I've chosen to learn to speak Italian fluently this year, but I have yet to complete the most important step I'll perform this year. There are a lot of important steps involved in becoming fluent in a new language: learning vocabulary, figuring out those strange new grammatical constructs, opening your ears to hear the language, learning to pronounce it, well, you get the idea. But there is one that that is more important than all of the rest.
The most important thing you'll do when setting a language-learning goal is defining your goal. What does it mean to be fluent? Without good definition, you can study all year and never actually be successful, but with a clearly defined goal, it's even possible to become fluent in as little as three months! (My goal won't be as aggressive as Benny, but with a whole year to study, I will expect to have a solid knowledge of the language I learn.)
So, let's define what I mean when I say I am going to be fluent in Italian by the end of this year.
- The term fluent is a form of the word fluid, or flowing. In other words, a fluent speaker of a language should be able to form flowing speech. Pauses to think are natural for anyone, but what's important is the ability to chain words together casually.
- A fluent speaker should be able to understand a casual conversation, and insert themselves into it without breaking the momentum. For example, if I am with friends and they're talking about a new restaurant, I should be able to jump in and say that I've been to that restaurant, what I had, and what I'd recommend. Just as I can, and do, in my native English.
- A fluent speaker should be, within reason, grammatically correct. It's okay to be imperfect; in fact, I'm foreign is a great excuse. But the mistakes being made should be grown-up mistakes, not those that any five-year-old native speaker would laugh at.
- I am not going to focus on word counts or vocabulary size. While these things may come up as part of my study, they will not be used as metrics by which to gauge my success.
- A fluent speaker shouldn't be tripped up by slang. We don't say is not, we say ain't, and we don't say going to, we say gonna. These shortcuts will exist in any language you learn, and without learning them, you're gonna be lost.
Now we've got a pretty clear understanding of my expectations. That's good, but it's still not good enough. We need a few proofs against which we can measure.
(This list has been UPDATED! more details here.)
- I should be able to chat with new friends online about general subjects without using any translator or dictionary
- I should be able to read an article from an Italian newspaper or news web site, and be able understand and summarize it without any help from a translator or dictionary. I don't need to know every word, but I need to understand the details of the event being discussed.
- I should be able to read one entire book written in Italian. It will be okay to look up words I don't know. There's a good chance that this will be Dante's Divine Comedy.
- I should be able to comfortably retell a joke in Italian.
- I should be comfortable expressing my personality through the language as I do in English, by making silly jokes, puns, wordplay, and flirting in conversation.
- I should be able to watch a movie in Italian without subtitles and understand what's going on.
- I should be able to download a short news clip in Italian and understand it. (This is harder. News anchors always talk extremely fast!)
- And finally, I should be able to have a 10-minute conversation with someone in person, without using English.
As the year goes on, I will check off the items on this list as I accomplish them, with the intention that, before 2010 is over, I will have successfully completed each one of my goals, thus proving to myself that I am, in fact, fluent in Italian.
Well, there we have it. Now that it's really clear exactly what I intend to accomplish, it's time to get started. First order of business: learning the Italian alphabet.
Want to see my favorite language resources and courses?
I listed them here.