I was so surprised when my husband told me he applied for a position in Italy and got the job (something he did without telling me because he didn’t want to get my hopes up). We always talked about this as a what-if so he knew I’d be on board. He didn’t know he’d actually get selected! In addition to moving our whole family to Italy for a few years, he also got sent to a full time language course prior to his placement. His “job” for 6 months was to go to school and learn as much Italian as he could. Spoiler alert, he did fantastic in the course and after living in Italy for a while he has been mistaken for Italian too often to keep count.
I immediately knew I wanted to learn Italian too, but this proved to be very difficult while staying home all day with our two kids who were just 9 months and 3 years old at the time. We bought a variety of books and I studied on my own in the evenings, tried to listen to podcasts, and took night classes at a local language school for 2 semesters. I studied with my husband and tried to keep up, but found that to be impossible (he was in class for 6.5 hours a day, 5 days a week after all). At the end of his 6 month course he was what I would describe as a intermediate speaker and I was somewhere around “survival and basic verb conjugation” level. I’ll be honest here, I really struggled at first and still do sometimes. I’m a math person, an engineer by degree, and language was never something I did after my 2 compulsory years of French class when I was 15. I like rules and reasons and as any learner of Italian will find, there’s more exceptions to rules than actual rules (or it at least seems this way!)
Since it's rare to get the sort of language learning opportunity my husband got, I think it’s more realistic to describe my language journey for you and give the tips I’ve found to work best for me. Luckily over the last few years I realized what I need to succeed, and part of that was to stop comparing myself to my husband! I’ve become a much stronger and confident speaker. I’m far from fluent, and honestly fluency is something I don’t think anybody reaches if it’s not their mother-tongue, but I am conversational now and can talk around a lot of the words I don’t know. I can communicate with my daughter’s teachers and other parents from the school (keeping up with them was a huge motivation for me) and feel less stressed about going into new situations here in Italy. Here are some of my lessons learned, many of these I have to still remind myself to do even now, and some of my favorite resources for learning Italian.
No matter what method you choose to use, be consistent. Even a few minutes a day is better than nothing. Especially as a beginner, the more often you see, hear, and speak Italian, the more natural it will become. I initially didn’t want to watch films or listen to things I didn’t understand because it was so frustrating, but I wish I had done more listening, because it's the only way to start recognize words you know and differentiate the beginnings and ends of phrases (Something I had difficulty with). When it comes to studying, find a time of day that works for you and schedule a study session. I also made rules for myself like, no TV at night until I study for 15 minutes.
I got decent at reading and conjugating but found my speaking skills to be far behind. As silly as it seems, don’t just read in your head or mentally translate phrases. Actually talk to yourself while you practice. Doing this in the car is helpful (I’ll link some podcasts below). I wish I had done more of this at first because I felt it took a long time for my speaking confidence to build. Both in class in the USA and then out in Italy, I was so nervous to speak. I was always worried about making a mistake and embarrassing myself. But the more I did it, the more I realized that most people are very patient and helpful. Italians love correcting you when you speak, but not to be critical. They know you’re learning and are trying to help. I learned the phrase “I don’t speak well but I’m trying” (Non parlo bene ma sto provando) which helps me when in a conversation with somebody new. This also helps them not immediately change to English (if they speak it) because they know I’m trying to learn versus just struggling to communicate.
Invest in yourself
I haven’t added up all the money we’ve spent on my Italian training, but to get to the level I’m at now, I never could have done it with free resources alone. It was worth it to me to invest in some books, study aids, apps, and (most importantly in my opinion) lessons. Of course, it’s great to use free resources when you can and you can be mindful of a budget, but for me, paying for lessons also keeps me accountable because if I’m spending our hard earned money on something, I won’t neglect it. As a beginner I found the group lessons to be sufficient and more budget friendly than private lessons. Once we moved to Italy I was able to find more affordable private tutoring and found that extremely helpful to cater the lessons to exactly what I was struggling with and the things that are important to me.
Vocab Vocab Vocab
One of my instructors described the importance of vocab like this: “You can go into a shop and ask in a variety of ways to buy a scarf: Do you sell scarves? I’d like a scarf please. I’m looking for a scarf. Where are the scarves?... etc. But if you don’t know the word for scarf, none of the other stuff matters.” Even with broken sentences and limited verb tenses, vocab can help you communicate. Speaking of verb tenses, seeing a conjugation guide for Italian verbs can be extremely overwhelming. Find a list of the most used verbs and drill the present and two most common past tense (passato prossimo and imperfetto). You can not do this too much in the beginning, as you will use these all the time.
Here are a few of my favorite resources!
Don’t let the name fool you, this book was fantastic for a beginner. Many other books focus too much on travel phrases but don’t really teach you how the language is put together. This book steps you from things you may already know (words like zucchini and gnocchi) and the tie between words like organization/organizzazione to help build your confidence in the language before getting into very good explanations on verb conjugations and pronouns. Out of all the books I purchased as a beginner, this is the only one I recommend to friends.
In Other Words: This memoir by author Jhumpa Lahiri is a side-by-side translate text about her journey moving to Italy to learn Italian. It’s worth getting a paper copy of to be able to see the side by side translation (the left page is Italian and the right page is English). It helped me realize that my understanding is not a direct word for word translation (something I struggled with watching subtitled films!) and instead I need to learn to think in phrases versus pieces together individual words.
Magazines: In general I find Italian magazines much easier than books and are super easy to find if you live or travel in Italy. They are perfect for intermediate learners because you have visual aids, less narrative and poetic writing than in a book, and you can write all over the magazine guilt-free. Plus the shorter chunks of text make me feel like I can sit down and accomplish something in 15 minutes that is hard to do with a book. I wish I would’ve started this sooner but I never even thought about it until I saw a home decorating magazine I liked and tried to read it. I stumbled upon a great resource accidentally.
Apps (I have an iPhone but I assume these are available on Android too)
Conjugation Nation: This is a verb conjugation quiz app that lets you customize your quiz to specific verbs, tenses, and length. You can type out the responses or even speak them, which is super handy for pronunciation. This app is fantastic for a quick study session.
Google Translate: This app is great for a quick reference to translate phrases or longer text into English and does well translating Italian phrases into English that don’t translate literally. For example, “non vedo l’ora” literally means I don’t see the hour but is the Italian phrase for “I can’t wait”, as in “I can’t wait for vacation!” However if you write “I can’t wait” in English, google translate says non posso aspettare which means more of “I can’t/unable/not possible to wait”, which is a different meaning entirely. So be careful with this app and don’t put too much weight in it, but it is handy. I typically only use this to translate phrases from Italian into English.
Word Reference: This is our favorite dictionary app. It offers examples of how the words are used in sentences and gives many options for definitions versus google translate. I never use Google translate for individual words, as there are just far too many options most of the time. At the start of my language journey I bought a physical Italian-English dictionary and just don’t use it anymore once I found this app.
Duolingo: This easy to use app is fun for beginners and great of vocab. However, it doesn’t offer great explanations of how the grammar is used and definitely ignore the “fluency” percentage. But it’s worth playing around on for vocab use alone.
Remember: This is a flash card app that lets you enter your own words in a variety of lists/categories, and creates different study quizzes for them.
Coffee Break Italian: I wish I would’ve found this podcast at the start of my language learning, as I find it to be super helpful. The hosts are a native Italian and a Scotsman who deliver lessons in about 30 minutes, perfect for a commute or to do while cleaning the house (or on your coffee/lunch break from work, as the name suggests). Season one focuses on phrases and communication and season 2 goes more into the grammar used. They also touch on Italian culture without it being aimed solely at tourists.
News in Slow Italian: This is a great podcast for listening to weekly current events in Italian. The speakers switch around so you’re not listening to the same person every episode. The website has a paid option that gives you many more resources, but the free podcast is also a good tool (though the episodes are shorter on the free version).
30 Minute Italian: This podcast is a new addition to my playlist, as a friend recently recommended it to me. There are many episodes I haven’t listened to yet, but I like that it dives a bit deeper into specific phrases or has word “speed-dates” to quickly explain some more difficult vocab.
I’m sure there are many more Italian language podcasts, but I feel that these 3 give me what I need in my language journey right now. Too many resources gets overwhelming and too hard to be consistent, so I stick with a manageable amount that I can switch around as needed.
I mentioned before that lessons have been the most important part of my Italian study, and it’s true. There is nothing that compares to having a native speaker focusing their attention solely on my learning. Check your area for group lessons, conversation classes at your local library, or even consider a university course. If private tutoring is an option, you will learn even faster, as you will have more speaking time and lessons tailored to your needs. There are even online instructors who do video-chat style lessons. Most schools will give you an assessment lesson or test for free and tutors usually give you a free mini session to try it out. If you feel you’ve reached a plateau with you learning, sign up for lessons! If you happen to be near Lucca, I highly recommend my tutor Stefano (find him here)
If you’re in the USA, don't overlook your local library as a resource. Many have language books and cds that you can check out to save money and some even have library subscriptions to programs like Mango or Rosetta Stone that you can use while logged into your library account. When we lived in the Washington D.C. area the library even had a weekly Italian conversation class you could attend for free and meet with other language learners. I’d start here before buying anything, honestly, to save yourself some cash where you can.
Printing lyrics and reading/singing along with some of your favorite Italian songs is a good way to practice pronunciation and introduction to slang as well. Translating songs can be difficult since, like songs in English, they often have lots of metaphors or word plays, but are still a good and relevant language exercise. Obviously people have different musical tastes so there’s something here to suit everybody. I like to use Spotify to find new Italian artists.
I hope this helps you on your own language journey. I’d love to hear any other resources you’ve loved using, reach out to me on Instagram or Facebook!