In fall of 2020, COVID raged world-wide and forest fires burned on the west coast. Oregon’s air quality hovered between a smoking pack of cigarettes a day and Chernobyling people’s lungs. It was…not awesome.
A breath of fresh air arrived via a second cousin who called my mom and proclaimed, “I found the naturalization certificate for your great-grandpa. We can all become Italian citizens!”
Trigger enthusiasm. Research. Deep-diving into Ancestry.com. Trying to get an appointment at the consulate in San Francisco, a Herculean task in the overtaxed consulate system. After three months of trying, I snagged one in January 2021…for two years out. These days, they are booking five years in the future!
Here’s the original blog post from 2020 with more details. (Fun side note: a cousin from a side of the family I’d never heard of found that blog post, which reconnected us all. Go go internet magic!)
Not gonna lie: it was a solid effort to track down documents ranging from original Italian birth certificates from 1884 to modifying death certificates with incorrect info on them. But I got it done and kicked off the New Year by finally meeting with an consulate officer discuss my citizenship quest. Luckily, the San Francisco consulate was still doing remote appointments, saving me a trip. We simply handled things on the phone.
Prior to that, I nervously mailed all the hard-won documents to the consulate via their requested method, flat rate mail with no signature confirmation. “Oh, it’s cool, just dozens of hours of efforts and a thousand dollars of documents floating around in holiday mail traffic. I’M NOT WORRIED.”
You better believe I ordered two certified copies of everything.
I used the appointment as a final exam of sorts for my Italian language study. I didn’t need to do the appointment in Italian, but since I’ve been studying it since I started this citizenship process, I wanted to. The consulate officer was quite surprised that I could actually speak the language—they always chide people for not being able to, but don’t expect it. Instead, she complimented me on my Italian, which felt validating given how hard I’ve worked.
We dove into the review of all the lineage documents and next steps went swimmingly. All the upfront corrections and fact checking I did apparently worked out because she gave me zero followup homework. My only guidance on timeline is that I’ll need to wait “dei mesi,” aka “some months” or “whenever we dig our way through the mile-high stack of applications.”
So, yeah, I’m not done, but my work and the “did I f this up somewhere?” question that hovered deep in the back of my mind is released. Now I just wait, living my life while the time passes anyway! Call it acceptance training.
Although we might have looked at some long-term rentals in Italy. You know, just checking…
https://www.traipsingabout.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/01/doc-drop-scaled.jpg1024768Dakotahttps://www.traipsingabout.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/Traipsing-About-logo-white-background-450x156.pngDakota2023-01-11 19:44:492023-01-26 10:16:18Taking a big step toward my Italian citizenship
My studious phase the past two years: Learning to speak Italian. Hundreds of hours of piano practice. Notebooks full of drawings…
So many times where I was tired or unmotivated, but did it anyway. My current self thanks that tired-but-doing-it past self!
I see three common threads for all these before/afters:
1. They involved creating something via perseverance and effort (memories included) vs. one-off enjoyment.
2. All of them are experiences or facilitate future experiences (e.g. van trips, hanging in our garden, playing music).
3. All involved building a skill.
Also, in no way were they fun all the time. Sifting rocks from free top soil during our garden project comes to mind…sigh.
All these goals took on a life of their own. I didn’t intend to befriend blog readers or fall in love with piano and bikepacking… It’s all blossomed from having enough fun (and being stubborn) long enough to create a habit.
A reminder that we often become passionate about something after we’ve invested energy in it.
Similar to asking, “what are the decisions that most positively affected my life,” I think looking at the traits of our most satisfying before and afters is a useful lens for guiding our lives.
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This tutorial on optimizing foreign language learning is for you if:
You’re serious about learning a foreign language.
You want an effective, efficient method with constant forward progress, not repeatedly forgetting what you learned.
You don’t want to spend money on expensive courses and their magic promises.
My Foreign Language Journey
I’ve “studied” Spanish for years: high school classes, traveling in Spain and Central America, plus a language immersion in Mexico pushing me to the point where I dreamt in Spanish.
The result from all of that effort? I forgot most of it. My Spanish is roughly A2 level, beyond “Yo hablo Espanol,” but basically survival level. *sigh*
The problem? I lacked a system for learning. My scattershot approach generated results that were full of holes, with no plan for long-term retention. I’d learn something before or during a trip, then forget it.
There is a better way
Then I discovered I can become an Italian citizen, which fired me up to learn the language. I finally got serious, researched and compiled a systematic approach, and stuck to it.
One year into my pursuit of learning Italian, I’m fluent at a B2 level (independent, spontaneous conversation) and well on my way to C1 (fluent Italian with more complexity).
Better yet, I’m confident I can continue this forever, retaining what I’ve learned while adding other languages.
In the past year, I’ve learned over 5,500 Italian vocab words and sentences, about 2 million times my Spanish results. As my teacher Luigi said recently (in Italian, obviously), “At this point, you’re prepared to talk about anything!”
