How to Learn Italian as an Adult
To call the process of learning a foreign language “challenging” is an understatement. Often we see admirers of languages buy books with the belief that fluency in an entire language will magically appear over just a few late night study sessions of memorization, exercises and espresso. How many times have we purchased study books, only to quickly retire them after realizing that learning a language isn’t as easy as we thought? Let’s face it, learning another language is hard, real hard, especially for the average American adult whose only exposure to a foreign language is at the movies or an ethnic restaurant. But as hard as it may seem, it’s not impossible. This article demonstrates the path that I’ve taken in learning a foreign language as a full-time working adult.
The first thing you need is motivation. Perhaps you have it already, because after all, you are reading a blog entitled “Italian Enthusiast”. Finding motivation, in my opinion, is the most difficult part of the foreign language learning process. For me, many factors gave me motivation, but the one motivating factor that sealed my commitment to learning Italian was watching my best friend, Craig, do it. He too possessed a high level of motivation, also with a busy work schedule and family commitments. Seeing how it is possible in others similarly situated is a fantastic way to get motivated. But motivation comes in all forms. It doesn’t really matter where it comes from, just so long as it finds you, and when it does, the next thing you will need is some time.
When I began taking Italian lessons seriously in 2012, I was running my own law firm, handling a full caseload. I had a steady American girlfriend and financial responsibilities associated with carrying a small law practice and paying off student loans. Did I have the time? To most people, the answer would be, “no way”! But let’s get real for a moment. Everyone has the time. When there is motivation, there is time. You make time for your priorities. When you accept Italian in your life as a necessity, as one would accept work, religion, sleep, or exercise, then suddenly the impossible becomes possible.
So you’re motivated, and you’ve freed up some time. Now what? Here is a non-exhaustive list of things I did to begin my journey into the Italian language. As you will see, doing it most productively requires a modification of your life habits, with an immersion into all things Italian.
SKYPE LESSONS WITH A SCHOOL IN ITALY
Thanks to modern technology, it is now possible to take face-to-face lessons from anywhere in the world with an instructor in Italy. Lessons on Skype, for example, make this possible. For me, I am partial to instructors in Florence, but if you have an interest in a different part of Italy, it should not be difficult to find schools there that also offer Skype distance learning. At reputable schools in Florence, lessons cost on average between €20,00 to €25,00 per hour (equivalent to about $23.00 to $28.00 per hour), depending on the package you purchase. However, in preparation for writing this post, I conducted brief research and found some Skype lessons offered from different parts of Italy starting out as low as $10.00 per hour. If you want the biggest bang for your buck, research some of the poorest cities in Italy and search for Skype lessons available in those cities. The only difference between learning Italian in Milan over Palermo, for example, other than possibly the cost, is your instructor’s accent.
My base to learn the Italian language has always been Florence. For two years I studied with Cecilia at Accademia del Giglio (https://adg.it) between three to five mornings per week depending on my availability. Cecilia is an excellent Florentine teacher who holds an advanced degree in the Italian language. I scheduled my lessons to begin anywhere between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m. before the beginning of my workday. I also studied with Chiara at Istituto il David (http://www.davidschool.com), and she also is an excellent teacher and a friend. Studying Italian via Skype has been critical to my learning success and I believe it is a vital component for any serious student to include in the cumulative learning approach I discuss herein.
LESSONS WITH LOCAL INSTRUCTOR
It is also important to take lessons locally, whether with a group or one-on-one. A local instructor will contribute something different than your Skype instructor. Local instructors can be found online or at your local universities. In my case, my local instructor, Giulio, came from a different generation than my Skype instructor, as well as a different region of Italy. As a result, it was interesting to discover the differences in teaching methods and points of view.
Your instructors will usually provide you their own curriculum, but in addition, buying Italian children’s books (even baby books) is a great way to begin learning the basics. They are very useful, and it is also fun to refresh your recollection of the famous fairy tales we all learned as children, like Snow White (Biancaneve), Seven Dwarfs (Sette Nani), and Pinocchio (Pinocchio).
Diving into Italian cinema is also a wonderful way to maintain Italian exposure, and it gives you an opportunity to hear dialogue in action. Even if you gain from the movie only a good story and maybe one new Italian word to add to your growing vocabulary, it is still worth it. Some of my favorite classic Italian film directors are:
- Michaelangelo Antonioni;
- Federico Fellini; and
- Vittorio De Sica.
Some of the more modern film director favorites are:
- Marco Tullio Giordana (“The Best of Youth” is my favorite film);
- Gianni di Gregorio;
- Carlo Verdone;
- Paolo Sorrentino; and
- Roberto Benigni.
ITALIAN CDS AND SMARTPHONE APPS
Some people spend hours in traffic each day listening to talk show radio. Others listen to music during a gym session, or play games on their smartphones at various intervals throughout the day. Why not make more productive use of your time and listen to Italian language CDs in the car or in the gym, or download Italian apps to play with during the day? That’s what I did, and I actually found it quite enjoyable. This way you are not requiring more time. You are simply making better use of time by making slight modifications to your daily schedule.
