Mind Your Language Progress

It’s been awhile since I’ve had an Italian iTalki session. Though I have countless opportunities to speak the language with native speakers daily, I like iTalki because it takes off the pressure to perform and gives me space to speak freely, making all the mistakes I need in order to move forward. It’s also become a really good progress report for me — a way to mentally document how much I really can say in a way that my daily interactions with native speakers doesn’t really do. It’s the same mentality I found when losing weight. If I hop on the scale every morning, the progress is so slow as to be almost imperceptible. But if I weigh myself once every two weeks, the delta is greater, and it’s easier to identify solid progress toward my goal. ITalki is my biweekly Italian weigh-in.

I started using iTalki as a language tool for Italian about a year ago during lockdown. Over the year I’ve had a variety of lessons from numerous tutors as schedules and availability change. Now that we’re moving to Germany and I need to focus my hardcore study time on the German language, I decided to book more conversational Italian lessons in order to hone my skills and boost my confidence. My go-to conversation tutor isn’t available now, so I scoured the site and found someone who seemed like a great match for me. One of the main things I look for in a tutor is that they are also passionate about learning languages. Whether or not they are a native speaker of the language I’m learning is irrelevant to me. Rather, I want someone who understands the demand for flexibility in language learning, respects the need for patience working through mistakes, and is ready to celebrate the smallest of wins with me. Lucky for me, my newest tutor fits the bill perfectly, and she brings amazing energy and genuine intrigue to the conversation.

Last week I had my first session with the new tutor, and despite having used iTalki pretty regularly for Italian over the course of a year, I finally had my FIRST 30-minute conversational session completely in Italian! And, I might add, I didn’t have a headache after, which is a true sign of progress.

Now, to define “completely” here, let me take you back to my first few months of weekly 30-minute conversation practice back in 2020. I was so nervous that I could barely push out my greeting in the language. Once I cleared that hurdle, I would usually say something in English about what I wanted to discuss that day. Then I would launch into a recount of whatever noteworthy thing had happened that week, usually without having given much thought to what vocabulary or grammar I would need. My then-tutor (who was amazing, by the way) would respond with questions or stop to work through missing grammar or vocab. After about 15 minutes my speech would turn about half-Italian/half-English as I began getting flustered or entered unexplored conversational territory. Don’t get me wrong. I was always very proud of myself for any amount of conversation in my target language. Every time I could tell a story and be understood was a win. Every time she told me a story and I understood was a win. But 15 minutes was always about the maximum amount of Italian conversation I could have without switching to English and having to be coaxed back to Italian by my eternally patient tutor.

It’s been months since I’ve had an Italian iTalki session, so I was pretty nervous again to get started. But I know conversation is what I need at this point in my Italian language journey, so I jumped right in. We easily commenced with introductions in Italian, and I comfortably explained my history with the language and living in the country. I felt completely at ease asking her in Italian to repeat a question or write a word in the chat if I didn’t understand. With introductions complete, we dove a little deeper into conversation. And there it was — the first sentence I didn’t quite know how to say in Italian. Or, to be more accurate, a sentence I wasn’t confident saying in Italian because it required the imperfetto (past continuous), and I’m still a bit rusty there. Okay, breathe, Heidi…and go. So here’s what I did: I first said the troublesome parts of the sentence in English and then, before leaving space for being fed the word, I attempted it in Italian. Or, I would say what I thought it was in Italian and repeat the word in English. In either case, I produced the sentence in my target language on my own but allowed myself the comfort of having the English there as well. Turns out, I didn’t even need the English! Almost every single time I was able to produce a correct (or at least understandable) Italian sentence. And my lands, bless the tutors who are gentle and patient, holding space for our stumbled words and puzzle piece sentences!

Moving forward, I kept meeting words or phrases I wasn’t sure about, and time and time again I found myself able to either describe a word, guess it based on what I do know, or just ask. The beauty of this is that we maintained fluid conversation, side-stepping briefly where necessary to iron out a sentence, and continuing on without frustration or awkward pauses. Not only that, but I could literally feel my confidence rising as we progressed. After being given a better verb to use for a sentence (a reflexive one, which nearly always intimidates me), I was able to re-use that same verb a few minutes later and try my hand at conjugating it for a different subject. It was thrilling! Actually speaking Italian fluently (as in fluid, natural speed, and understandable) while at the same time actively learning new things about the language is truly exciting to me.

One of the most remarkable things about this lesson was that I never gave up or gave in. I never “switched” to English saying, “I don’t know how to say this in Italian.” I attempted everything in my target language, even if I had to slow down or ask for a word. Even when my tutor asked questions about my history and education as a mathematician, which requires very specific technical words, I didn’t go to my native tongue. I know inherently that many math terms have Greek roots, so I decided to just guess any words that I didn’t know for sure (like “statistiche” for statistics), and it served me well. If I didn’t get the right gender ending, it was close enough to keep the conversation flowing while making notes on the side.

Overall, this was the biggest confidence boost I’ve had for Italian in quite awhile. My tutor was particularly exceptional at testing my language skills to just above my comfort level, naturally enticing me to dip my toes in new waters and show myself that I actually know much more than I thought. I am capable of much deeper conversations than I’ve allowed myself to have. Though I inserted some English words, I was determined to produce the Italian equivalents on my own. Because of this, I feel 100% confident claiming this conversation session as “completely” in Italian, and I’m damn proud of it.

Perhaps the greatest product of this conversation, however, is the unequivocal appearance of progress. Not only has my vocabulary improved, but also my grammar has exploded! One year ago I was bound by the present and passato prossimo (present perfect) tenses, and I could use a few key verbs in the imperfect or future tenses. Similar for reflexive verbs — if I knew a specific one, I could use it, but I wasn’t comfortable conjugating on the fly, especially in more than one verb tense. But this time I didn’t feel at all confined by what I’d formally learned in a class three years ago. I was able to quickly pull from recent experiences helping my daughter with her Italian homework, completing Olly Richard’s 30-day Italian past tenses challenge, and reading more often to my kids in the language to fluidly discuss past, present, and future events. Stepping on the Italian language scale with my iTalki tutor proved that I am improving, I can speak conversationally in my target language, and I can be confident in my abilities.

So I add this thought to my monthly goal check-ins: MIND YOUR PROGRESS. Do you have a scale by which to weigh your language progress? Do you take time to step back and get a bird’s eye view of where you were a few months or a year ago versus now? If not, I encourage you to think about that this week. Where were you a few weeks ago? Six months ago? One year? What can you do in your language now that you struggled with before? Maybe you feel like progress is slow because you’re only looking at the day-to-day language tasks. Maybe you haven’t given yourself enough credit for your hard work and accomplishments. Wherever you are on your journey, think about the progress you’ve made. Find ways to reveal your progress to yourself and take note of all the things you’re capable of now that you haven’t taken time to celebrate yet. And then…CELEBRATE! I’m here dancing with you every step of the way!

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