How I learned Italian

In October of last year, I went to Italy to work for three months as a volunteer English teacher at a middle school and elementary school.  I found the opportunity through an organization that was advertising on Workaway, a website I highly recommend for anyone looking for opportunities to be immersed in a foreign language without having to spend a lot of money.

I was placed in the town of La Loggia, just south of Torino, and lived with an Italian host family (I didn’t get paid, but the free lodging and food and the experience were well worth it for me).  Now, I was expected to speak English with my host family (which I did), and I was kept surprisingly busy with my 20 hour a week teaching schedule (lesson planning, took a lot of time, of course).  But I did use the opportunities I could take to practice learning Italian.

In the mornings before I went to school, I would go to a cafe for a cappuccino and to read the newspaper in Italian.  This was during the season just before Renzi’s ill-fated constitutional referendum, and every day I would read with anticipation about the political drama that was consuming the country.  After the referendum, of course, there was the American election to read about.  Now, I actually had done some things to study a bit of Italian before I came to Italy.  I already spoke French and Spanish, and I knew some basic words and grammar from an online course that I’d taken for one month some years before (the course was from Livemocha, which was bought out and destroyed by Rosetta Stone a few years ago).  Anyway, I knew enough from that course to understand that the grammar of Italian does not differ appreciably from that of Spanish or French, and to be able to predict some of the cognates.  I also downloaded the Collins Italian dictionary app on my phone (at about $25 it’s a bit of an expensive purchase, but it’s very high quality, and I recommend it to everyone), and used it to look up any words that I didn’t know.  I was reading Italian for about one or two hours a day, and my reading comprehension increased very rapidly, to the point where I didn’t need a dictionary most of the time to understand the articles.

Northern Italians buck the stereotype of openness and sociability that most Italians have.  Southern Italy is more the place to go if you want everyone to talk to you in Italian.  I had a difficult time making friends outside of the school setting (where I was expected to speak English), and this was exacerbated by the fact that I was staying in a small town rather than in a proper city.  But I took the opportunities that I could get to speak to people in Italian.  I had long conversations every day with the women who worked at the cafe and at a couple of the bars around town where I would stop in for a snack or a beer after class.  I talked quite often to the librarian at the municipal library and the receptionist at the gym where I worked out.

I was lucky to meet a couple of girls who agreed to do a language exchange with me (one was Italian and another was a Polish girl who’d been living in La Loggia for a year and spoke Italian very well).  With both of them, I asked that we speak 100% English one day and 100% Italian the other, alternating days speaking English and Italian.  I feel like this is a better way to do a language exchange than say speaking 30 minutes of English followed by 30 minutes of Italian in one session, the reason being that by speaking the whole time in the one language, you really get into the mode of thinking in that language.

Since I had the weekends off, I sometimes travelled by myself around Piemonte.  One weekend, I visited the Abbey of San Michele which involves hiking up the side of a small mountain.  I ran into a couple of Italian engineers as I was coming out of the train station, and we agreed to hike to the abbey together.  We spoke in Italian the whole time, and I surprised myself with how much I could say and understand after only a few short weeks in Italy.

By the end of my time in Italy, although I wasn’t “fluent” in Italian, I could read quite comfortably, and I was capable of having long conversations in Italian.  I still keep in touch with one of my language partners from La Loggia, and we write each other emails in Italian.  What I learned from this experience is that you don’t have to be so “hardcore” about learning the language to improve your language abilities by a lot.  Many polyglots advocate never speaking English, and, although this is an effective method, it’s not realistic for a lot of people.  I probably could have improved my skills a lot more if I made a bunch of flashcards or did a lot of intense listening comprehension training, but I wanted to relax and learn by doing what I enjoyed doing: talking to people or reading the paper with my coffee.

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