When learning to speak a new language, you must strive to “forget” your native tongue—at least temporarily. As I’ve mentioned, spending time in Italy and speaking only Italian is the best way to help you speak fluently. Short of that, you should try to think like an Italian when practicing at home, which means you will need to “take off the training wheels,” so to speak, and get rid of those helpers that are holding you back.
For instance, bilingual dictionaries are a crutch and their use should be limited. Use them while studying, but not while practicing. Indeed, “translating” in general won’t work, and that goes for grammar rules, too.
Every language has rules and forms, which are unique and often “illogical” when compared to English (of course, Italians say the same thing about our language). If you want to speak with competence, translating back and forth in your head before speaking or reading is a technique which will ultimately impede your progress and indeed may paralyze you completely.
So you must let go of the fear of making mistakes. In the beginning, your goal should only be to communicate and don’t get too hung up on the grammar. Focus on the grammar while studying, but try to “forget it” while speaking. You really don’t want to sound as if you have a PhD in Italian grammar, because not only will you never accomplish that, but there are very few Italians who speak that way in their own language.
I often make up random sentences in my mind while sitting in traffic or doing household chores. Just get your brain working in Italian, even if your vocabulary is limited. The next step is having the courage to open your mouth and feel the tempo of the language as it rolls off your tongue.
It’s a lot like taking dance lessons. You can take lessons from an expert, with those cut-out feet and numbers on the floor to show you the steps, but without rhythm you will never get it right. In this way, rhythm is also helpful in Italian—try to “feel” the tempo as you speak. It’s a very musical language, after all, so it’s the same with an Italian language class.
Memorizing scripted responses when learning a foreign language does not work, either—at least not in the long run. (Although one could argue that it’s not a bad place to start).
The majority of the textbooks for the beginners have several pages of dialogue. But what if you ask a person one of the questions from that dialogue and they don’t answer according to the dialogue you memorized? It has happened to me!
Memorizing scripts is OK in the very beginning, but eventually you’ll have to learn how to formulate original sentences in Italian just as you can in English.
The good news is that pronouncing Italian words is not that hard, as all of the vowels and consonants are phonetic… they are consistently pronounced exactly as they are written. Every time.
Think Like an Italian
The sooner you can do this, the better. Of course, your sentences will be basic in the beginning and that’s OK. Start with three or four word phrases—subject, verb, object, adjective —and build from there.
For example, “I prefer the red wine.” = “(Io) Preferisco il vino rosso.”
String a few of these simpler phrases in a row and now you have a compound sentence.
“In general, I prefer red wine with meat, but white wine with fish.”
“In generale, preferisco il vino rosso con la carne ma il vino bianco con il pesce.”
Pretty soon you’ll surprise yourself by sounding like a fluent speaker. Not very frequently at the beginning, but this will happen often enough to give you a little encouragement to keep on pushing forward!