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Little steps to make Italian easier


In this blog you’ll find some advice on how to make your learning Italian independently easier and more effective. We talk about using small steps, habit stacking, creating rewards for yourself, to learn more and improve memory retention.

A problem shared is a problem halved

In one of our Italian classes this week I was talking to my lovely student – let’s call her – Sue. Sue was a little distressed as she was struggling to do her homework and felt really bad about it as she loves Italian and she is committed to learning.

This conversation and the advice I gave her inspired me to write this blog, which is about making your independent learning easier for you. A bonus point is that, this has some positive effects on making what you learn more memorable as it is stored in your long-term memory.

First of all, what is independent learning? This is the studying and learning you do outside of the classroom. It is self-motivated and self-paced, and it is – for example – doing your homework, but not only that.

Like Sue, many of my students wait to do their homework until just before their lesson. Nevertheless, I think most people know instinctively that doing Italian twice a week is more beneficial than doing it only once. Of course, I understand the constraints on their time and the incredibly busy and fast-paced life that most people live. However, it seems that – if we want – we can always find a little time to do other things… And this is fine as well.

My learning story

To truly understand the power of doing little and often, I have to tell you a story. When I was at university, I enrolled in my first ever English class as a complete beginner. I did French and German at school but never English. Being accustomed to academic work I knew how to study. And I was very motivated to learn as it felt like everyone spoke English and I was the only one left out of the party.  And to tell you the truth I also enjoyed it.

My class was once a week. Nevertheless, I liked to study so I was doing homework regularly during the week and I was looking around for more materials to read, listen to and study. I was very much an independent learner, so much so, that halfway through the course, my classmates starting to notice me and were complaining that, although I was in their class, I wasn’t a complete beginner.

As you might have guessed, most of them were doing their homework on the same day as the class, if at all, thinking that just by showing up for class they would learn. Consequently, they found it difficult to see results as quickly as they wished.

So what was my secret? Quite simply, I was studying a little bit every day.

I love teaching, but I love learning even more and during the years I have read many books about how learning occurs and what can support it. I’ll list some of these books at the bottom in case you are interested.

Little and often

In my reading, I have come across the concept of distributing learning. This is a scientific term that indicates that we learn more when our learning is done little by little and more often. The result of distributing learning is that you learn as much or even more than when cramming it, but most importantly you retain it in your memory for longer.

Why is that? Well, we are bombarded with a huge amount of information and one vital element of our brain is its ability to forget what is not essential. When we cram information, this creates something like a noise in the brain, this noise is perceived by the brain as not essential and therefore it is then deleted instead of being sent to the long-term memory where your important memories are stored.

To return to you, I can hear you saying, I am not a young university student, I have a job, a family, commitments and so on, how can I find the time and the motivation to do what you ask? Well, thank you for asking, as I have another proven method that you can use! This is called habit stacking.

The habit stacking technique

It involves using a habit that you already have, in other words something that you do nearly automatically and stack another habit on top of it. This makes the new habit much easier to do. This is especially powerful if the established habit is something you like, but this is not essential. I’ll give an example of something that I did for myself very recently.

I’ve read about the importance of drinking a glass of water before breakfast, however, I didn’t like it. My morning routine was instead: wake up, sit with the family at the breakfast table and have a cup of coffee. If you know me at all, you’ll know I love my coffee. So, I decided to place my glass of water on the table every morning in front of my coffee, so when I sit down to have my coffee, I drink the water first and then I use the coffee as my reward. This has now become part of my routine.

But what about Sue and solving her problem? Chatting with her, she told me that she does her grocery shopping on a Monday morning, this is her routine task, and she actually enjoys it. Hence, I suggested to her that when she sits down to do her shopping list, she also spends 10-15 minutes on her Italian homework and rewards herself with doing the shopping afterwards.

Identify your own routine

You perhaps don’t like doing the shopping, perhaps you like having a nice walk on a Sunday morning or having a cup of tea in the afternoon, a beer on a Friday night or going window shopping on Saturday morning. Use what you already do, choose something that you enjoy and stack your Italian on top. Keep the habit for a couple of weeks until you don’t have to think about it anymore.

I have many more tips and tricks for you, let me know if there is anything specifically that you are struggling with and we’ll see if there is a solution for you. I look forward to hearing from you.

Further reading:

  • How we learn by Benedict Carey (if you prefer it, you can watch this video with a summary of his book’s main ideas.)
  • Make it stick by P.C Brown, H. L. Roediger III, M. A. MacDaniel

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