Advice for a Novice
So I just started with Italian a few days ago, and though I have seen some success thus far, I found that I am continuously making the same mistakes - particularly, using the wrong word for "the," incorrectly determining gender (of inanimate objects, of course, e.g, bottiglia), wrong verb endings, and so forth. Having taken Latin before, I suppose I'm accustomed to a more systemic way of approaching endings, but it almost seems (to me, anyway) that such a system doesn't exist in Italian. Did any of you face similar challenges, and if so, how did you find a way to solidify concepts of that nature?
And another concern that I have is pronunciation. I gathered from a few run-throughs that the "i's" tend to be silent; but, of course, then I found exceptions (bottiglia, again). I constantly have to hit the "slower" button when transcribing the Italian words, and even then, it's sometimes difficult to decipher the audio. Any suggestions?
Thanks for reading, and I appreciate any help that can be offered.
The best advice I can give you as far as general language learning goes is: REVIEW REGULARLY AND OFTEN. Every time you log on, do at least as many practice sessions as you do new lessons and don't try to rush through the new lessons too quickly. This will serve you in very good stead further on. Lots of people talk about how it suddenly gets a fair bit harder after a certain point. If you haven't built a solid foundation before then, you'll make it even harder for yourself.
Back to Italian...
Italian is actually a quite systematic language. Well I think so at least. I haven't studied Latin so I can't compare there but I came to Italian (the first time round) after studying French and it was so nice to find out that for the majority of words you can tell the gender just by looking at the last letter of the word. Sure, there's still a reasonable amount you need to memorize but at least it's not all of them...
I think perhaps the issue is that you sound like you're someone who finds it easy to learn by systems, and Duolingo just isn't set up like that. A traditional Italian course (like I did a uni 8 years ago) comes with a grammar book that has verb tables, rules for gender, rules for plurals, rules for pronunciation etc all laid out in black and white. Duolingo just teaches you sentences and lets you "deduce" the grammatical patterns on your own. This probably works for some people better than others. (Conversely a grammar book of the rules of Italian would probably really help some people but also turn off a lot of other people from learning a new language)
The good news is that there are plenty of free resources on the internet that can help you supplement your Duolingo experience by outlining the underlying patterns to the language. Here are a few places to start. italian.about.com is in general pretty useful, I've found.
Rules about gender for nouns - http://italian.about.com/library/weekly/aa051000a.htm
The Italian for "the", all the possibilities and when you use them - http://www.bbc.co.uk/languages/italian/language_notes/il.html
Plurals in Italian - http://italian.about.com/library/fare/blfare123a.htm
Present tense of Italian verbs (note: this has three pages, one for each of the 3 types of regular verbs) - http://italian.about.com/library/fare/blfare198a.htm
The present tense for essere (to be) and avere (to have) (both irregular verbs, but important to know) - http://italian.tolearnfree.com/free-italian-lessons/free-italian-exercise-15356.php
Links to all sorts of different Italian lessons on about.com - http://italian.about.com/od/lessons/tp/italian-language-lessons.htm
A discussion thread with FAQs here on Duolingo - http://www.duolingo.com/#/comment/233855
Pronunciation and the audio:
Italian pronunciation is actually HEAPS more regular than English pronunciation. As f.formica said, most Italian letters only correspond to one sound. Once you learn the sound for each letter and for the dozen or so letter combinations that have a unique sound, you're set. No weirdness like English where one sound can be written 5+ different ways.
A good collection of links about Italian pronunciation rules - http://italian.about.com/od/pronunciation/a/italian-pronunciation.htm
People complain a lot on the earlier lessons that the audio is really unclear. However as someone who spent a lot of time acclimatising my ear to the sound of Italian 8 years ago, I don't think the audio is unclear that often. It is unclear occasionally, but in the 31 days I've been using Duolingo every day I've only picked up one pronunciation error and only 2 or 3 times where I had had no idea what the sentence was meant to be.
Part of learning a new language is tuning your ear and that takes time and practice (lots of practice). Your ear is not used to how this language uses sounds yet. It's normal that you will have to use the slower speed audio at first - with time you'll get used to it and be able to understand familiar sentences at the "normal" speed. I recommend that whenever you have to use the slower speed audio to transcribe, you still listen to the "normal" audio at least once or twice after you've checked your answer before moving on (while looking at the correct answer).
Trust that Duolingo's pronunciation is right - in my experience it is right the vast majority of the time - and practice practice practice.
Small sounds (such as il, i, e', etc) do often get lost in the "normal" audio but that's happens in normal spoken Italian as well. Normal spoken Italian (that you would encounter in Italy) is even faster than the "normal" speed audio on Duolingo.
Hope that helps. :)
The ending system is actually pretty close to Latin: the first declension originated nouns in -a/-e, the second declension nouns in -o/-i, the third declension nouns in -e/-i, the fourth and fifth a lot of weird ones, e.g. manus - la mano / le mani (IV), tribus - la tribù / le tribù (IV), species - la specie / le specie (V). Just like in Latin, there is only a feeble association between endings and gender, although most nouns in the first group are feminine and most in the second one are masculine.
As for pronunciation, most letters have only one sound: the main exception are C, G and their compounds (sc, gl, gn, ...): the 'i' is usually silent next to those, because it's used to soften the sound of "bottiglia" to something like "botilla" (but not quite). In the same way, a silent H is generally used to "harden" those letters.