Learning Italian

Ciao Readers!  And thank you for the Birthday wishes!

Okay, as you may recall, I am using my returning to Italian school as an excuse for less-frequent-than-usual blog posts.  I honestly had no idea how hard learning a language would be (I mean English was so easy….).  So today I thought I’d give you a peek into my not-very-glamorous attempts to once-and-for-all conquer a foreign language (unlike the baby/traveler Spanish, French and Japanese on which I get by).  It is my goal to be able to honestly say “I’m fluent in Italian” by the time we leave here (whenever that will be).

I believe the correct pedagogical terminology for my precise method of study is “the kitchen sink.”   It involves going to school, reading, watching t.v., conversing with strangers and anything else I can think of (and, as I’ve mentioned before, actually doing my homework most of the time – gasp!).

After tons of research and trial-and-error, I have discovered there are basically 3 types of schools here in Florence.  The first is geared towards tourists.  The good thing about these schools is that you meet people from all over, they are great fun, and you learn a ton about the city (because they include cool tours in the afternoon, as you may recall from many previous posts).  The bad thing is that they are stupid expensive, take up tons of time, are revolving doors (people can start any Monday and stay for as little as a week), and are of varying quality when it comes to the actual language part (there may or may not be a textbook, any organization of lessons, etc.).  I had vastly different experiences at the school I attended in Bologna to the one I attended when we first arrived here in Florence.

The next type of school, and the one I thought I would attend, are the free schools sponsored by volunteer teachers for resident foreigners.  This program is supported by the City of Florence and I think it’s pretty cool that they are trying to help immigrants learn Italian.  Unfortunately, from students and teachers with whom I have spoken, the quality seems to follow the get-what-you-pay-for model (one such school is actually held somewhere on Platform 5 at the train station!).   For a bit I thought these were my two choices and I didn’t know what to do…

I then found my current school, Georgio La Pira (they actually also have a free immigrant program, which is how I found them).  Unlike the come-whenever tourist schools, this school is more geared towards long-time visitors and immigrants, and they have set courses that run for 5 weeks at a time.  And, not only do they have  a book (pictured), but teachers at the school wrote it!  (While they don’t have afternoon touristy things, the cost is about 1/4 that of the tourist schools.)  The book and courses are divided into 6 levels, with each progressing through specific areas of grammar, using conversation throughout.  So, since I admittedly am nowhere near fluent yet, let me explain how the heck I ended up in level 6 this term…

I tested into level 3 last term, but once I attended a class I didn’t feel challenged enough.  One of the main subjects (passato prossimo) was something I had studied in Bologna and I wasn’t sure how much I could learn from folks who spoke less than I did.  So I tried out level 4, and while a bit of a challenge, felt it was a good fit.  Clearly, level 5 follows level 4; unfortunately, only one other level 4 student and I returned this term (other students returned to their home countries – Japan, Saudi Arabia, the U.S.), and none of the new students tested into level 5.  This basically left the two of us with the choice of taking level 6 or missing a term.  We both attended the first class hesitatingly (and she’s decided to wait out this term), but I thought the teacher was great, and I love listening to all the other students speak what I would consider fluent Italian.  So, I am the “slow” kid in the class, but hopefully the challenge of it will pull me along.  I will go back and do level 5 later, as it covers two verb tenses I should probably learn! (School is also the single best place to get to practice speaking for several hours a week.)

While school is great, school alone does not a fluent me make.  So this is where the kitchen sink comes in.  To keep me thinking in Italian I try and watch some t.v. in Italian, as well as read books and magazines.  I find that if I watch programs with which I’m familiar (“How I Met Your Mother,” for example), or about things for which I have an affinity (i.e. cooking shows), I can catch up to 80% of what’s said (as opposed to about 30% when I watch out-of-context things like news without video clips).  I especially enjoy Master Chef Italia and listening to Joe Bastianich speak perfect Italian with just a slight New York accent!  I similarly find reading the magazine “La Cucina Italiana” to be a fun way to “study.”  Recently I decided to read one of my favorite childhood books in Italian – “Il Leone, la strega e l’armadio” (can you guess what that is? if not, the photo below will give it away), and that seems to be a similarly effective approach.  Once in a while when I’m feeling very brave (and patient), I pull out a dictionary and attempt the newspaper.  In addition to my solo efforts, I speak only Italian when out and about and politely ask sales clerks, waiters, etc. to please speak to me in Italian if they attempt to speak to me in English.  Other folks find songs helpful, but I find them hard to understand (both literally and figuratively, as they use so many metaphors I am quickly lost).  And, while my initial attempts ended comically, I am still working on finding a language exchange partner (n.b. as of air time, I think I have found the right person…).  Overall, trying to learn Italian has been my biggest project since we arrived (yes, even bigger than waiting at government offices for things).  For a while I didn’t feel like I was getting anywhere, but recently I have seen some progress.  Now, as for fluency….we shall see….

Some of my “kitchen sink” methods of study:

Buon fine settimana!

Leave a comment


  1. Good for you! I like to joke I learned my numbers watching ProActive commercials. (True).

  2. Buona fortuna!

  3. Brava, ce la fai!! Living in Florence and really focusing on the learning process are probably the best ways to learn. I live in Italy and even though I definitely have an American accent, I studied Italian for a few years and feel rather fluent, so I know that it can be done. Ciao!

  4. Ako

     /  January 31, 2013

    I knew which book you were talking about by “reading the title”. Leone & armadio were the two words that made something click in my head. Guess I’m ready for my Oct trip! 🙂

  5. When I first arrived several years ago, I always tuned into ‘Chi Vuol Essere Milionario’ since I could read AND listen to it. Now that Italy has gone digital and I get more basic channels, I, too, love watching ‘old faves’ from the States in Italian, like 4 Weddings, Say Yes to the Dress, Criminal Minds etc. It’s a good way to get your ear used to the language indeed. Good job insisting on speaking. I’ve found in Florence, especially, they are more apt to try to cut into English, but keep going! Thankfully I’m at a point where I don’t get that anymore, and you’ll get there too. I have to say I mostly learned from having an Italian BF and being around him and his friends. The language exchange should work well and maybe you’ll forge some Italian friendships which will help more than any book or course (at least it worked for me, lol).

    • Thanks for sharing your experience and encouragement. Funny, but the Americans I have met that speak the best Italian ALL have Italian boyfriends! I just returned from my second 2+ hour meeting with my language exchange, and in addition to her being a nice person, you are spot on – I think I learn more in those 2 hours than in school all week!

  6. Roger Kennett

     /  January 31, 2013

    Complimenti! Mi dai la speranza, Speranza! Ho bisogno lavorare piu forte qui.

  7. Very informative, especially the thought about learning from already-familiar TV shows and books.


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