I’ve known Maria Seco for quite a few years. She’s a fellow teacher of Spanish and we often speak about work. She’s discovered a passion for Italian Tv series that has sparked an interest in all things italian. Over the last months, she’s been avidly watching tv shows, joining online events and devoting increasingly more time to Italian. What I love about chatting with her is that she’s getting lost in Italian learning rabbit holes. One interest simply leads her to other things in an apparently endless sequence. I invited her here today to share her journey and ask her how she makes time to learn Italian in her own unique way.
Can you tell us something about yourself?
My name is María. I am from Spain. I lived in Ireland for 15 years but I’m now back in my native Galicia, on the northwestern coast of Spain. I teach Spanish and I’ve always had an interest in learning other languages.
When I’m not teaching I’m a very quiet person. I love reading, knitting, baking … and walking. I like to go out with my family for walks in nature. Together we’ve walked the Camino Inglés, or English Way, one of the many routes known as the Way of St. James (el Camino de Santiago). And we hope to do it again in the future.
How did you get started learning Italian?
I guess I started almost involuntarily by following you and other Italian teachers on Instagram. But, back then, learning Italian wasn’t one of my goals. So, I didn’t get as much from the experience as I could have.
The conscious decision to learn Italian came at the beginning of 2020. My youngest daughter was taking part in an exchange with an Italian school. That meant she would spend around 10 days in Italy, with an Italian family. And we would have an Italian girl staying with us too.
Although I had a short-term goal and motivation to learn at least some basics, I wasn’t very consistent or organised.
Despite being a language teacher myself, I wasn’t following my own advice. Then, the exchange was cancelled due to the pandemic. The urgency to learn disappeared and I took a very long break. I went back to it in September.
Can you describe how you learn Italian?
I don’t follow one single method. I’m enjoying the experience of trying different things.
The key for me is to be consistent and do something with Italian every single day, even if it’s only 5-10 minutes.
I’m watching lots of Italian tv series and films, but I’m also doing other things, both traditional and more creative.
On the traditional side, for instance, I bought an Italian grammar book because I actually like grammar and I like to have it as reference, to confirm (or not) the hypothesis I create while doing other activities.
On a more creative side, I’ve tried blackout poetry and collage. I hadn’t tried this before at all and definitely not as a language learning activity. But I must say I thoroughly enjoy it. And learn a lot from it.
But the activity I’m spending more time on is watching tv series and films. This was not something I consciously planned. It simply happened by chance (or maybe it was meant to be).
In September 2020, when I decided to pick up Italian again, I found out they were showing several Italian series on Spanish tv.
One of these series was Il Commissario Montalbano. This gets shown on Spanish tv every now and then so I was familiar with it already and it’s always a pleasure to watch.
Then, I discovered two more series I wasn’t familiar with: I bastardi di Pizzofalcone and Doc, nelle tue mani. I gave them a try and got hooked.
I watched all these with Spanish subtitles. When I had watched Il Commissario Montalbano before, I would read the subtitles and not pay too much attention to the language. But now I started listening more carefully.
Sometimes, I watch without subtitles too. Whether I have the subtitles on or not, I like to keep pen and paper nearby while I’m watching. I write down words or phrases that grab my attention. Later, I check in the dictionary if my spelling is right and if the meaning is what I think it is.
Occasionally, I find a show with Italian subtitles. In theory, that would make things easier than the Spanish subtitles or no subtitles at all. But I’ve always found too many discrepancies between the audio and the text. In those cases, I like to write down what I hear, compare with the subtitles and analyse the differences.
These 3 shows are all based on books. One of my goals now is to be able to read those books in Italian. I’ve read a few Spanish translations of Montalbano, but I’d love to be able to read it in Italian.
The shows are also a door to other activities:
- If there’s an actor you particularly like, for instance, you could check their social media profiles, or you could try to find more information about them in Italian.
- If you like the place where the story is set, like Napoli in I bastardi di Pizzofalcone, you can find out more about it.
- The shows’ social media profiles can also be an interesting source: articles in Italian about the show, behind the scenes videos with the actors, interviews… These rabbit-holes could potentially keep you immersed in Italian all day.
You’re mom to two lovely girls, you run an online business, you have a knitting hobby. How do you make time to learn Italian in all this?
When you’re doing something you enjoy it’s always easier to find time for it.
But the good news is that you don’t need to spend an hour or two studying every day. 10-15 minutes a day, if done consistently, is actually quite effective. And it’s not a huge time commitment. Anyone, no matter how busy your schedule is, can find 10 or 15 minutes.
Of course, I love to watch a whole movie or a whole episode of any of my favourite series… and some of them are as long as a movie.
I feel almost fluent in my head after a couple of hours watching Italian shows. It’s a pity that the effect wears off after a few hours. But this is also good: you notice the positive effects of immersing yourself in the Italian language and it gives you the motivation to make time for Italian in your daily schedule. As much or as little as you can. Every day.
You’ve always been interested in languages but I noticed that your interest in Italian intensified over the last year, in 2020. How has the pandemic connected you with language learning?
The pandemic initially disconnected me from the Italian language. On the one hand, my most urgent motivation, my daughter’s exchange, disappeared. On the other hand, the lockdown was quite exhausting emotionally and I simply lost the motivation.
September has always been my new year, the time when I’m most likely to set goals and good intentions.
So, in September, I made learning Italian one of my goals for the “new year”. To make sure I didn’t quit again, I decided to be more organised and consistent. I got myself a dedicated Italian notebook and a couple of reference books (a dictionary and a grammar book).
I try to stick to a routine. The fact the pandemic is not over has helped, since we’re spending more time at home.
What would you answer to those learners who think that learning languages by enjoying yourself is unstructured and a waste of time?
It might seem unstructured but you’re actively engaging with the Italian language.
By writing down what you hear, you’re doing active listening, which is more effective than simply listening and not doing anything with it. It makes you more conscious of the sounds, of the rhythm of the language, of the structure of the sentences.
This is also a dictation exercise. Analysing your mistakes in a dictation gives you an interesting insight: do you tend to make the same kind of mistakes? Why are you struggling with this particular issue? What can you do to solve it?
And then, there’s the cultural aspect too. You uncover interesting facts about Italy and the Italian society that might remain hidden otherwise.
For instance, I was very surprised to find out that, in Italy, naming your child Benito is not a good idea at all (you should watch Il nome del figlio if you’d like to know why).
All in all, not a waste of time but quite the opposite.
What tips can you give to other language learners on learning Italian by watching tv shows?
What works for me doesn’t have to work for you.
So, my main piece of advice is this: play around, experiment and find out what works for you.
But don’t just sit there and watch passively: listen actively, do stuff with the language, investigate things that come up in the show… Don’t be afraid to try new things and get out of your comfort zone; you might be pleasantly surprised. Enjoy the process.
I love languages and I trained to be an English teacher. But then I discovered I loved teaching Spanish and decided that’s what I had to do.
I taught Spanish in Ireland for 15 years and then moved back to Spain, where I continued to teach Spanish. I now live on the Camino de Santiago. I started seeing pilgrims passing every day and I wanted to join them. So I walked. When I’m not walking I like to help people have a better experience on the Camino in Spain by giving them the tools to communicate in Spanish.