Learning the Italian language…where do we start?
This is probably the biggest reason why foreigners don’t follow their dreams and arrive in their bus loads at the border of Italy and it shouldn’t be, based on my experiences. We have a fair number of expat friends who have arrived here over the years who did not learn Italian and this hasn’t dampened their spirits nor stopped them from leading a ‘normal’ life (whatever that is) in Italy.
English is actively taught here
What many stranieri (foreigners) don’t realise is that English is in fact taught in schools in Italy from the age of 6 or 7 and so by the time Italians leave school at the ripe old age of 19 they have had a good 10 -12 years of English tuition. (I don’t mean good in the literal sense as I’ve heard some shocking stories). Granted it may not be the best tuition by any stretch of the imagination but at least they have heard English being spoken (albeit badly in some cases) at least one or two hours a week. What Italians suffer from is the same as we foreigners do and that is an overwhelming lack of confidence, especially initially. For many of us in the UK we studied French for a 1 or 3 or more in high school and I can almost guarantee that if a Frenchman asked any one of us on arrival at Heathrow airport if we spoke French we’d very quickly say no (or maybe non, but that’s as good as it gets), petrified that he might actually start a conversation with us. But if he was insistent and continued on, with the help of some hand gestures and facial expressions, many of the words would come flooding back. The same applies here in Italy. It is actually quite amazing how many of them actually to speak English and the understanding of English is significantly more.
The younger generation
I should be a bit more specific, I am referring mostly to the younger generation (under 40’s), they have had significantly more exposure to English than the older generation and also down south there is less exposure to Brits and Americans than up north. My kids friends have an even greater exposure to English thanks to social media (You Tube, Instagram, MTV) and knowledge of English is seen to be cool.
So who in actual fact understands you and who doesn’t? Try this out…when someone here presents you with a bill be it for a car, kitchen or even a cup of coffee and you look at them blankly its amazing how quickly they can find the words! I’m being a little harsh I know, one fantastic quality that Italians possess is that they are very forgiving and if you attempt their language they are delighted and willing you to succeed. At the end of the day, the more Italian you speak the less English they have to!
Our cunning plan..!
For my part we had a plan. We knew 2 years prior to moving to Italy that everything was falling into place and so we signed up at the nearest 6 form college for some adult education classes in Italian. So once a week my wife and I toddled off on a Monday night for a couple of hours of tuition; and we did the some thing for our kids (9 and 11) for an hour and a half on a Tuesday night. We were given, bought, borrowed some Italian language courses and found some free Italian language courses online. In addition, we put a label (in Italian) on every object in our house, even the carta igenica (toilet paper). It’s amazing today how all those words have stuck. We listened to Italian radio over the internet (RDS or RTL) and I believe that even although we couldn’t really follow the radio presenter it gave us a good grounding. When we arrived in Italy in the summer of 2013 could we speak Italian? Hell no! But the foundations had been set and it wasn’t as if we were hearing the language for the first time…every little helps as they say.
Baptism of fire
The kids Italian teacher told us that we shouldn’t worry, the kids would be fluent within 6 months as they would have a baptism of fire by being at school 6 hours every day. We on the other hand would take a bit longer, maybe a year she said. I must be honest, by month 4 I was beginning to despair a little as the kids were still a little frustrated, but almost to the day, 6 months in, something clicked and they attraversato (crossed over) to the ‘dark side’…there was no looking back. Nowadays it lovely to listen to them babbling along in a foreign language. It is one gift I’ve always dreamed of bestowing on my kids, a second language.
Anyway, my wife and I are another story! Unfortunately the teachers were wrong when it came to us. A year came and went and so did two. You see we don’t work for an Italian company or work with Italians daily. We are still communicating in English for 8 hours a day as part of our jobs and so we’ve not been dumped in the deep end like the kids. We really only get to speak Italian in the evenings and the weekends (and sometimes not). Don’t for one minute think that we are hiding or are happy with this situation, no way! We are fully integrated into our village and PREFER to speak Italian when we can. We now understand that due to our decision to continue to work for English-speaking companies that this is going to take us another few years to speak Italian fluently. After two years we probably understand 70% of what is going on (that percentage is significantly higher if the discussion is around food, weather or football) and we can communicate pretty well (that probably sits at about 50%). We do find that we are still living in certain tenses (present, future, past and only now getting into the imperfect); every few months we try another tense but we still haven’t mastered the gem of the Italian language the passato remoto (the distant past) but that is ok as we don’t really talk about Garibaldi and Christopher Columbus that much.
Tranquillo – Calm and easy
Well you know what they say? Another few years won’t kill us. We feel comfortable in our progress, our Italian friends understand us and we are learning every day subconsciously. Anyone contemplating making the same move as us should not for one minute stop following your dream to move to Italy because of the language, its not as much of a barrier as you think. In all walks of life (and particularly here) you will always find someone to help.
As a footnote, I was asked recently what was the best aid for the kids in helping them to grasp the language and I would have to say that an investment in 2 iPad minis was unmeasurable. I can’t remember if the kids used Google Translator or downloaded one of the many translator apps available but in the early days of our move it was great to see the iPad being moved back and forth between friends and this allowed them to communicate effectively at the outset.
If you have any comments I’d love to hear from you or if you have any questions please ask them below and I’ll try and get back to you as soon as I can.