Use this, not that: Starting from scratch

I never knew how hard it is to learn a language from scratch until I delved into a one-month Italian challenge. Hyped-up and excited, I bought some books and found resources that I thought would be useful for learning Italian—some of which I’m still using over two months later. Others… well, others were a complete fail. Today I thought it would be helpful to tell you out of the ten resources I used what really helps when you are first learning a language… and what just flops.


A conversation book focuses on real life examples to learn vocabulary and teaches grammar in context where it is due. As a beginner, I didn’t have to learn any outdated words or complex grammatical laws to be successful at that book, which I enjoyed. I also found that the conversations in the book were very relevant to the ones I would have with native speakers.

Along with my conversation book, I bought a grammar book. The grammar lessons left me very disappointed. I found that the drills were very redundant, whereas I can pick up information more quickly. Another huge drawback was that the grammar book focused a lot on memorizing exceptions to the rules. While this is nice to know for future reference, the words that usually fell outside the norm were not heavily used. In the long run, it might be nice to know the gender of the word “chiropractor”, but for my A2 purposes it was irrelevant.



Although TuneIn is an asset for my higher-level Spanish, listening to talk radio was not a good use of my time for Italian. When you first start out with a language, it is hard to catch what people are saying on the radio, and you can’t play it back, slow it down, or look up words. Not to mention many of the talk shows I listened to were delivered in a much more colloquial register than the books I was studying with! Instead, I turned to a different listening device…

Music. Oh, my Italian pop. The day I decided to take on the challenge, I looked to see what the native music sounded like. And I was pleasantly surprised! Unlike Spanish, where I don’t have much of a taste for Latino music, the Italian pop was a lot like what we Americans would call “indie rock.” I instantly fell in love with the music which was both entertaining and useful. A contrast to radio talk shows, I could listen to the short songs over and over until I got a very good handle on what was being said. Adding to that, a lot of the words rhymed which made them easier to remember. To quote Tim Doner, “it was like a dictionary had been downloaded into my head.” I learned all the songs in both languages, and I could parrot them back in no time. Music is an awesome tool, especially when you need some extra motivation.


There are two parts to Verbling: online tutoring, like iTalki, which costs money, and live hangout groups where you can practice your target language. Being a cheapskate, I went for the free instant groups, which sounds great in theory but didn’t work out as a beginner. When you first start a language, it’s hard enough to pay attention to one person. The way Verbling is designed is geared toward larger groups, which is hard as a beginner. I love Verbling for Spanish, but for a very beginner it’s overwhelming.

Meanwhile, HelloTalk is another program that allows you to connect with native speakers for language exchange—with one person at a time. It is mainly used for writing practice (at least, I never used it orally) but I met a lot of friends who watched the same TV shows as me, played the same sports as me, and were the same age as me. While speaking to natives is very important, texting them can give you the same sort of cultural insight. A great feature of the app is built in translation and sentence correction.



One of the things that happens as you learn a language is you become more accustomed to what the language is supposed to sound like. When you hear a sentence or read one that is unnatural, your brain eventually learns to register that it is wrong. Even though Google Translate is an awesome vocab translator, I couldn’t get a grasp on colloquial register or whole phrases with the program. My brain hadn’t (and still hasn’t) yet developed a sensitivity to the language to know when grammar was wrong.

On the flip side, a last minute add-on to my Barnes and Noble purchase, a phrase book, was by far the most valuable resource that I actually spent money on. Although a lot of the phrases were meant for unfamiliar settings like an airport or hotel lobby, there was a huge selection of basic phrases that I couldn’t communicate without, and I was able to pull useful phrases out of sections that didn’t apply to me at all. This was so much better than Google Translate or its equivalents because with a published book, I knew I was getting the correct grammar and most natural forms of the words. The one I bought even included idioms and a verb conjugation chart in the back.



Even though they don’t have a negative equivalent, it wouldn’t be fair to talk about my resources without giving these guys props. To be fair, I never finished my Duo tree. Last time I checked I was only 33% of the way done. But the vocabulary and grammar casually presented to me from Duolingo was indispensable in my learning process. Similarly, I wouldn’t know any Italian without flashcards. I would say that paper flash cards are the most valuable use of my time. One night, I went through the painstaking process of writing a hundred flash cards. Each day afterwards, I added five more to my deck to practice. After the month was up, I somehow managed to have learned all the words and phrases on the cards!


I hope you found this guide useful. Make sure to evaluate things for yourself, too, and make sure you are using your time in the best way possible. What language resources do you live by? Comment below!

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Sydney Sauer • August 1, 2015

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