for the love of language!

Please do not misinterpret the title–it is not a declaration of undying affection for esoteric words and complicated grammar rules. Instead, it’s more of a take on “for the love of (insert deity of your choice here)!!” As in, learning a language, even your own, can be a frustrating, complicated and seemingly thankless experience. Learning a second language? As a grown-up? Unless you have a knack for it, it can feel insurmountable.

Now I know this is a bit different from our usual sight-seeing posts, but let’s get personal (we’ve been together for over three years now–it’s about time). Some of you want to learn Italian, while others may be ok with picking up a phrase here and there, like a souvenir of your travels. I’m certainly of the first camp. In fact, because I write an entire blog about Florence, you might have assumed that I already speak fluent Italian.

Wrong. So, so wrong. Highly embarrassing, but still very much the opposite of right all the same.

I, deep in my soul, want to speak Italian. I daydream about the day lyrical words will light off my tongue, the day I use a turn of phrase so spot-on and expressive that I impress a native speaker. I’ve even had dreams where I’m speaking Italian (but contrary to popular belief, it did not mean I was fluent–my subconscious is only an expert in jibberish).

Italian is truly a love languauge.

Italian is truly a love languauge.

Reality is quite a different thing, however. I’ve been an on-again, off-again student of Italian for close to 10 years now (like I said, highly embarrassing). I took a few courses in college before an undergraduate semester abroad, which is where I learned the bulk of what I still know today. Then I graduated college, did the whole “real world” thing, and left Italian in the dust. My relationship with the love language was reignited once grad school in Florence came on the table, and I pledged to commit for real this time. Spoiler alert: I wasn’t a great girlfriend.

While Italian words didn’t flow freely once I returned to Italy, excuses did. “It’s not my fault; most Florentines only want to practice their English with me.” “It’s not my fault, their English is better than my Italian.””It’s not my fault, my headphones keep me from having a spontaneous conversation with anyone.” “It’s not my fault, my parents should have known this is what I would want and become bilingual and taught me when I was two.” Wait, WHAT? No matter how much I admired the language, I was never going to make it mine if I didn’t actually speak it. It was time I admitted to Italian, “It’s not you, it’s me.”

Time to put down the book and speak to someone!

Time to put down the book and speak to someone!

Do any of the above excuses sound familiar to you? Then you might also suffer from what we’re going to call FOSO: Fear Of Speaking Out. Classic FOSO signs include:

  • You’re terrified of speaking Italian words at a level that is considered audible to the human ear.
  • You can string full sentences together in your head, but upon opening your mouth the words spontaneously combust in your brain, leaving nothing but verbal dust.
  • You’re hoping your muteness makes you seem aloof, cool and mysterious instead of nerve-wrackingly self-conscious.

FOSO can be crippling–to the extent that even someone who has studied the language for years can still have trouble ordering a pizza (guilty). It’s mentally taxing, not to mention you’re opening yourself up for sure-fire embarrassment during every conversation. Right?

Wrong again, my friend!

Here’s the truth (and something I still struggle with): Most people will be incredibly patient with others who are taking the time to learn and practice their language. And while you’ll run into a few surly speakers, particularly in high-traffic tourist areas, if you get off the beaten path, Italians will often volunteer their time to help you speak like them. They aren’t there to embarrass you or laugh at your shortcomings–they’re there to help you become a closer part of their community.

And as you’ve surely heard before, knowing the local language completely changes the landscape of your trip. Restaurant doors that once were hidden from you will be revealed; little-known facts from locals about places you visit will enrich your experience. So is it possible to live in Florence without speaking the language? Of course. But would you be ok with going to a gelato shop and only being able to order crema? I didn’t think so.

The Appennino at Pratolino by Antonio Scaramuzzino

A trip to visit Giambologna’s Appennino was unforgettable, thanks to the impromptu, hours-long tour of the surrounding grounds given by this man here. His advice for learning the language? “Open your mouth! English speakers keep their jaws locked–instead over-pronounce every word to get a feel for Italian.” Photo of the Appennino at Pratolino by Antonio Scaramuzzino.

With that in mind, here are 8 budget-friendly tips for getting a jump-start on really learning Italian, wherever in the world you are:

In country:

  • “Get an Italian girlfriend/boyfriend.” My first Italian professor gave this advice on the first day of class, and I’ve never forgotten it. The point being: find someone local with whom you can spend a lot of time with (even just as friends), and make them converse with you in Italian–otherwise it doesn’t work!
  • Get a coffee/aperitivo buddy. If you can’t make the above commitment, you can still find someone to meet up with once or twice a week to talk about anything, really. Universities even offer programs where they will match you with a language friend. Often the person you’re paired with is also interested in learning your language, so the fear of being the only mumble-mouth making language mistakes at the table goes out the window.
  • Take your headphones off! It’s tempting to listen to music while walking around town, but keeping your ears open will tune you into the language, and it may even allow for a conversation or two that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.
  • Look around. Speaking Italian can often be more about gestures and faces than actual vocab. Pay attention to movements to understand what’s really being said.

