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Learning Italian As A Teenager: What It Taught Me About Myself, My Family And How To Learn

Learning Italian As A Teenager: What It Taught Me About Myself, My Family And How To Learn

pisa italy

Today I’m delighted to feature a guest post from 14-year old James Corl, who shares his experience of learning Italian as a teenager.

James has been learning Italian for over two years and recently started a club for foreign language learners, which has hosted festivals for the advancement of culture and foreign language.

You’ll read about:

  • How James struggled with Italian until he found his true motivation to learn the language
  • How he learned to make time for Italian even with a busy school schedule
  • What learning Italian taught James about himself, his family history and learning in general

Over to James…


In the winter of 7th grade, the language bug struck me.

I was taking a French class at my school listening to my teacher tell her story about how she learned French, and it hit me …

If my teacher could learn French on her own, why couldn’t I learn a foreign language on my own?

That evening, I made a resolution: I would learn Italian.

Looking back, that was an extremely vague, unclear promise to myself. If I could go back in time, I would set myself a much more specific objective.

However, little did I know that that hazy promise would spark a love of languages that has changed my life and the way I think about learning every day.

In this post, I’ll share my journey with you and highlight some of the key stumbling blocks I faced in learning a new language by myself as a teenager.

Finding My True Motivation

Originally, I began to learn Italian because it thought it would be “cool”. I wanted to impress people and to stand out.

“Only 17% of Americans speak a foreign language,” I thought to myself. How impressed will people be if I’m part of that 17%?

I also thought that speaking fluent Italian would stand out on my resume and enhance my career prospects.

I saw Italian as a gateway to universities as well. Other than first generation Americans (and in some rare cases of second generation speakers), most students in the US can’t speak a foreign language – even the one they have been studying for two, three, or even six years in high school!

I reassured myself that colleges would love to see a multilingual student, one who actually spoke foreign tongues and that my golden ticket, into the college of my dreams, was Italian!

True Motivation Comes From Yourself, Not From Those Around You

At the time, these seemed like obvious reasons to learn the language – but I was wrong-big time!

At first, my assumption was that everyone would love hearing about my new project. When somebody thought of me, they would think “There’s the kid learning Italian. That’s so cool!”. I expected lots of questions from them about what it’s like to speak a foreign language and how difficult it was.

Instead, people would tell me how cool it was that I was learning Italian and then change the topic of conversation. People didn’t care as much as I thought they would, and why would they?

Right then, the “cool” factor began crumbling. Without a true motivation, I was left to rely on my own willpower.

Problem is, relying on willpower drains a lot from you and sooner or later you’re likely to give up.

Soon, I was tired, cranky, and not focusing on my Italian or on what was important in my life.

My expectations for learning Italian were romanticised, needless to say. I knew I’d struggle, yes, but I believed I would persevere and the language would eventually be stuck in my mind, and fly off my tongue fluently. I thought it was just a case of studying long and hard enough.

However, as the study sessions wore on, my dream of Italian fluency came crashing down to Earth.

Perfection was my ultimate goal. No mistakes, no slip-ups, just everything going just right for me to succeed in Italian.

But as we all know – and as I quickly learned – mistakes are inevitable, and I got very frustrated. This led me to an important turning point in my learning where I was forced to make some big changes to my learning.

The Moment Of Truth – Give Up Or Find A Solution?

give up or find a solution

After a particularly fruitless study session, I knew that something had to change.

  • Were my materials lacklustre?
  • Were my study conditions at fault?

It was then that I realised something that hadn’t entered my mind before.

  • My materials were fine; they included everything I needed to learn Italian
  • My conditions were great; a quiet room with nothing but my study materials and myself.

So if these things weren’t the problem, what was?

I realised that I should look in the mirror; the fault was all my own!

My lack of any clear, strong motivation was to blame.

I needed a true, authentic reason to learn the language.

I should’ve been learning for the memories that I would make in Il Bel Paese”, and the wonderful people that I would meet there when I finally had the chance to visit.

I should’ve learned for the wonderful operas like Rigoletto and La bohème that I dearly loved but couldn’t understand.

Finally, I should have been learning for my other passion –  history; to discover more about the history of Rome, the foundation of Italy, and learn about things that your English-speaking tour guide will never tell you.

Once I altered my attitude, and started learning the language for myself, rather than to impress those around me, my Italian study began to look up again.

What’s It Like To Be A Teenager Learning Italian: My Daily Routine

“How You Climb A Mountain Is More Important Than Reaching The Top” – Yvon Chouinard

Once I got my attitude and motivation right, I could finally focus on the actual language learning.

Every single day, at the same place, at the same time, I would pull out my Living Language workbook, put the disk in the computer, put on my headphones, and spend some time absorbing the Italian language.

Listening a lot and repeating what I learned was my initial strategy.

study teenager learning italian

I did a lesson each day, spending one hour with my Italian. This was the golden age of my language learning and through consistent practice, I began to see significant improvements in my Italian.

One day, I was counting items in my house in Italian. The next, I was making simple sentences, using my family and friends as subjects. (And best of all, they couldn’t understand what I was saying about them!)

I practised Italian every day, with myself and I could feel my confidence rising as my Italian become more fluent. I regularly did what I call a “C & C” with my vocabulary – Cut and Consolidate. I cut out what I didn’t need, and I consolidated what I did need be repeating it regularly.

In a nutshell, by learning what I needed, and wasting no time with obscure words, and my Italian was improving rapidly as a result. Che bellissimo!

But soon, I hit my next major roadblock and it nearly put my Italian on hold. This is something affects almost every single one of us in our learning journey at some time or another – life.

