(Editor’s note: This post about learning Italian is the latest installment in a continuing series of posts about Carla Bastos’ new expat life in Italy.)
On the long list of life’s priorities, communication cannot be overstated. Even introverts like me recognize from a young age the need to understand what others are talking about and to get our own point across.
When settling in another country, whether for business or any other reason, that priority is magnified one hundredfold.
Over the years, even when spending only a few weeks in a foreign country with an interpreter at hand, I always made the effort to at least learn the language’s conversational basics. And, when staying long-term, I would strive for fluency – partly out of respect and partly a survival mechanism. When I made the move to retirement in Italy, fluency was of course one of several goals. It leaped to the top of the list almost by accident.
As I’ve alluded to before, the whole move to Italy, from conception to planning to making it happen, was one big old lesson in accentuating the positive – finding the good stuff amongst the almost daily surprises and disappointments. I was able to put this into practice once again when I learned I would not be able to move into my apartment here on the agreed date. I decided to rent an Airbnb in Firenze for three weeks while I waited. This timing worked out perfectly in many ways (reminding me that everything happens for a reason).
First, there was the proximity to the government offices I needed to visit. Then, there were the much-needed language lessons.
In Florence, as in Rome and Milan, there are many English speakers. But venturing out into Lucca Province where I live, or really anywhere outside of major cities, this is not the case. I already knew I needed to be prepared to communicate solely in Italian, but I also knew I wasn’t, so the extra time in a major metropolitan area was priceless.
For one thing, language schools abound, from the Scuola Leonardo da Vinci to Parola, Europass and more, all with convenient choices of in-person, online, individual or group classes. Many of these are designed for students visiting from other countries and include accommodations.
As for the in-person classes, the major schools are all located within walking distance of the metropolitan center. And, despite some COVID restrictions being partially lifted as of early February, group classes remain small and comfortable.
Several of these schools offer various levels of certifications, including CILS, the certification for Italian as a foreign language. The A2 level of CILS certification is recognized by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as a valid certificate of competence in the Italian language, necessary for long-term residents to obtain the EC Residence Permit.
(The CILS exam takes place at both the University of Siena and Scuola Leonardo da Vinci.)
I opted to begin my studies during my stay in Firenze with a combination of intensive group and personalized individual classes, both online. Although I didn’t do in-person classes, a few classmates and I met for dinner or drinks several times over the two-week period, as socializing and communication outside of a classroom setting are crucial to a successful learning experience.
Want a social life? Better parla Italiano
My immediate concern was communicating. But speaking of socializing, I also made it a practice to strike up conversations with strangers when sitting alone in a trattoria (thereby blowing my own mind as the old, cranky introvert that I am).
The aperitivo is an Italian pre-dinner tradition that is guaranteed to bring all stripes of executives, laborers, young, old, people from all walks of life out in the early evening.
While there are always folks who can’t be bothered with becoming your impromptu language teacher, for the most part people are patient and willing to engage, many even anxious to help. I received suggestions on phone plans, queueing protocols in various establishments, finding the best cheeses and wines, and more.
Some conversations were just run-of-the-mill small talk, the kinds of chats I really wanted to get comfortable with.
When you know you’re on your way to fluency
And then there was Concetta.
While having a mid-morning cappuccino not far from my Airbnb, I noticed an elderly woman walk in and chat briefly with the proprietor. She placed her order and then came over and sat next to me. When I began chatting her up, she responded almost with relief, as if she was looking for someone to talk to.
Maybe 75 or 80, Concetta had endless stories. She’d walked in haltingly with a cane, and proceeded to detail her physical ailments, complain about family members, and even how the quality of the establishment’s cappuccino was not what it used to be.
When she left, the server walked over and said, “I see you met mia nonna (my grandmother).” I told
him I only understood about half of what she said. “Don’t worry,” he assured me in Italian. “We all
only understand half of what she says.” Learning the ropes and getting great advice are important, but when someone can comfortably joke with you, it’s a whole other level of communication.
You may not yet be fluent, but you’re well on your way.
About the author:
Carla Bastos is a freelance writer and former journalist and newspaper editor. Having lived in developing countries and covered wars and natural disasters, she has written extensively on a variety of related topics.
Her many years of world travels and humanitarian work continue to inform her writing, which can be found at carla-bastos.com.
See more here about Italy’s various programs to repopulate villages.
See more in Dispatches’ Italy archives here