Anywhere in the world:

  • Download my favorite app, Duolingo. It’s free, and it will walk you through basic skills to get you primed for a face-to-face convo when it comes your way.
  • Still have your headphones on? Make it work for you by listening to the free podcast, News in Slow Italian. Building Italian skills + brushing up on current events = one killer conversationalist.
  • News not your thing? Hit up the free streaming app of your choice for Italian pop music. The catchy tunes will have you repeating phrases over and over in your head, which helps them stick. My current playlist? This album right here.
  • Invest in an online tutorial program. We know your budgets are tight, and language classes can be expensive. But online options are often more affordable and can be more effective if used regularly. Take a look at Babbel.com (I tried their free trial and thought it was great), or peep Rick Zullo’s offer and testimonial on Rocket Italian, which is currently offering a 60% sale on its program (I bought it during their last promotion).

I know this was a long post, but I’ve decided that the only way to overcome my FOSO in Italian is to, in fact, announce publicly, that it’s time to go for it. It’s time to commit to learning the language once and for all. Yes, I’m slightly terrified, but I have you guys to hold me accountable. I’ve started googling lyrics to my favorite Italian songs, I’m finally logging back into Rocket Italian, and I’m going to start hanging by the bocce courts in Little Italy, looking for a volunteer nonno to have un cappuccino with every once in a while.

But let my cautionary tale be a warning to you–don’t let 10 years pass before you finally try to speak it! Remember, it will never be easier to learn than NOW–especially if you’re in Italy! And know that if you do mess up a verb tense here or there, I’m right there struggling with you.

Solidarity, amici. Forza, no FOSO!

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10 comments

  1. Tx for the link to News in Slow Italian. I’ve been using Pimsleur to learn Italian, I’ve tried all the others, including Rosetta Stone which I would not recommend, and for me it works best. it also takes you further along, into past tense, conditional statements, etc. My preference might be simply be due to learning style, but I never see Pimsleur mentioned and I think it’s really worthwhile.

    1. thanks max! just googled pimsleur and definitely adding it to my tutorials to try. thanks so much! how would you say your learning the language is coming along?

  2. Meg, I’m a beginner, but I would be very comfortable ordering a room, or dinner, taking a cab, asking directions. I live in Canada – saving pennies for a trip – so I practice by making comments to my dog about passersby. Also, Pimsleur really works on the accent which I haven’t seen in the other methods.

    1. sounds good. i’ll let you know how it goes over here!

    2. also, love the talking to your dog bit 🙂

  3. Useful tips! I will download the App! ??

    1. thanks sasha! duolingo makes it feel like a game, so it’s a good one to grab. 🙂

  4. emily c. · · Reply

    great post, meg! we have been living in florence permanently for almost four years, and i continue to struggle with my italian. we live in a neighborhood with few tourists, so i have to speak italian with my butcher, or the folks who sell me fruits and veggies, etc. i can handle that pretty well, but put me into a dinner party at which other guests are discussing politics or literature and i start to drown. and i am always thinking that i sound like the hillbilly that david sedaris compared himself to when he was trying to learn french in “me talk pretty one day”. i am on vacation for ferragosto now in the hills outside of lucca, but i will look into some of your suggested links when we return to florence. (and to max, who wrote about practicing italian with the dog, many years ago when i was taking classes in denver at berlitz, i did just that – spoke italian to my dogs when i was taking them out for walks.)

    1. thanks for the thoughtful response, emily! i’d love to hear your tips for trying to tackle it in-country (and clearly, I need to get a dog, it sounds like a great speaking buddy). i’ve just started all my language programming at square 1, which feels a bit silly but i’m using it as a confidence boost until i get to those crazy verb tenses. and i just got my kick in the butt to get going–finally booked a flight back for this fall! what brought you to florence?

  5. emily c. · · Reply

    don’t want to go into too much detail or bore your other blog readers – long story, short – our daughter came here with the middlebury program for the whole school year back in 1999-2000. in may, just before returning to the states, she fell in love with a fiorentino. after she finished at midd the next year, she returned to italy, worked at the guggenheim in venice, then worked “for real” in florence. they eventually married, and now have two little kids. after coming as tourists for many years, a couple times each year, my husband and i moved here. he is a cyclist – for fun, for a little money, with a team. i love art. we both love food and doing lots of babysitting as “nonni”.
    i think the “secret” to tackling the language has to be both studying and conversation. several years ago, even before we moved here, i told myself that i had to go into stores or markets and speak italian, even though i was certain that i sounded like an idiot. i continue to remind myself every day that when italians speak english it sounds charming to me.

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