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Eight Tools for the Language Learner

I've been learning Italian for the better part of the last fifteen years. It's a lot of work and not so easy doing it as an adult. But when I'm in Italy I can converse without switching to English, and that comes with a whole bunch of perks when I travel. But I have to keep it up in between visits, or all my conversation quickly goes by the wayside. 

If you are serious about learning another language, perhaps you too might benefit from some of these tools that have helped me to study, memorize and move further along the path toward fluency (and yes, it's a long path). Note that all these services offer the ability to learn languages other than Italian.

1. Take a class or find a tutor.

While there are a million tools out there to help you learn, there is no substitution for talking to someone regularly. I've been meeting with a tutor or a tutored group every week for the last seven years and it's one of the main things that has helped to keep me engaged and always learning.  There are also a bunch of Italian tutors who will teach over Skype or through the Net on italki, so that could be a possibility for you.


Anki is an amazing--AND FREE--flashcard system that allows you to practice virtually anything because you can customize it.  There is a desktop app, phone app, and the ability to use Ankiweb to synch it all to the web. So basically you can practice from anywhere. 



You can also download decks that others have created, which I have found helpful. One of my faves is a deck that helps you test yourself on the various regions of Italy.  My Italian tutor (she's from Milan) even finds this hard!

screenshot with a map of italy

 Hands down this is the tool that has helped me the most when learning Italian on my own. It employs a great refresher system too that I love. Note that you can also use these flashcards for anything...learning science vocab, memorizing things, etc. 


3. WordReference

One of the best online language dictionaries on the Net, WordReference also has forums that enable language learners to ask questions and find answers. The forums are fantastic and are excellent for helping you understand idioms or things like how to write a formal letter, or how to translate a certain phrase. What I love about the dictionary is that it gives examples, and helps you determine which version of the word you want. For example, here is a small section for the word "vado" which means in its most simple form, "I go."  You can choose the WordReference dictionary or the Collins. I've chosen Collins in this example:




Reverso is a language translator, but it also has a bevy of tools (both free and paid) for language learners. I love the context part of the site, which helps you understand how words might render in sentences. 


You can also check synonyms, grammar, and play language games.  You can download it for windows and translate documents on the fly, or install it for use with Netflix and YouTube! I try not to use it for translation as much as I do for checking words, but it is very powerful for anyone looking to translate from a slew of languages. 

5. Forvo

Forvo is a site for pronunciation, which may seem a bit odd, but when you are trying to learn a language and are practicing on your own, it's common to run across words that you aren't sure how they sound. That's where Forvo comes in. Search the database for a word and voila, you can click a button to listen, and if you want to know more about the dialect or region the speaker is from you can click through to see. 


You can also vote Forvo pronunciations as good or bad. If you can't find a pronunciation, you can add it into the Forvo database and usually within 24 hours someone will have pronounced it for you. You can also choose to help pronounce words in your own language and add to the database. I've found this tool incredibly useful, especially as I was just getting started and trying to understand the nuances of how the language is pronounced.  One downside, the site has become riddled with ads in recent years, which is unfortunate. 

5. Online tools to learn Italian: Memrise and DUOLINGO

If you are just beginning your language learning journey, a great place to start is with a language learning site such as Memrise or DuoLingo.

Memrise is a free/paid fun site that lets you to plant the "seeds" of learning and then "water" them to refresh and grow your understanding.  The site toys with using memory triggers to help you remember a word (see image below). You can use other mems that users create or you can easily create your own. On Memrise you can also connect with Facebook and see which of your friends are learning too. It employs a similar approach to Anki when it comes to refreshing your understanding of what you are learning. 

screenshot which includes a picture of a person with an umbrella pointing


Duolingo has risen in popularity over the last couple of years because of its fun, slick interface and easy way of learning. It tests and retests you on particular items and you can earn "lingots" for completing learning streaks, translating text and helping others. I also really love their mobile app. And yes, I know that my translation below is incorrect (off by one letter)! It's definitely a beginner's site, however, and it wouldn't take more than a couple of months to reach what they call "fluency."  You can purchase lingots if you aren't earning them fast enough. Lingots help you buy new courses and freeze your progress so you don't lose learning streaks.


6. YABLA (Video)

I love Yabla!   It's a wonderful site where you can watch all sorts of videos, ranging from instructional to television shows to music videos.

As you are watching the video, you'll have the choice of viewing subtitles in the language of your choice, or in English. You can slow the speech down, pause it, loop sections over and over, and when you click on a word in the subtitle it gives you a definition and then automatically adds it to a flashcard list for later.


screenshot, includes a man on a skate board platform, dressed like Elvis 

I've really gotten into a cheesy romantic cop show (although sadly full of typical Italian misogyny) called Il Commissario Manara (Commissioner Manara). I find that I'm truly enjoying the lessons I'm learning. I study far longer than I would regular flashcards and I am also getting a sense of the accents, the cadence and the diversity of the language in a way that I simply cannot through most of the other materials I'm using to learn the language.

I'm really not a big fan of the zillion subscriptions I have to everything but Yabla is definitely worth it if you are serious about learning a language.

screenshot of website pricing

And that Jovanotti video above? Here it is, in all it's pure awesomeness. What I love about him is that he always seems to be having a blast in whatever he does. 


7. News In Slow Italian (Audio)

When I was commuting regularly, News In Slow Italian was a wonderful audio way to learn the language. It's not inexpensive but it's such a great way to really hear the language at a pace that is understandable. The online site and mobile app serve as a companion to the audio and I love turning to it after I've listened to the week's news to figure out the words I didn't know.   You can use this online or in the downloadable mobile app.

screenshot, includes an artist in his studio with sculptures and a drawing on an easel

8. Dual Language Resources

I try to read primarily in Italian and use the dictionary to figure out words I don't know (if you read Italian books on Kindle you can buy an Italian dictionary and load that to look up words as you read!). But every once in awhile it's nice to try and read material side by side to understand a translation. ITALY magazine has a great dual language section. Bilinguis has a couple classics such as Alice in Wonderland and the Hound of the Baskervilles. 

book cover
In Other Words
By Jhumpa Lahiri

I also greatly loved Jhumpa Lahiri's latest book which details her decision to move to Italy and write a book. She wrote the book in Italian and had a translator render it back into English, which you can read side by side. 

Having all these tools at your fingertips is really only the tip of the iceberg though. Not a single one of these sites will help you unless you first make the time to practice. Fifteen minutes a day will go far toward helping you absorb as much of the language as you can. Watching Italian movies or television and  reading Italian magazines and newspapers are great additions to the above tools. But again, it goes back to taking the time to practice. Make it a priority and be prepared to make it a priority for years to come, unless you have the extreme fortune of living for a time in the place of the language you are learning to speak--then it may come a bit faster!