Language Schools

What to Know Before Learning Italian Abroad

Carla McKirdy
Topic Expert

Carla is a writer and translator who’s visited 53 countries (only 142 more to go!). A former UN consultant, she writes about the crossroads between language, development and gender issues.

What does Italian evoke for you?

Chances are that, whether it is luxury fashion, scrumptious dishes, or dazzling masterpieces that immediately come to mind, the word Italian as a qualifier inspires thoughts of beauty and artistry. The Italian language is undoubtedly an extension of the latter, making it a pleasure to learn at any age.

It consistently ranks among the top five most studied languages in the world, despite critics arguing against its utility vis-a-vis more widely-spoken languages; such as Mandarin, English, French or Spanish.

And that is exactly what makes the endeavor of learning Italian a true triumph of beauty over reason.

The Italian bug bit me early on in college, when -- some say -- against all logic, I dropped the more widely-spoken Russian in favor of Italian. Although being fluent in Russian today would’ve assured me a wide array of exciting professional opportunities, anything from spy to hacker; Italian and I started our love affair and I soon forgot why I was into Russian in the first place. Not long after, I was whisked away for a year of living la dolce vita in the Italian Dolomites.

Still, learning Italian abroad wasn’t all rigatoni and tiramisu! Before you embark on your own rewarding experience, here are six things you should know about learning Italian abroad.

If You've Studied Romance Languages Before, You Will Get Confused

The Romance language family includes language-learner favorites such as Spanish and French, as well as the less frequently studied Portuguese and Romanian.

Italian shares the same Latin roots with its European cousins, which means that if you’ve come across them in the past, they are bound to occasionally overlap in your head -- and have you spout some funny-sounding hybrid words.

And it only gets worse when false friends make an appearance. A “close friend” was once trying to poke fun at somebody by calling them a donkey in Italian, and the word “burro” blurted out (the Spanish word for donkey).

You can probably guess how it went: she became the butt (!) of the joke herself -- that is until her Italian friends managed to stop laughing just long enough to explain to her that in Italian, “burro” means butter.

This is just part of the learning process! When Italians learn Romance languages, they have to go through much of the same process. Just make sure you thoroughly review your lists of false friends between Italian and other Romance languages before you take off.

You Already Know More Than You Think

Did you know that almost 30% of words in English today come from Latin? The good news is that Italian is basically simplified Latin. Hence, we could draw the conclusion that you already have a leg up on understanding approximately 30% of Italian!

OK, the calculations might be questionable, but the fact is that English has borrowed plenty of words from Italian, including a good part of its culinary repertoire. From ballerina to stiletto, and fiasco to extravaganza, you have absolutely no excuse to be a dilettante when it comes to mastering l´italiano.

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In Italy, You're Family

Italians might not be well-known for their foreign language skills, but they'll find a way to communicate with you even if your Italian is not yet ottimo (great).

Locals will make every effort to help you out on the street, no matter what you may need. If words fail them, they will resort to their famed assortment of hand-gestures (which you will soon learn) or make sure they find someone with better English than theirs to help you.

Italy also quickly feels like home for many foreigners, because their culture has been so broadly exported worldwide -- homesickness be damned!

There is a vague sense of familiarity permeating day-to-day life in Italy when you’re a foreigner: the food is in no way “weird” to our palate, chances are you already know a few Italian wine varieties as listed in the menus, café culture is not at all hard to get into; and just as you may be aware of Italian high fashion brands, you will quickly become acquainted with their more budget-friendly local counterparts.

This overriding sense of awareness of the local culture and environment helps you to quickly bond to the new language -- hence making Italian a language immensely easier to absorb and to develop fluency in.

Related: What to Know Before Learning Italian in Italy

You Will Have to Train Your Ear

With its musical staccato and often passionate delivery, Italian reflects the rich heritage of its speakers. The most common challenge for Italian learners is training one's ear to speed and regional dialects. After all, although most Italians are able to speak a uniform, high-register Italian when needed; when they’re at home, with friends, or on the street, they tend to revert to their regional or even local dialects.

The difference a bit more pronounced than the “caramel” North-South divide in American English within the United States. Instead, we are talking about the use of completely different words, expressions, and accents. Essentially, the leading cause of anxiety attacks among Italian language learners.

But have no fear! Italy's plentiful filmography, particularly the Cinecittà classics from the 50s and 60s, should do a good job of not just training your listening skills, but your knowledge of Italian culture.

A starter tip? Try “Marriage Italian Style” featuring Sofia Lauren for a heavy dose of Neapolitan dialect and gender role studies. If an online search fails you, local libraries usually stock a broad selection of classic Italian movies, and membership is free.

You Will Learn Italian “Sign Language”

There comes a time in the language-learning process in which the student realizes that merely learning the language is not sufficient and they have to step it up a notch to learn everything that goes along with it to blend in with locals.

For Italian, this includes a heavy serving of body language cues in the form of hand gestures. Basic phrases like “I’ve had enough”, “He’s nuts,” and “What are you doing!” don’t have quite the same ring to them in Italian without the accompanying gesticulation.

While learning Italian, you have to be ready to use not just your hands and arms, but also a wide array of facial expressions to accompany your everyday Italian abroad.

The best way to learn is by tuning into local day-to-day life and remain wildly observant -- whether that is by hanging out with locals in Italy or watching Italian TV from the comfort of your own home.

More People Speak Italian Than You Think

When picking a Romance language to learn, learners tend to get discouraged with Italian because it’s less widely spoken than the more popular Romance languages; Spanish or French.

Still, by learning Italian, be certain that you will be in good company: an estimated 90 million people around the world speak Italian! It is the official language of four countries -- Italy, Switzerland, San Marino, and Vatican City --, and a recognized minority language in 17 others.

Even plenty of celebrities have braved the Italian grammar books before you, most notably Colin Firth, Clint Eastwood, and Shakira.

As you get ready for liftoff in your Italian-learning journey, I have just one send-off for you: not one human being has ever (publicly) regretted learning Italian abroad. OK, maybe two: from the hundreds of languages there are in the world, this is one in which the odds of becoming fluent are in your favor.

In short, this all to say that Italian is as much of a sure-fire bet as there could be out there. Layer on the rich cultural heritage, mouth-watering cuisine and Italy’s ongoing legacy of contributing to the arts in all their forms; and you’ve got a delightfully life-altering experience that will heighten every single one of your senses.

I daresay there is no good reason to not learn Italian!