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What to Know Before Learning Italian in Italy

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Liz Shemaria
Topic Expert

Liz is a freelance journalist, third-generation Northern Californian, and studied abroad in Florence, Italy.

What to Know Before Learning Italian in Italy

If you want to learn Italian in Italy, it probably has something to do with love.

Maybe you love the history, art, and architecture in Florence or Rome and want to study it in greater depth. Perhaps you have a passion for Italian food and culture. It could be that your family’s roots are in Italy and familial love underscores your dream of living in the town where your great-grandmother was born. Or maybe, you’ve fallen in love with an Italian -- che bello!

For me, it was love at first sight when a university professor clicked to his first slide in Italian Renaissance Art History class. A skyline of red-tiled rooftops and Santa Maria del Fiore (known locally as, II Duomo) -- a church that is considered among the largest in the world -- left me breathless and determined to live in Florence, Italy.

Whatever your reason, or reasons, for wanting to speak Italian, consider the factors below carefully before making the decision to learn the language in Italy. To truly master it, you will want to live in Italy for a few months, or even longer. Because as anyone who is fluent in a second language will tell you, immersion is the fastest way to learn.

Know Your Motivation for Learning Italian

Outside of Italy -- or jobs in academia focused on Italy, or with Italian companies -- the Italian language is not widely spoken. You may find that opportunities to practice Italian in your home country are limited, and that can be a problem, because the more you use it (like any other skill), the better you will be. If you aren’t motivated to practice Italian once you return home, you may find that your time studying was wasted, as the words you once knew begin to slowly slip away from you.

However, if, like me, your love for the language and country is strong, you will always find a way to practice, no matter where you live in the world, through conversation groups, watching Italian films and reading Italian books, or staying in touch with Italian friends.

Regional Dialects Mean Not All Italian is the Same

What to Know Before Learning Italian in Italy: Regional Dialects

More than half of Italians are said to speak a regional dialect. This means that the Italian you will learn in the classroom will cover building blocks like verb tenses, sentence structure, and article agreements, however, the accent by which you are instructed to speak will vary depending on where you are studying.

Since learning in the classroom is only the first step in effective communication, you will want to practice as often as you can throughout the day -- as you order your morning coffee, buy groceries, pick up your dry cleaning, and make new friends. As you are settling into a routine, you are likely to adopt the dialect or accent of the city or town where you are living.

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You Will Probably Be Confused by Verb Tenses

Don’t be alarmed, but Italian has more than 20 verb tenses. The good news is, you are unlikely to use all of them in daily conversation, however, the bad news is, that you will need to learn most of the tenses as part of an Italian course.

You’ll also find your knowledge of the dozens of verb tenses useful if you want to study classical Italian literature such as Dante, Petrarca, or Boccaccio. Expect that you will most likely be confused at some point, as you try to memorize and remember the differences among conjugations for tenses like the presente, passato prossimo, imperfetto, and passato remoto.

Know that confusion is normal, and it will get easier. Be patient. It’s ok to speak slowly as a beginner. As you progress in your studies, books of verb conjugations may help you memorize and move more effortlessly among them.

Be Ready to Learn Slang

Slang is used in any language, Italian included. Learning slang is important because it will make it easier to communicate with Italians, and to make local friends.

You will find numerous online forums that break down slang by Italian regions, and as soon as you become comfortable with the basics of Italian, you may want to start infusing slang into your conversations and text messages.

Like verb tenses, you will be frustrated when you can’t understand slang. Keep notes about slang words that you hear often, and before you know it, you’ll be surprising your language teacher by speaking like a local.

Random Conversations Will Help You Learn Faster

What to Know Before Learning Italian in Italy: Random Conversations

Having the confidence to speak to strangers in Italian in-person and on the phone may be the scariest part of learning the language, but it’s absolutely necessary for mastery. You’ll want to get in the habit of doing everything in Italian, even when you know you don’t have to, and might stumble over your words.

Full immersion means living and dreaming in Italian, and the only way to do that is by using it as much as you can. When you find yourself searching for words in your mother tongue -- like I do after long stretches without speaking English -- that’s when you’ll know you have pushed yourself to truly absorb Italian.

Take Cultural Classes for a Richer Experience

Learning Italian is about more than becoming an expert communicator, it’s about embracing a way of life -- of cultural experiences and views that can only be understood by living them. Many language schools offer courses and activities that will familiarize you with the Italian lifestyle, so you can have a head start.

Aside from memorizing conjugations for verbs and slang, you’ll go home with a new understanding of how to order coffee (please, never order a cappuccino after breakfast, you’ll thank me later), and why you fell in love with Italy.