Social media has become a necessity in many of our lives, so why not work our Italian interests into our social media accounts? For me, I became friends with as many native Italian speakers on Facebook as I could. While I did not know many Italians at first, I did know of various restaurants in Florence, so I became friends on Facebook with the restaurants, and through the restaurants, I befriended others who were also friends with these restaurants. Right away, we had something in common, which allowed me to break the ice more easily and begin a dialogue. Since English has been taught in the Italian school system for a while now, it is safe to assume that most young native Italians speak enough English to understand you (at least in large cities), so preparing messages in English (like I did), is acceptable.
For me, I was successful using this approach, and through it, I met a good friend who then introduced me to more good friends. When I traveled to Italy, we all got together and did fun things, and finally after one year, my friend ended up introducing me to my wife.
FIND AN ITALIAN-SPEAKING GIRLFRIEND OR BOYFRIEND
This can be accomplished anywhere since there are Italian speakers all over the world, but the best way to do it is to find an Italian-speaking girlfriend/boyfriend who lives in Italy and speaks limited English. His/her limitation with the English language will only help force you to speak more Italian. The less English your significant other speaks, the better off you will be with your Italian language goals.
Additionally, if one of your life goals is to live in Italy one day, even part-time, then it will be easier to achieve this goal if your significant other is 100% on board with you, and if your significant other has immediate family living in Italy, he/she would more than likely be on board with you. Finding a girlfriend or boyfriend in Italy is challenging, and something I will address specifically in another blog article.
Traveling to Italy is another important addition to the cumulative learning approach that I’ve embraced. Surely, this is the most expensive element of the program, but again, if you accept Italian as a necessity, like paying rent or a mortgage, then you can make it happen.
In my experience, round-trip tickets to Italy from the United States can cost on average as low as $900 in the winter months, to $2,400 in the summer months. While I often fly from Miami to Florence by way of Rome, Paris or Frankfurt, I’ve seen the best deals on direct flights from New York City to Milan. You should familiarize yourself with all the different routes and airlines.
For me, I used to take frequent short trips (3 nights). This would allow me to only miss about 2 days of work. Now, however, since I work from overseas and participate in video conferencing while abroad, I take longer trips. Also, many international flights offer WIFI now so I am still able to work from the air, keeping productive.
Additionally, through www.airbnb.com or www.only-apartments.com, I rent short-term apartments instead of staying in hotels. I find this to be a lot cheaper, and also more authentic. However, it is best if you know someone in Italy who you can stay with. For me, my wife’s parents live in Florence and when I go to Florence, I either stay with them or at a friend’s home. This surely helps minimize the cost.
Indeed this segment of my learning routine is the toughest, and if you cannot make it happen, you will still have direct exposure to Italy through your Skype lessons. But everyone needs a vacation so whenever that time comes, there should only be one destination that is considered from the Italian Enthusiast: ITALY. You can spend a beautiful time in Italy economically, and doing so the most cost efficient way is something I will devote to a subsequent post.
As to my longer trips, so far I have done three 30-day summer trips to Italy, three summers in a row, and I plan on continuing this routine each year. I have modified my work schedule to make this possible, and planned very thoroughly to make the summer trips as eventful and economical as possible. I always work during the week while in Italy by handling various assignments from my computer, and when my clients need to speak with me, they love sitting in my Florida conference room talking to me on Skype with a backdrop of Positano. Being able to work in Italy to make long-term stays more practicable is something I’ve spent time planning. I’ve proven that it certainly is doable, and I will discuss the specifics at length in a subsequent post.
ROSETTA STONE OR SIMILAR LEARNING SOFTWARE
In addition to the above, any other language teaching system is good to dabble into. Rosetta Stone, for example, has some fun exercises, useful information and memorization tools. I would never recommend ONLY doing Rosetta Stone, but if you can add this to your cumulative program, it can be beneficial.
One thing that seems to be core to any Italian, is an understanding of the food. I honestly don’t think I ever met an Italian who was not able to lecture me on all the different pastas and cheeses. I think they must teach FOOD in elementary school in Italy because it has always impressed me that even the regular Italian layperson always seems to have an abundance of knowledge in the food department. Buying Italian cookbooks and learning the words for all the different dishes, vegetables, wines, etc., is totally worth it because an Italian vocabulary without food vernacular is embarrassingly incomplete. But if you take this approach, make sure you actually cook the meals in the cookbook because I’ve noticed that the act of cooking the meals is not only a memorization aid, but it is also extraordinarily fun, especially with Andrea Bocelli playing in the background.
Indeed, taking the above approach may appear fanatical to some people, but it works, and if you are an Italian Enthusiast, like me, it is also very fun and rewarding. I wish you the best of luck with your Italian language interests, and I hope you stick to it and never give up. Lastly, if you have utilized a different approach to learning Italian, please share.
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A Common (Prejudicial) Italian Saying
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Thank you so much for your informative article on ways to learn Italian as an adult! There were so many great tips that I had not thought of. I, too, am of Italian descent, and still have relatives in Italy. I hope to live there one day. Thanks again for the article and your page!