. Once you select your target country you can browse podcasts in that language. I’ve found a few good podcasts in Italian this way.

3. Practice, practice, practice, practice, practice: Talking every day

Practicing conversation really helps. It helps because you are getting a really natural version of comprehensible input which serves the language acquisition process, but I found it’s also important to train your mouth to function in a new language. Practice is so important.

To that end, I found a website called italki.com which where I found two types of really valuable resources.

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On italki, I found two amazing resources.

1. Language tutors who work for ~$7-15/hour
2. Language exchange partners

My first experience with italki.com not only challenged my language skills, but presented an almost crushing challenge to my introvert tendencies…

One weekend I went to italki.com and searched for an Italian language tutor and the site presented me an option of “instant tutoring”.

Pushing the “request instant tutoring with Luca” button was one of the scariest things I have ever done. I sat there for ages…Can I really do this? Can I press this button and be face to face right now with a total stranger AND have to speak in Italian. OMG…

Finally, I reminded myself that no matter what happened after I pressed the button, I wouldn’t die. So I pressed the button.

In an instant, I was face to face with Luca on a Skype video chat.

Luca (a 26 year old medical student in Milan) had a smile that leapt through the computer screen, and was a person who could not have been more full of kindness and light. He was incredibly friendly and warm and patient. After that first terrifying moment, Luca became my friend, and a regular tutor.

Soon after that, I received an italki message from a potential language exchange partner, Andrea.

I scheduled a Skype with Andrea and again was face to face with a new person, needing to speak in Italian.

On italki.com, you can find Community Tutors who teach part time and charge anywhere between $8 and $15/hour, and you can find language exchange partners for free.


I still work with my language teachers at CyberItalian.com which is an outstanding resource for both the learning and acquisition processes. I highly recommend CyberItalian if you are learning Italian. It offers the richest set of resources I have found all in one place. If you are serious about learning Italian, check it out.

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My process for the past several months has been to talk with my CyberItalian.com teachers once every 2 weeks or so, plus I try to schedule an informal conversation with someone almost every day. I have 2 language exchange partners who I met on italki.com (I met about 6 and landed on 2 great ones), 3 teachers/tutors on italki.com, 2 teachers with CyberItalian.com, and many other Italian friends.

Once I started talking almost every day, both my comprehension and my speaking took a big leap forward — because conversation is an excellent source of comprehensible input AND practice.

It was truly a great gift for me to realize that this language acquisition process is a subconscious process, and that I didn’t have to work so hard. I just need to keep going!

Tutto fa brodo

My friend and language partner Andrea also taught me the phrase, “tutto fa brodo”, which literally translates to “everything makes soup”. It means that every little bit helps. I love this concept!

Since I have learned that the language acquisition process is subconscious and slow, and that it requires first and foremost, comprehensible input, I am trusting that everything I listen to, every conversation I have, every show or movie I watch is feeding the language acquisition process in my brain. Even if I don’t understand everything or if I feel like I’m not expressing myself very well — Every time I listen or try to speak, I can have confidence that my brain is developing and that I am making progress. Every word and phrase is feeding that part of my brain and settling in.

My brain is better!

I will also add that I have really enjoyed what learning a new language is doing to my brain and to my appreciation of life and other cultures. It’s also improved my view of effective communications — even in English.

My brain feels more open and more nimble. It has a new and bigger default which reacts “I can” instead of “I can’t”. I have a new ability to get to the heart of what I am trying to say.

If I am talking to an international audience, I have become much more clear in my English! I think, if I don’t know how I would say something Italian, I don’t say it in English. I find a simpler way.

And I while I have always believed that effective communication is about what the other person understands, not what you say, learning a new language has given me so much more insight to this!

There are times when I feel so frustrated in Italian, and by comparison it feels so satisfying when I can switch to English and finally feel that I can truly express myself…But then I realize that my crude Italian version actually lands better with native Italian speakers then my eloquent, English that feels so satisfying to me.

Even though it feels awkward and incomplete to me, the communication is so much more effective in the other person’s native language.

In any language, communicating is always about what the other person received and not what you think you delivered.

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About Patty
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Patty Azzarello is an executive, best-selling author, speaker and CEO/Business Advisor. She became the youngest general manager at HP at the age of 33, ran a billion dollar software business at 35 and became a CEO for the first time at 38 (all without turning into a self-centered, miserable jerk)

You can find Patty at www.AzzarelloGroup.com, follow her on twitter or facebook


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