Language Diary #1: Italian and making short-term language plans

Updates from a week of German business as usual and Italian beginner's enthusiasm with a question: how to decide which of your target languages to focus on?

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I sincerely hope that future Elise will have a much better idea what she’s doing with this whole language business than today Elise, and with that in mind I thought it could be fun to start keeping track of exactly what I’ve been up to (approximately) each week. Future Elise can look back and laugh smugly at my mistakes.

Anyhow, you can expect to see a little update from me every week from here on. Each entry in my “language diary” here will lay out the languages I’m working on at the moment and the resources I’m using before briefly exploring a little question I had related to language learning in the previous week.

Active languages: Italian (~A1-) and German (~B2+)

Languages on-hold: Spanish (~A1) and Danish (~A1-)

Italian - beginner (maaaybe A1?)

German - advanced (B2+)

After a detour through Spanish, I’m back to Italian and loving it

I started dabbling in Italian in early fall, but Spanish really captured my interest in November and December and I took a detour into Spanish for a while. These days my motivation has swung a full 180 back towards Italian and Italian has been my focus for the past month or so.

One key factor in motivating me to commit to Italian for now is my amazing tutor on iTalki. I used to think that lessons for true beginners were mostly a waste of time and money, but my first lesson with my Italian tutor really changed my mind. A skilled teacher can definitely make a difference at the beginning — though I still wouldn’t pay for casual conversation practice until I can, you know, kinda hold a casual conversation.

What about Spanish?

I’ll definitely be back to Spanish — I know I won’t be able to resist forever! I’ve been waffling between the two sister languages since November, but I’ve committed to Italian until the beginning of April for now. I’ll re-evaluate how I’m feeling about Spanish at that point.

Long-term, my goal is to get Italian to around B1 (or wherever “conversational fluency” ends up being) and then focus on getting to that point with either Spanish or Danish depending on motivation.

With German it’s been all B2-to-C1 plateau business as usual: chatting with a speaking partner at least once a week, using Speakly (10 words/day), writing to penpals, and consuming as much native content as I can. I’m very motivated for Italian at the moment, and I’ve noticed that all the Italian input I’ve been consuming is carving out chunks of time and attention I’d usually siphon into German.

A major victory in the last few weeks was finally convincing my (German-speaking) boyfriend to watch Netflix’s Dark with me in German, which over all 3 seasons was around 28 hours of input. Not bad. I’m also speaking more German with him at home lately, which has been a nice little shift.

How should you choose which of your target languages to focus on?

Following my gut and deciding to focus on Italian even though I have some solid reasons for learning Spanish was tough. And making the switch got me thinking: since I’m learning multiple languages, how should I decide which ones to focus on at any given point? When is it okay to switch?

The short answer: It’s fine to switch to follow motivation. Life is not a contract signed in blood that a demon is going to show up to enforce every time you stray from your original plans.

Of course, there’s a bit more to it than that. It’s true that hopping around too frequently can mean you end up dabbling in a lot of languages but never learning any of them to the standards you set for yourself (read that again!). As a solution to this problem, I’m trying out a strategy of making short-term commitments with end-dates. The idea is that this will allow me to make a satisfying chunk of progress while still leaving room to respond to my motivation and current situation.

Think about what makes sense now

I took Mandarin courses in middle school. Back then, I was enthralled by the language and couldn’t imagine ever abandoning it. Fast-forward 10 years and I can think of 15 languages I’d rather learn before Mandarin.

Should I force myself to learn it anyways? After all, I took 2 years of Mandarin when I was a preteen, and I promised myself I’d learn the language back then. It was a goal! I need to follow through!

… ridiculous, right?

Goals change. Life changes. It’s great to have some vision for the future, but priorities shift and we need to be real about that.

Spanish is appealing to me mostly for three reasons: language aesthetics, size of native speaker community, and the fact that I used to be okay at it in high school.

Ok, I’m also into Spanish because of the existence of Borges. 3.5 reasons.

Until recently, those 3.5 reasons kept me more motivated for Spanish than for Italian. But my situation has changed and now there are some reasons it makes sense for me to focus on Italian instead.

First, I’m moving to Austria soon. There’s a lot of Austro-Italo exchange since Austria borders Italy, and I can easily imagine spending time in Italy since it’ll be so close by. Second, my mom recently decided that she may want to retire in Italy. If she actually wants to do that, me learning Italian could make a huge difference when it comes to making that dream actually possible.

I really value learning languages that I think I’ll actually use, so these two factors really pushed my motivation for Italian beyond my motivation for Spanish. Finding an incredible tutor, discovering that Italian just sounds awesome, and finding some really great beginners resources just threw a cherry on top.

Switching to Italian was a response to my current situation — including soft factors like motivation. And I think we should always choose languages to learn based on where we are now rather than where when we set goals in the past.

Taking a break is fine. Your other target languages aren’t going anywhere… unless they are. Keeping track of your “current situation” also includes making the best of time-limited special opportunities to learn one of your target languages like being in the country or taking a university course. Switching back to Spanish in the middle of an Italy trip might not be worth it.

Make a short-term commitment and know when your next chance to switch is coming

So, how to actually put that rambling thought into practice?

Committing to a subset of your target languages for a defined period — say a month or a quarter — might give you enough time to make a satisfying amount of progress without locking yourself into a language that isn’t sparking your interest for too long.

I’m doing this with Italian now. I decided to stick with it until at least the beginning of April. That’s 3 months to focus on Italian, which I think should be enough to get to a point where I can understand a fair bit of what I hear in relatively straightforward authentic content — a nice point to reach even if I don’t go further. After those 3 months, I can decide if I want to go on with Italian for another chunk of time.

Writing down the plan is helping me stick with it: I noted my intention to stick with Italian until at least the beginning of April in my digital goal-setting notebook (the Notion people finally got me). I also booked lessons with a tutor through the end of my Italian study period to keep me accountable.

That’s all from me for this week. How do you handle dabbling and shifting motivations? Have you tried something like the short-term commitment suggestion I outline? Let me know what you think in the comments below.

Ciao!