Learning Italian: From Zero to Conversational in Six Weeks

I’m going to Italy next month. Wahoo!

I’m planning on eating lots of pasta, drinking lots of wine, and speaking nothing but Italian.

The only problem is I don’t speak a lick of Italian, which is why I’ve decided to dedicate the next six weeks to learning it. I’ve already started – check it out:

I’m fascinated by the idea of accelerated learning, thanks to Tim Ferriss’ books the Four Hour Body and Four Hour Chef. He set off to find blueprints for rapid learning; a subject, sport, instrument or language and found that learning at an accelerated pace can happen if we do the right things the right way. His formula, DiSSS, breaks it down into the following components:


When you deconstruct something, you break the skill apart into sub-skills.

For example, instead of reading an Italian grammar book from front to back, I can apply the grammar rules I already know from English and Spanish to decipher the mechanics of Italian.

Luckily, they’re all romance languages, which makes it much easier to break down the rules of how subjects and verbs and objects and adjectives interact. If I can understand and memorize these patterns, I can mix and match more words and tenses more easily.

Here are two examples of how this might work:

The following twelve sentences focus on grammar rules. They’re repetitive for a reason. It allows us to spot the differences.

  • The Apple is red – La mela è rossa
  • It is John’s apple – È la mela di John
  • I give John the apple – Do la mela a John
  • We give him the apple – Noi gli diamo la mela
  • He gives it to John – Lui la da a John
  • She gives it to him – Lei la da a lui
  • It is not John’s apple – Non è la mela di Giovanni
  • I don’t give the apple to John – Non do la mela a Giovanni
  • I want to give it to him – Voglio dargliela
  • I should give it to her – Dovrei dargliela
  • She must give the apple to me – Lei deve darmi la mela
  • Who do I give it to? – A chi la do?
  • Who gave it to me? – Chi me l’ha data?

Helping words are another great tool to utilize in language learning. Phrases like “I want”, “I have” or “I need” are powerful because you can tack on a verb at the end in the infinitive – no conjugation necessary.

In the below chart, the verb, eat, remains unchanged: to eat (English), comer (Spanish), essen (German), manger (French), taberu (Japanese) etc.

Selection (or the 80/20 rule)

The Pareto Principle states that 80% of your output comes from 20% of your effort. With languages, we have to focus on the 20% of the words and phrases that produce 80% comprehension of a language. In English, just 300 words make up for 65% of written material!

Luckily, there are many free resources that provide translations for the most common words, phrases and expressions. I’ve already gone ahead and picked out the ones I think I’ll use most often, and am starting to memorize them.


The order that we learn things is of signifiant importance. Duolingo is a free language learning app that has become the most popular language learning platform. One of the reasons the technology works so well is because it groups modules in a specific sequence with exercises (which include reading, writing, speaking and listening) that build on one another.


I’m making this project public, which makes me accountable to you all. And as we all know, public accountability (even more so when you put money on the table – noone wants to lose money) is a powerful motivator.

Enter the Irish Polygot

While there are undoubtedly many more complexities to what I described above, this serves as an excellent and logical starting point.

For more language specific tips, I shelled out $37 for Benny Lewis’ (of the successful Fluent in Three Months blog) Conversation Starters course. At age 21, Benny decided to become a globetrotter and learner of languages. 11 years later, he is fluent in seven languages, conversational in four others, and dabbles in dozens more.

Benny’s adventures have led him to develop tools and tricks for rapid language learning, which include:

Hearing, reading and watching the language. Here’s a photo of me and my son watching a YouTube video of Italian nursery rhymes. They’re simple, catchy and have large colorful graphics which makes it easy to understand.

In addition to nursery rhymes, I’ve also been watching X factor Italy clips, and perusing the language forums on Italki.com, where I can ask questions, read other people’s questions and answers, and even correct other language learners’ English.

Not being afraid of sounding like an idiot. This is me speaking “Tarzan style”, which means I’m spitting out words and phrases with no regard to grammar, pronunciation or vocabulary.

The point of the exercise is to get comfortable speaking Italian, even if what I say makes little sense and feels silly. These are the words that will serve as a springboard into more advanced, complex sentences.

Finding native speakers to practice with 

It’s far more important to practice the right things than to simply learn the right things. I have to speak with native speakers who can correct me and teach me as frequently as I possibly can.

Practice practice practice

Finally, I have to put in the hours.

I’ve got my flashcards to build my vocabulary, which is the bread and butter of languages. My charts to understand basic grammar rules. I’m learning common phrases, connectors and conversation starters (I don’t know exactly / non so di preciso, even though / anche se). I’m working on Duolingo modules every day. I’m making videos of myself, setting up Skype conversations, and looking for local Italian speakers who are willing to listen to me butcher their native language.

None of this is easy. The process of spotting the patterns and applying it to other scenarios, memorizing words and teasing out the nuances is time consuming and difficult. And since I’m not sure which course or strategy or tool will work best for me, I’m trying them all.

At the end of the day, my goal isn’t fluency, nor is it perfection. I don’t need to be mistaken for a native speaker, debate politics or discuss greek tragedies. All I want is to carry on a conversation in Italian. One where I can understand and be understood.

That doesn’t seem so far fetched now, does it?