It's important for me not only to share my experience learning Italian, but also the experiences of others as well, and that's why I started the Italian Diaries series. My goal is to create a community of language learners who motivate and inspire each other.
Today I have a special guest, Alexandra from Diary of an Expat Girl, who is sharing all about her experience studying Italian in Florence...and today just happens to be her birthday! Auguri, Alexandra!
Italy is a dream study abroad location for many. What inspired you to study in Italy, specifically Florence?
It’s actually part of my degree program - I study French and Italian at university in England and it was compulsory to spend at least 3 months in each country, so for Italy I chose Florence. Although it was compulsory I am so glad that I had to do it though because Italy is an incredibly beautiful place, not to mention the food.
I couldn't imagine anything better than compulsory study abroad in Italy & France! I'd love to know more about your study abroad program: What kind of classes did you take? Did you have all Italian language classes, or did you study other subjects as well? Were you with Italian students or other international students?
I chose to do something a little bit different which wasn’t taking part in an Erasmus study program at a local university. Although it’s what I initially wanted to do, the dates wouldn’t have worked with the internship that I had lined up for Paris in January so I decided to find something else. I organised a 4 month study / work placement at an Italian language school called The ABC School in the historic centre of Florence, which I would seriously recommend to anyone that’s looking for a language school - they were INCREDIBLE and so so lovely. This meant that I had 3 hours of Italian classes in the morning, both grammar and oral classes, and I then worked for 4 hours in the afternoon, helping the school with whatever they needed from doing translations to trying to find more clients for them to even making the exercise books for the students.
Because of how it was set up I was studying pure Italian language, however as I worked my way up through the levels the classes were less based on studying the grammar structures and more focused on different subjects and how we could use our language to express ourselves. All of the teachers were native Italians so at the end of the four months I had learned so much about the culture, history and politics of the country. My fellow students were from all over the world which was really fun as I got to know a range of other cultures - I even met a Japanese girl who taught me how to make authentic sushi. She didn’t speak English so we were forced to speak in Italian which was great for the both of us to practice.
That's the wonderful thing about study abroad - not only meeting wonderful locals, but also other international students. Did you speak any Italian before going to Italy?
I went to university in 2014 knowing how to say “ciao, come stai?” and that was about it. After having studied Italian for 2 years I had some knowledge of it but to be honest a couple of hours at university a week didn’t make me fluent at all… I knew a lot of grammar structures but didn’t know that much vocabulary, in fact it felt as if I knew barely any at all. Lets just put it this way: I struggled quite a bit to express myself when I first got to Italy !
What were your accommodations - with a host family or with other students? How did your living situation influence learning Italian?
I actually found my flat online on a website called easystanza and got so lucky with what I found. I ended up living in an apartment with three other girls who were absolutely lovely and from all over the world: a Canadian, a Polish and a Belgian who was later replaced by a girl from Hong Kong. As the common language in the flat was English we ended up speaking English when we were all together, although I tried to sometimes speak Italian with one of the girls. I know that it probably wasn’t the best for my Italian, but I had a great time living with them and I miss them all!
Sounds like a lovely international group! When I studied abroad I ended up speaking a lot of English with other American students too. Even Italians sometimes respond in English, especially in Florence. Do you have any advice for sticking to Italian even when it would be easier to default to English?
I completely know what you mean by this… to be honest it was difficult at times and people would just reply in English, but I persevered! There are two options: 1) don’t give up, keep replying in Italian even when they speak in English and (hopefully) they’ll get the message 2) just tell them that you want to practice your Italian and you’d be very grateful if they helped you out. I know that it’s hard and kind of embarrassing sometimes, especially when you’re first learning because you may not know how to express yourself but that’s the only way that you can improve your language - by making mistakes and throwing yourself in the deep end.
I completely agree that mistakes are the best way to improve our language skills...and often create a good laugh. Were there any particularly funny or challenging experiences you encountered?
Oh my god so Italian is so difficult… congiuntivo… passato remoto… where do I start?! The hardest part was probably learning all of the congiuntivo rules by heart (which took a while), but once you know them it’s a little easier.
