Language Learning with the Iceberg Project: An Interview with Cher Hale

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Today I got the opportunity to interview Cher Hale, founder of The Iceberg Project, on which she shares her love of learning Italian with the world. Her site is also expanding into Mandarin soon as well.


FTLOL: Tell us a bit about your background. Where are you from and where do you currently live and work?

CH: I’m Cher, and I run a little website called The Iceberg Project where I help people who are crazy-passionate about Italy learn Italian. I am also working on teaching Mandarin Chinese there, too, but that’s a work in progress. It turns out that building language websites takes quite a bit of time. Who knew?

When I’m not creating courses or writing bite-sized lessons for Italian, I work as a waitress and write articles for online entrepreneurs on the side in a very rural part of the United States called Las Vegas.


FTLOL: If someone were to read through your website, they’d see that you obviously have a huge love for Italian. How did you start and how long have you been learning it for?

CH: I’ve been learning Italian since 2011, and it all started off rather unromantically. I wanted to take a language class in my first year of university, and Italian seemed appealing enough.

Then a year later I decided to study abroad for a semester and chose a town called Viterbo, just two hours north of Rome, in Italy because I felt really drawn to it.

I restarted learning Italian before my move, and as soon as I started using it in Italy, I was hooked.

When I returned home, I decided that I was going to keep learning it forever and that starting a website was the only logical way to do that. Voilà. The Iceberg Project was born.


FTLOL: Other than Italian, are there any other languages you can speak, or that you’re studying at the moment?

CH: I can speak Chinese with a funny accent and bad tones and I’m currently learning Spanish with a focus on the Mexican culture.


FTLOL: Your website has been getting some good press over the last little while. Can you tell us what it’s about and how and when you decided to start it? Where did you get the name for it from?

CH: The Iceberg Project is for anyone who fell head-over-heels for Italy and wants to speak the language because they want to do more than just to tour the Colosseum. They deeply want to get to know the people who live in Italy and feel connected to it in a way that only the language can provide.

The name was given to me while I was sitting in my Intercultural Communication class in Italy. My professor was talking about the iceberg theory in communication, which basically says that, just like an iceberg, there are things that you can and cannot see within a culture.

The stuff above the water would be the clothes they wear, how they greet each other, the types of foods they eat, or all of the awesome gestures they make while they’re speaking. The stuff below the surface would be their values or the internal dialogue that we can’t see that informs most of the decisions they make in their lives.

When I learned about that, it made such clear sense to me that language would be the bridge to take you between the world you can easily see and the one that’s hidden.

Yes, we want to visit a country and enjoy the food and the traditions we find quirky, but many of us want more than just to window-shop the culture. We want the simplicity of feeling involved in the most normal of ways, like making small talk while in a long line, as if a piece of us belonged there.


FTLOL: I’ve noticed that you’re starting to branch out into Mandarin on your website as well. Will you be doing similar things with the language as you have for Italian on your site?

CH: Yes, I will absolutely be doing similar things for Mandarin, but as I mentioned before, it takes quite a bit of time to build a language website. With that in mind, it may be a while before I tackle that project at full force.




FTLOL: Do you think that it’s crucial to live in a foreign country in order to gain a high level of competency in a language? Is it possible to gain a similar level without leaving your hometown?

CH: Well, first I’m glad you used the term “high level of competency” instead of fluent. It’s important that I break down what “fluent” means for all of my students and help them find their sweet spot in Italian — the level of the language that they are happy with having.

If someone were to come to me with a desire to reach a high level of competency in Italian but had doubts as to whether they could since they live, let’s say, in the bush in Australia, I would tell them that they absolutely could as long as they have a good Internet connection.

However, they have to come to terms with the fact that they will have high competency in some areas, let’s say, history, and low competency in others, like getting their bike fixed at the shop.

There are situations that you will be forced into when you live in a foreign country that are difficult to replicate in your home country, but as long as you’re okay with not being able to talk about the bike parts you need or what to say when filing for a loan, then heck yes you can learn a foreign language to a high level.

For me, it’s all about who is learning the language. High competency for one person might mean something else for another, and I just want them to enjoy the language.


FTLOL: Have there been any language study materials or courses that you’ve personally found to be critical to your learning?

CH: YES. I loved the foundation that Michel Thomas Italian gave to me, and now I can’t live without the digital flashcard system, Anki. I love it so much that I think my boyfriend is jealous.

Finally, I would say Italki is incredibly critical as it connects me to tutors who live all over the world and gives me the opportunity to practice speaking my languages from home.

Also, one last “resource” that I’ll add in is more conceptual in nature, but just as important, and that’s been consistency.

If a language student internalizes that tinkering with the language every day WILL help them reach their ideal level, then they’re so much further along than a huge chunk of other people who just dabble in the language.


FTLOL: Do you have any advice for people who may want to start learning a foreign language, but who might not know where to start?

CH: Well, if it’s Italian, there’s this huge guide that I wrote on how to start as an absolute beginner.

But if I had to be short and sweet (which is exactly what’s happening here), I would tell them these things:

  • Find some structured program that you like, like Michel Thomas or Assimil.
  • Create a habit of studying every day.
  • Find a way to review everything you study.
  • Do stuff that you think is fun.

That isn’t very sexy advice, and that’s mostly because learning a language on a daily basis isn’t the sexiest process, but it is insanely rewarding. Being able to connect with someone with whom you wouldn’t have otherwise been able because you now speak Italian or Chinese or Danish, that is an amazing and irreplaceable feeling.


FTLOL: What’s next for you? Do you plan on learning any more languages, or will you work to further develop those you’ve already learned? What’s next for The Iceberg Project?

CH: I definitely plan on learning more languages, one of which will be Sindarin Elvish, because well, it’s Elvish, and then of course, other practical languages. That being said, after I complete my year focusing just on Spanish, I will be in what I’m calling a “maintenance year” for Italian, Spanish, and Chinese.

In terms of The Iceberg Project, there is always so much to do with helping people go from just knowing “ciao” to being conversational, so I plan on continuing to help make sense of difficult grammar, like when to use the imperfect tense and when to use the past tense, and with figuring out what’s holding them back from becoming conversational, even though they’re super passionate and motivated.

That’s a problem that happens to so many people, so I want to help them nip it in the bud so they can finally enjoy speaking Italian.

You can read more about Cher and her project at The Iceberg Project or at her personal site.


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