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).
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.”
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.
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:
- “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!