When I first arrived to Italy I needed to get a sim card so I went to all of the shops with one of my flatmates who was fluent in Italian so that she could step in / help me when needed. I was told that a sim card was “una scheda” so I went into the shop and obviously, forgetting what I had just been told, said “vorrei una scena” (I would like a scene). The girl laughed thankfully and knew what I was trying to say. That’s the only one that sticks out in my mind but I made countless funny mistakes.
Some other ‘challenges’ that I faced were not actually linguistic, but were in fact food-based! Italians have a couple of rules when it comes to food, for example:
- Don’t have a cappuccino after 12 o’clock, or even worse, with your lunch. It is supposed to be something consumed only at breakfast.
- Pizza and wine are a no-no, it’s apparently weird and you’re supposed to drink beer. I completely ignored this rule though and had my fair share of pizza and wine (or even worse in their eyes: prosecco!)
Oh gosh, I'm not a beer drinker, so I definitely would order wine with pizza instead, and especially prosecco! hahaha Italian food is incredible! What were some of your favorites when you were living there?
Well I have always been a complete pizza and pasta lover so those two were definitely incredible over there, especially the Neapolitan style pizzas - the one that I tried in Naples was the best I have ever eaten and it was from the pizzeria that was featured in Eat, Pray, Love (!!!).
I’m actually vegetarian though so I didn’t try any of their meat options - “bistecca alla fiorentina” for example, which is a thick, almost rare steak from Florence. I honestly don’t feel like I have missed out though. The gelato was to die for as well, my absolute favourite flavour was “nocciola” (hazelnut) and I ate a LOT of it - I’m surprised I didn’t put on 10 kilos!
I'm hungry now! (Well, I am pretty much always hungry in Italy!) I can't wait to try out some of your food recommendations when I visit Florence! I recommend that if nothing else, visitors to Italy should learn how to order food in Italian to have an even more incredible experience. What are your favorite Italian language resources that you’d recommend for anyone studying Italian on their own?
The easiest way to learn Italian (I think) is to label many things in your house with their Italian name e.g. il sale (the salt), il pepe (the pepper), and don’t forget the article! Articles are so so important in Italian and they’re hard so you may as well learn the name and the article together. When I was studying at university I had notes above my desk with the main Italian grammar structures which helped because I could refer to them all the time.
If you’re learning a language by yourself I would suggest maybe using duolingo or YouTube videos (there are hundreds or even thousands of them!). The internet is such a great source, you can even watch Italian movies on Netflix. I (personally) think it’s better to watch an Italian movie either in Italian with Italian subtitles or in English (controversial) with Italian subtitles. This way you can read the Italian and match it up with the English which is being spoken. If there are English subtitles with an Italian audio I immediately just ignore all dialogue and focus on what is written on the screen - which is pretty useless if you’re wanting to improve your language.
That is a great tip to learn the articles with the nouns because so many other grammar points like adjectives and verb conjugations need to agree (an endless challenge for me!) And now after Florence you’re off to Paris! (What an incredible year abroad!) Has learning French helped your Italian at all (or vice versa, has Italian helped with French)?
I know!!! I’ve been in Paris for 4 months now and I am absolutely loving it, it’s such a beautiful, vibrant city and I want to move back after I finish my undergraduate degree. I actually started learning Italian after learning French (I’ve been learning French ever since I can remember and only started learning Italian in September 2014) and having a good level of French helped learning Italian so much. As they’re both Latin-based languages they have a lot in common but it also means that you have to be careful with false friends, in both French and English. For example, “box” in Italian means parking space, not an actual box which is “scatola”.
I studied French first as well, and I find the Latin roots so helpful for learning Italian. Those unexpected false friends can be tricky though! (I've been making lists of them!)
Thank you so much for sharing your experience learning Italian in Florence with us Alexandra! You can read more about Alexandra's adventures in Italy, France & beyond on her blog Diary of an Expat Girl.