in 30 months of independent language study

February 18th, 2012

I got started on Italian in 2009 with an intensive 6 months to learn the basics. In the latter part of that period I had started to read my first book, which was really challenging, and took me about 3 months to complete. It was probably the single biggest breakthrough for me in Italian. The second book took 23 days.

A couple of months later I was out of books and ready to order more. As a complete joke I also ordered books by Umberto Eco (from 1980), Niccolò Machiavelli (1513) and Dante Alighieri (1304), thinking "there's no way I'll actually be able to read those". But I was curious as to how hard it would be.

Within 18 months I had read Eco, within 24 I had read Machiavelli and only Dante was left.

He's a tough nut to crack, but I've cracked it. I mostly understand him now linguistically, and I know that with more work I could get almost all the way there. It's not very rewarding reading, because even once you follow the language you still have to understand the countless references to historical persons and other works. And it's poetry (which I don't care for and never read), where every word is far more crucial than in prose. I'm satisfied, I'm not going to be a Dante scholar.

This is good news for us language students. At some point I was starting to doubt whether I could do it. Obviously not that it could be done, but that I could get there with my ability to motivate myself and do it within the limit of things that seem worth doing.

I think it's pretty mind blowing that in 2.5 years you can start from zero and cover the entire 700 year history of a language to be able to read anything in that period. When I compare that to my 3 years of high school French having achieved maybe A2 I feel very silly.

It's a clear demonstration of the difference between thinking for yourself and someone thinking for you. When you study on your own you don't know where to start and you get stuck sometimes. While this doesn't seem like a good thing, it is. Because you learn to overcome these obstacles by the power of your own cognitive skills. You try different approaches, you ask for advice. It's up to you - there is no program you can just follow blindly. And as you learn, you grow.

Some highlights

  • August 2009: Inception. Didn't have much faith in this project, but I felt inspired to try after a vacation in Italy/France.
  • 2009: Intensive language study with a textbook, doing tons of exercises and working to crack the grammar.
  • Early 2010: Took various online tests to measure my level. Tested B2/C1 across the various categories. Progress and expectation on different planets.
  • 2010: Made reading my main learning method.
  • Summer of 2010: a 3 week tour of southern Italy to many areas where people simply don't speak English. You either speak Italian or you have to rely on hand gestures. No safety net.
  • 2011: Wrote an Italian course for beginners exactly the way that I would have wished a course to be. It was huge fun putting this together. It was also a good exercise, because to explain something well you first have to understand it clearly.
  • Early 2012: Completed my Italian 20th century reading project. Read 15,000 pages of Italian up to this point.
  • Early 2012: Started a writing regimen where I try to post a daily entry. Stats so far:
    - 11 in Italian
    - 4 in Dutch
    - 1 in French
    - 1 in Spanish
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