He administers fluency tests for the Italian government, so you can bet I felt good. I’m writing this post because I want you to experience the same satisfaction!
If you just want to say a few words of broken Spanish next Cancun trip or simply order a pizza in Rome, stop reading.
If you’re serious about learning a language effectively and efficiently, journey onward!
Remember more words and speak a language better than you ever thought possible!
A Simple Language Learning System
To speak a language, you need words! If you don’t know enough vocabulary, you’ll stare blankly at a local as you try to say “I’d like to buy some pink swim shorts to match my flamingo pool floatie.” NOBODY wants to be in that blank-mind state.
And conversation requires a ton of words! Here’s the generally accepted rule for language proficiency, vocab-wise:
A1 – Survival I: communication at a basic level (500 vocab words)
C1 – Fluency I: fluent in a complex manner. (8,000 vocab words)
C2 – Fluency II: same abilities as a native speaker. (16,000 vocab words)
But how do I put words in my brain?
Luckily, remembering words isn’t complex. You can do this.
At the core of efficient vocabulary acquisition is spaced repetition learning. This is simply a way to store all the words and info you’re trying to learn plus a way to shove it into your long-term memory storage.
I won’t go too far into the weeds, but think about it like this…
Say you learn some vocab. With zero reviews, you’ll forget 50% of what you learned in just a few days.
This is why cramming for a test works, but only for short-term memory! A week later, all that effort is for naught.
The problem is that our brains are efficient at forgetting things we don’t need. It saves calories, just like when we roamed the savanna millennia ago. To remember something, we need to see it again and again in different contexts.
TL;DR: Think of it as smart, computerized flashcards. Rather than flipping through an endless pile of cards, they’re optimized for retention.
Get a card right? You won’t see it for awhile. Miss it? Back to the front of the line. It’s the age-old flashcard method, but with an algorithm that delivers them on a schedule to push words deeeep into long-term memory.
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Anki is the best program for spaced repetition learning.
Anki (Japanese for memorization) is an open-source project available for computers or phones. Free on computer and Android, a $25 one-time fee for the iPhone app. (Think of it as a donation.)
There’s no monthly fee, no BS. Sorry, no dinging sounds when you get an answer right. Just effective utility that WORKS.
Further proof: in 2010, Roger Craig used Anki to obtain the then-all-time record for single-day winnings on the quiz show Jeopardy!, memorizing a vast number of facts. Med school students use it, advanced language learners use it…and so can you.
Anki is the place where I put anything that I want to remember. Language vocab and sentences, musical terms and blues riffs, countries of the world, presidents of the U.S., anything.
For 20-30 minutes a day for the past year, I committed to reviewing my Anki cards. When I’m home, the reviews consist of new cards plus reviews. While traveling, I only do reviews, reducing time to about 10 minutes a session.
Because Anki shows you a word or sentence just as you begin to forget it, the whole process is enjoyable! You’re in the flow zone between too easy or too hard.
At home, I usually lie on the floor and stretch, but it’s great for any moment when you’re killing time. I’ve flipped through cards at the barber, waiting for a friend to show up for a run, and in a tent on the Colorado Trail. The results?
I reviewed 100,010 cards (!) last year. WHOA. The power of consistency at work. Total cards memorized: 8,800. No wonder I feel far more proficient with Italian in a year than I did with years of sporadic Spanish.
(More soon on how to create cards.)
Other Components of the Language System
Anki is the brain of the system, but it needs food.
How you find new vocab is up to you. Here are some that I use, with more later on creating sentences from these:
Active vs. passive recall: Creating sentences you’ll actually remember
I started out simply memorizing vocab words, but noticed using them in conversation felt tough sometimes. I dug deeper and bought a course from the Universe of Memory, created by a Polish guy who speaks 10 languages and has seemingly read every study available on memory.
My biggest realization: active vs. passive recall.
Think of active words as those you can use in conversation at any time. Passive words are those you recognize, but only if you hear or read them. i.e. you can’t quickly access them for conversation. (We also have these in our native language: think how many words you can recognize while reading, but never use in daily life.
Universe of Memory course takeaways:
Simply reviewing individual words often isn’t enough . You need to create your own sentences using the target vocab word. Mix your native and target language in the question to jolt your brain into active recall.
Memorize natural phrases you might use in a conversation.
Your sentences shouldn’t be longer than 5-7 words. Ideally, they should be 2-4 words long.
Use only words you know.
For additional cards, make sure the context differs from other cards (e.g. I sit on the chair, the chair is brown, please push in your chair).
Create a new sentence (out loud or as a new flashcard) whenever you fail to recall a given word.
https://www.traipsingabout.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/Shopping-in-Tulum.jpg12822048Dakotahttps://www.traipsingabout.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/Traipsing-About-logo-white-background-450x156.pngDakota2022-01-25 19:28:302022-09-12 13:10:28Boosting Your Foreign Language Learning with Anki