Life Gets In The Waybusy schedule

My Italian honeymoon ended when my life got busy again.

In fact, busy is an understatement. Basketball practice took an hour and a half out of my evening every night. And after my six-hour school day, homework added another hour per night.

All the time I previously had for my formal “sit down sessions” to practice Italian each evening had disappeared. I realised that just as had happened before with my motivation, I had hit a roadblock and I needed to adapt my approach. I had to find a way to make my learning more efficient and less time-consuming.

A problem existed though; I thought that unless I sat down, and had a formal lesson, I would never learn Italian quickly. But I soon realised I was wrong.

Think about these questions…

  • How much time each day do you spend in the car or on the bus or train?
  • How much time do you spend waiting in lines, at the bus stop, or even at the bank?

All this “dead time” adds up and if you use it correctly it can dramatically help your language learning!

Just imagine that you can find 20 minutes of ‘dead time’ like this per day. Seems reasonable, right?

Multiply that by seven, and that’s 140 minutes per week, over two hours! Take your 20 minutes and multiply it by the 365 days in a year – that’s over 121 hours!

Have you ever thought about how much progress you could make if you learnt a language during all this ‘dead time’?

I began using this spare time to study, and it was by far the best decision I made to improve my Italian proficiency.

While riding the bus to school, I would listen to an Italian podcast, absorbing new vocabulary and grammar.

On the way home from school, I would play games on Duolingo, to solidify the vocabulary and grammar I’d acquired during the morning.

At home, if I had time, I would do a formal sit-down lesson. If not, I would chat with native speakers on the language exchange app HelloTalk.

When I switched over to this new routine, I was amazed! My Italian continued to improve even though I was much busier than before. I was soon beginning to put together more and more complex thoughts in Italian.

In an ironic twist, I was spending more time learning Italian using this approach than I had done when I set aside time for ‘formal’ study each day!

I can’t emphasise enough how highly effective this approach is to learn your target language. Even if it’s only two minutes, take out your phone and review the vocabulary on you’ve recently learned.

In this day and age, it doesn’t matter how little or how much time you have; you can learn a language in whatever amount of time you have at any given moment because you can take your resources with you anywhere you go.

The Payoff: Finally Fluent In Italianitaly venice

Nearly two and a half years after my initial start, I am proud to say that I have reached a B2-C1 level in Italian.

I reached this level about 6-12 months ago, and I have been maintaining it ever since while adding starting to learn other additional languages too.

I study French in school, and I’ve now taken up Spanish and Chinese on my own. And because I’m using all the spare time I have, I still find time to continue learning these languages while playing basketball and keeping up with my schoolwork.

My first foreign language, Italian, will always hold a special place in my heart. This endeavour has taught me so much about the world, and the people that inhabit it.

Because of my first language learning experience, I have actually become a better learner, not just of languages but of other subjects too.

I now know what works best for me, and how I can apply that to learn anything I want to focus on.

You’ll Be Amazed Where You Find People To Speak With

I have also learned that there are foreign language speakers everywhere, no matter where you live; you just need to look for them! In my suburban town, I was met with a great surprise after telling many people about my Italian learning journey.

It turns out that the priest at my local church was born in Italy, and that my 5th-grade teacher, a close family friend, and even my French teacher had all learned Italian as well!

Suddenly, I had found four conversation partners, all within 10 miles of my house!

My advice to teenagers – and to anyone – how wants to learn a language is to seek out people in your community first before trying to find people on the Internet. I prefer face to face communication over Skype any day, and you might be surprised how many people you already know can help you out.

Find Your Passion And The Results Will Comefind your passion

I mentioned that I first started learning Italian to ‘be cool’, before finding my true motivation later on. In a surprising twist, I’ve since discovered that both kids and adults alike find it very interesting and cool that I speak a foreign language.

After recently telling one friend that I spoke a little Italian, he spread the word around the school like wildfire. At lunch, I was pestered with “How do you say this?”, and “Introduce yourself in Italian! I can’t even do it in Spanish!” from the other kids!

When I told my family that I had taken up Italian, and that I was “pretty good” with the expressions and the language itself, they were extremely happy too.

My family is Italian, but none of them speaks the Italian language. When they learned that I had taken up Italian they told me many old family anecdotes and tales about my ancestors, who came through Ellis Island, knowing no English, and speaking only Italian.

Although the language had been lost, the stories have survived. And now, the language is coming back to my family too.

Now that I speak Italian, I can’t help but think of my forefathers who spoke the language and came from Italy hoping for a better future in their new homeland. I feel a sense a pride thinking of them every time I speak the language.

In conclusion, a language that you are passionate about learning is worth all of the struggle, all the hardships, and all the pain that it takes to become fluent.

On the days that you get down, just think of a future you, speaking the language, making memories, and having a good time in your target language.

One of my favourite quotes is…

“The view from the summit is worth the fatigue”.

Language learning is also like climbing a mountain. When you get to the top, the breathtaking view makes your struggles worth it.

So, persevere through your challenges, don’t be afraid to adapt when your plan isn’t working, and most importantly, have fun!


What challenges have you faced while learning Italian? Do you think the challenges that teenagers face when learning a language are the same as those that adults face? Let us know in the comments!

This is a guest post by James Corl, a 14-year old from the USA, who has successfully taught himself Italian.

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  • Nataša Sajlović

    Amazing, I traveled a lot when I was in High School and I used dead time for learning, too. Once you master one foreign language, you know technique and everything is easier. Man should find intrinsic motivators. Good job James! 🙂