Italian Brave Heart

Learning the Italian language…where do we start?

Home  >>  Learning Italian  >>  Learning the Italian language…where do we start?

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 haveDSCN0253 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


pupilsI 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..!


liceoFor 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.




10 Comments so far:

  1. JP says:

    Awesome site. Some of the most satisfying things to do is learn a little bit of a language and go over to the country to experience a new culture. From experience, I agree with your advice. The key is in consistency and not ever giving up. Thanks for the post and keep up the good work.

    • Brendan says:

      Hi JP,

      Unfortunately not everyone has as open a mind as you, for most they are petrified about making a mistake and so don’t learn any words of the language of the country they are visiting. Italians particularly love the fact that you have made an attempt to learn their language, its a big compliment to them that you have even made the effort.

  2. Michel says:

    I love Italian language, I would really like to learn how to speak and write in Italian!
    I loved the article, I completely understand your point of view of how we should make an effort in learning a new language, I think it’s one of the best things in life.
    Keep up the good work!

    • Brendan says:

      Hi Michel, thank you for the kind words, if you are interested I can point you in the direction of the resources and courses I followed?

  3. Lis says:

    Hi Brendan,

    I love your site. It is good to have firsthand experience about a different country.

    I visited Italy a few years ago without learning a word of Italian. It was a Christmas coach trip so we did not have to mingle much with the locals. However, I like to get out and about to get a feel of what the area I am staying in is really like. I came across an outdoor market and was able to purchase goods using hand gestures, facial expressions etc. It was fun and the Italian sales person was very helpful and even tried teaching me the correct Italian words when we understood each other. 🙂

    I will be visiting your site again to gain more knowledge of Italy as I would really love to visit it again.

    Best wishes

    • Brendan says:

      Hi Lis,

      Thank you for your comments. This has been my experience too. Italians love a ‘trier’.
      As you mentioned its all good fun; the language can be a little bit of a barrier but after a while that barrier is broken down
      We hope to see you again soon in Bel Italia

  4. Liz Martin says:

    Hello again Brendan and friends, just had a thought about learning Italian or indeed any other language. Duolingo (site) is free to learners; and while it will not make you fluent in your chosen language, it will greatly improve your vocabulary. As for being fluent well! I’m still looking for a quick fix, but I know that it’s time to get the head down and do some serious learning. Liz

    • Brendan says:

      Hi Liz,

      Thanks for the advice re Duolingo. I had a look, did the introductory test and think it looks like something that expats would relish. I haven’t looked any deeper but it looks good. No quick fix I’m afraid, you’ll have to put in the time (and blood, sweat and tears) but don’t worry about it. Like you I had high expectations but listening to some other expats I realised, so what, I might not be fluent in two years, does it matter? We have time. We are learning every day that we are here, even if its one day at a time. Some days are good, some not so good. Some days I walk away from a conversation feeling bloody marvellous and more of those are happening as time moves on.

  5. Torrey says:

    I think I can identify with yall very well.
    One year and 3 months ago I moved to central america. Nicaragua to be exact, where the language is totally Spanish. It don’t take long to realize that you need to learn the language of the country you live in!!! Spanish has all the different verb tenses just like I’m sure Italian does. Don’t feel too bad for not advancing faster…….. Think about a child…… Even a four year old has trouble trying to put their thoughts into words. I think that 7 years is a fair number for learning a language!! Torrey

    • Brendan says:

      Hi Torrey,

      You are quite right, I realised early on that one doesn’t need to be fluent overnight, next week is also fine!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *