As a language teacher and learner, I am fascinated by how people become fluent in a foreign language. I am starting a new series called the #ItalianDiaries where I interview other language learners about their experience learning Italian. By sharing our language learning stories, I hope to be inspired, as well as inspire others.
I am so excited to have Patricia Camerota from Con Piccoli Piedi share her story of learning Italian while studying abroad in Sienna, Italy. Please check out her blog for lots of study abroad advice and travel tales!
Ciao Patricia! Thank you so much for sharing your experience learning Italian while studying abroad in Italy! I love reading about your experiences there on your blog, and I think that your resources and advice about culture shock will be invaluable for other students heading to Italy.
Let’s start with the most important question: Why did you choose to study abroad in Italy?
I chose to study abroad in Italy pretty much from the moment I got accepted to my American university. I’m not going to lie, my heritage played a large role in my decision, but I was mostly driven by the desire to learn the language. Considering the fact that my mom is bilingual, and that I have family in Sicily that we are very close with, I knew that learning the language would be not only useful, but a special experience for me. I started taking elementary Italian at my university at the start of my Sophomore year, and luckily I had a teacher who was from Florence. The class was excruciating, however, as I quickly excelled, having to slow myself down tremendously for the rest of the class who was far less interested in learning Italian. After a year studying it in America, and just skimming the surface of learning il passato prossimo, I knew that going abroad would be the only way I could achieve learning how to navigate the language in a short period of time.
Tell us a little about your study abroad program. Where was it located? What kind of classes did you take?
Of course! I could speak about my program all day long. Luckily, my university in America has a partnership with the Universita di Siena per Stranieri, the University of Siena for Foreigners, in Siena, Tuscany. Siena is an incredibly beautiful city, and I actually had never heard of it before learning about the program. Our school only sends a small number of students each spring semester, mostly because it is an intensive language program and students tend to gravitate more toward studying abroad at American universities in Florence or Rome, where learning the language isn’t imperative.
While in Siena, I attended language classes at the Universita Monday through Friday from 8:45 a.m. until 1:15 p.m. each day. Yeah, I know, sounds intense! Each day was split into two sections, the morning section which ended before 11 which focused on grammar, and the afternoon section which picked up after a short break and ended before pranzo; this section focused on reading and speaking comprehension. The short break was reserved for coffee breaks and snack time. My class usually used this short break as an excuse to grab a caffe and cornetto, and socialize until we had to return. Although there were some mornings that I was exhausted and not ready to be spoken at in Italian, there was no better way to learn the language, as it forced me to switch brains early in the morning every day for three months. I loved my teachers, who were patient yet firm. I also loved that my class was filled with people from all over the world, meaning the only way we could communicate at times was in Italian… this really forced me to learn the language in a conversational sense as well. In addition to the intensive Italian courses, the 5 students from my University had a special curriculum created for us which included Italian history courses and Art history courses which were taught in English. We took field trips and became very close with the professors considering it was only 5 of us in the classes, which were also held in a university building near the center of Siena, about two minutes away from our apartment.
What was your living situation like? (Did you live with other students or a host family?) How did this impact learning Italian?
I absolutely loved my living situation, which I later learned in speaking with other friends abroad that it was especially unique. We lived in an apartment, called a mini-residence, about a 3 minute walking distance from Piazza Del Campo in Siena. I had a single room, and the others in my program shared double rooms. The living was included with our fees, so we didn’t have to worry about finding an apartment or paying a monthly rent, which was fabulous. We lived in a two sided apartment with Italian students who were studying at the Universita di Siena. Living with “locals,” (students from Italy, but they came from all over the country) was an incredible experience as it allowed us to fully immerse ourselves in the Italian lifestyle and culture. I made friends with my Italian roommates very quickly, and spent almost all of my free time with them cooking, chatting, watching calcio, and, of course– spending nights out on the town! This was the best arrangement because we all helped each other learn both Italian and English. Many times, my roommates helped me with homework, pushed me to speak Italian, and boosted my confidence as we all had a “no laughing at each other’s mistakes” policy! Even though we broke this policy many times, it was always in good fun and we all felt equally better about learning each other’s mother tongue.
Did you already speak Italian before you went to Italy?
I didn’t speak Italian, but I grew up listening to my Nonna (who lived with us) and my mother speaking the Sicilian dialect, which for those of you who don’t know is almost a completely different language from Italian! My mother grew up in both America and Italy, so she speaks both Italian and Sicilian, and she would practice with me from time to time when I was taking my elementary course my Sophomore year. So I really didn’t speak a lick of Italian, but I like to think I had an ear for it!
What are some of the linguistic challenges that you faced, and did this contribute to your culture shock in any way? Any funny language stories to share? 🙂
Dear lord the list is long. Considering I took seven years of Spanish, the verb tenses weren’t too difficult to understand, although this is typically very difficult for Americans to grasp. Memorizing the endings? A different story! But I really struggled with, and still struggle with, the tiny details, like the use of “ne” vs. “ci,” how to use “pronomi relativi” properly, and of course learning how to just gain the confidence to spit things out in Italian was wildly difficult at first. I was lucky that I didn’t feel an ounce of culture shock in Italy, but learning the language proved to be far more difficult than I imagined. I still have a long way to go until I sound like a native speaker, but I really did love learning the “italian” style of creating thoughts and sentences.
Any English speaker who learns Italian knows that the Italian way of constructing thoughts and sentiments is far more poetic than it is in English. I was obsessed with learning the tiny nuances of the language, and learning how to think “in Italian” when trying to speak the language. For example, I love the way the subjunctive captures the emotion of what you are saying, or implies a certain meaning as opposed to the indicative form verb forms that we are limited to in English. I also love how sentences are constructed differently, as “I like that” in Italian translates back to “That is pleasing to me.” In a way it highlights that object or person to create greater emphasis. When I was learning Italian, it shaped what I was saying in English too, I was saying things differently in my mother tongue and I would “think” in Italian, even if I was speaking English.
So, I messed up the language A LOT. I mean, I would make mistakes that would be super embarrassing at times, and instead of letting that embarrass me, I used it as motivation to get better and to keep a light attitude. My worst story about messing up the language would definitely have to include the classic preservativi/conservativi mix up. It is a completely justifiable error, but in the moment I was so embarrassed, especially since the context was wildly ridiculous! The story goes: I was trying to explain to some new acquaintances why I loved Italian food over American food. I was explaining how American food is highly processed, and it does not have the same fresh, locally grown qualities that the food in Italy does. I then tried to say that the food in America has too many preservatives which hinder its nutritional value, but instead I swapped the word and it came out that the food has too many condoms which hinder its nutritional value. People were giggling, and I was initially confused considering the topic was quite serious! Then they explained to me that “preservativi” are indeed condoms in Italian, not preservatives. Who knew!!!
Have you kept up your Italian since returning to the States? And if so, how?
I have definitely made strong attempts to preserve my linguistic capabilities here in the U.S., although it proved difficult once graduating in December. During my final semester at my American university, I took an intensive Italian course which solidified my grammar, reading, and writing skills. However, speaking regularly became difficult as I lost my confidence to speak. I involved myself in the Italian club at school, surrounded myself with new friends that also spent time abroad in Italy, and made it a point to cook Italian meals with these friends. However, as time passed I haven’t been able to keep up with all that I had learned. I still speak to people from Italy, and when I do I try to speak in Italian. I also speak with my mother when I’m home, but only occasionally since my father doesn’t speak and we don’t like to leave him out entirely! I am looking to get involved with local students to tutor Elementary Italian, and I am also looking to find someone in my area to conduct a Tandem language exchange with. It is difficult to come across people who are fluent in Italian, but not impossible!
What is your best advice for learning Italian? Are there any resources that you recommend?
My best advice is to of course study abroad there. Learning a language requires a complete immersion, to the point where you are thinking in that language even when you are speaking your mother tongue. If you have the opportunity to study abroad in Italy, or to visit for a somewhat extended period of time, I would highly recommend connecting with locals, and participating in a language exchange. Through my program director, I was connected with a Sienese family who was seeking an American student to come and have dinner at their house once a week and help their 16 year old daughter learn English. This was honestly one of my favorite experiences, as we all became so close, and it helped me gain a support system while learning the language too. Confidence and curiosity are truly the keys to success. Oh- and knowing how to roll your r’s. But if you cannot study abroad in Italy, which is more likely the case for most, you should reach out to your local Italian cultural center, or to the nearest university to where you live, and inquire about Italian teachers or students who are willing to practice with you. I learned to speak Italian by hearing Italian repetitively, not from reading it out loud. If you can link up with a small group, or even just one person, who is fluent in the language, this will be the difference between understanding Italian and knowing Italian. But also, never give up. One never finishes learning a language. And that’s the beauty of it. Download Duolingo— it’s the best, and Wordreference too. They are great tools.
Thank you for sharing your story, Patty! Please visit her blog at http://www.patriciacamerota.com to read more about her Italian adventures!