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Five things I learned from self-studying a language

Screenshot of Rocket Languages, an online learning program.

Parli italiano? No? Va bene.

Up until a few months ago, I didn’t speak Italian either. This past summer I began self-studying the Romance language with the aid of an online program. In order to fulfill the requirements for my Modern Languages minor, I need to complete two languages at the second year level and a few additional courses.

I’d fulfilled the first language with Spanish, but I realized I didn’t have room in my schedule to take four quarters of Italian. However, I could afford to place into the second year and complete two quarters. With this goal in mind, I have self-studied Italian alongside Spanish and Portuguese classes this fall, and let me tell you, I’ve learned some pretty valuable lessons.

1. Mixing up languages is inevitable.

The other day I went to a VPTL appointment for my Spanish class and sat down with the intention of speaking only Spanish, but my brain had other plans. In the middle of my half hour conversation, several poorly-pronounced Portuguese and Italian words sneaked their way into my rambling anecdote.

Even though I’d consider myself pretty fluent in Spanish, substituting one Latin-based word for another is bound to happen from time to time. Of course, mixing up two completely different languages like Spanish and German is less likely to occur, but it can still happen. The important part is recognizing which word comes from which language and learning how to separate them.

2. It’s like teaching yourself a 5-unit class. 

College is a place where time management thrives or goes to die. When I decided to self-study Italian, I knew the time-commitment would be substantial if I wanted to improve steadily. Every day, I dedicate about 50 minutes to reviewing what I’ve learned and completing a new lesson in my Rocket Languages program. Each lesson incorporates a 20-minute podcast and several exercises that involve repeating, spelling and memorizing the vocabulary introduced in that lesson.

The hardest part about self-studying a language is prioritizing it over watching Netflix or sleeping in on the weekend. Sometimes all I want to do is relax, but investing time in learning Italian will pay off in the long run.

3. People react to your study in different ways.

When making a new acquaintance, I’m often asked what I do outside of class in my spare time. I give them the usual spiel: I’m a staff writer for The Stanford Daily, a national editor for Her Campus and a freelance writer for several other websites. Then they want to know what I do besides write.

When I reveal that I’m self-studying Italian through an online program, I’m usually met with one of two responses. The more positive reaction praises my dedication and time management skills (which are sometimes iffy). Alternatively, I’m sometimes met with a question pumped with flippant confusion. Why would I choose to put myself through this tedious experience? The answer is simple — because I enjoy it.

4. You need to be patient with yourself.

I’ve been told that after you learn a second language, every additional one will be more straightforward. Because Italian is very close to Spanish, I’ve found the learning experience to be almost déjà vu. From conjugating regular verbs and cursing the irregulars to memorizing definite articles and creating false cognates, the process is very similar. What I failed to understand in the beginning of my self-schooling were the nuances in sound, spelling and cultural usage. Differentiating the pronunciation of the exact same word can take months to memorize, especially if that word isn’t used in everyday conversation. You can’t stuff a language into your brain like books into a backpack.

5. Having multiple resources makes it easier.

If you’ve ever taken an introductory language course at Stanford or even in high school, you know that the daily homework comes in all forms. From vocabulary quizzes to movie screenings, you’re covering every base — speaking, listening, reading and writing. While speaking is the hardest skill to master, you interact with both the instructor and peers five days of the week. When learning a language through an online program, you don’t automatically have all of those resources at your fingertips. I’ve learned that listening to Italian music, watching movies in Italian with subtitles and speaking with my friends who know the language have helped round out my education.


For more advice on self-studying a language, contact Emily Schmidt at egs1997 ‘at’

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