Learn Italian the Quick and Easy Way
After living in Rome for two years, I can finally say with confidence that I speak Italian. Maybe not perfectly, and certainly with an American accent, but I feel OK in stating that I speak the language.
People back in the U.S. often ask me, “What’s the best way to learn Italian?” My answer is simple: Come live in Italy.
OK, I’m being sarcastic, because I realize what they really mean is, “What’s the best way to learn Italian without moving to Italy?” That, as they say, is another story…
On the train to Assisi, March 2001
I had committed my plan to memory: get off the train at Assisi, find a taxi at the station, and take it to my hotel in the nearby village of Spello. I even had an Italian friend write out the directions on a piece of paper to give to the driver. No problem, all set. I sat back on the train with my journal in hand and enjoyed the view of the Umbrian countryside slowly passing by my window.
Then the train unexpectedly stopped at a small station. I glanced out the window and lo and behold the large blue and white sign said, “Spello.”
Should I get off? I wondered. It seemed to make sense—why go 15 kilometers past Spello all the way to Assisi only to take a cab back again? Much easier to just jump off now and go directly to the hotel, no? I tried to ask random folks on the train, but alas, nobody spoke a word of English. And my handy phrasebook was buried deep in my backpack—not so handy after all. Damn it! I had 30 seconds to decide.
I grabbed my other suitcase and hopped down onto the platform just as the whistle blew. The train slowly pulled away and I turned around to gaze wistfully at the majestic Monte Subasio in the near distance.
And there: the charming town of Spello, about 6-7 kilometers away, tucked up high on the mountainside. Ah…che bella! (using the full extent of my Italian vocabulary at the time).
After enjoying the lovely panorama for a minute, I turned back around to find the station and locate suitable transportation to the town center. On closer inspection, the “station” was merely an abandoned wooden building. Not even a building at that point in its history; more like 10,000 termites holding hands in the shape of a building.
“OK, don’t panic,” I told myself, “let’s appraise the situation. No station, no taxis, not another human in sight. Che bella!” I glanced again at the little town in the distance, now looking more like 60-70 kilometers away. The hike (or expedition) would require a significant quantity of mountaineering gear, a strong pack mule, and a well-trained guide. I strained my vocabulary for a more appropriate phrase. Che cazzo! (Why is it that the swear words are the first thing that people learn?)
Now what? Well, after a few intense moments of self-loathing, the first thing I did was resolve to learn Italian and come back to Italy with the skills to survive. For some reason, this became extremely important to me from that moment on. It was a way to recover my pride, I suppose.
The Best Way to Learn Italian
Whatever the motivation, when I got back to the U.S. I immediately purchased a software program to get me started. Everything I had read online said that this was the way to go. Books, tapes, DVDs—they’re all fine, and good supplements to help practice. But I found that the guided lessons of the software program gave me the structure and active participation that I needed.
Of course, a private tutor might have done the job, but I was working too many hours at the time and needed a platform that allowed me to dictate and adjust my study schedule. (Plus, private tutors are expensive–I know, because I used to be one!)
What I like about it is that it gets you using the language right away rather than just studying it. You learn in a method more similar to how you learned your first language, by trial and error, rather than memorizing verb conjugations and grammar rules.
Personally, I have enjoyed the challenge of learning a new language. Beyond the practical uses of communicating in a foreign country, it truly changes your perspective and opens your mind when you begin thinking in a language other than your mother tongue.
There’s a Czech proverb that says, “Learn a new language, gain a new soul.” I think there’s a lot of truth to that.
So to sum it up, the best way to learn Italian: 1) Move to Italy; 2) A good software program.
And one last piece of advice: whether studying language or traveling by train, stick to the plan!