December 07, 2010

Learning the Italian Language in Florence

I am new to blogging and in my first post I decided to write about learning the Italian language. It seemed fitting because upon my arrival here over 9 years ago, it was my first priority.  Now Florence has become home to me. I have started a business here (, I have great friends here and of course, with and through my wife I have wonderful family here. Fortunately, learning the language came quickly, and not because I am particularly gifted with languages. I wanted to pass off to other expats in the area, or anywhere really, who are hoping to learn a foreign language exactly how I learned the language quickly. These couple bits of advice, take them or leave them, may help those who desire to go beyond traveler or tourist and wish to “go native.”

I would like to reiterate that languages don’t come natural to me. I studied Spanish for years, traveling often and even working a little in Latin America, but I never really mastered Spanish. I could hold rudimentary conversations, about the weather or people’s personal histories, but never beyond this. Italian was different. I learned more Italian in two months than  studying nearly 8 years of college and grad school Spanish. Learning Italian went fast, and looking back was not too difficult. I literally could hold somewhat complex conversations within 6 weeks of being here, and I felt very confident after 8 months. Although I am still learning (yes I still feel this way with my native English…), today I consider myself bilingual. I’d say two things really helped me learn Italian. The first was my living situation, and the second was the mind set I tried to maintain when learning.

When I came to Florence 9 years ago, I was coming from San Francisco, with my then girlfriend, now wife, who is originally from Florence. We were living together in San Francisco when we decided on this adventure (at the time I’d never been to Italy). Upon arrival, we moved in with her family in Florence and stayed with them for nearly a year before we were certain we would be staying on a more “semi-permanent” basis. My immediate goal was to learn the language, and so for the first 2 months, I spent 4 hours a day, 5 days a week in an intense immersion program at a local language school. The passes you make in this environment are leaps and bounds compared to the rather passive environment of a 50 minute college class. Returning from class I fortunately continued to hear and use Italian with my wife's family. My wife’s grandmother (Nonna Ines), lives on second floor of the Palazzo we lived (we were on the fourth). Quite possibly one of the sweetest, and most talkative ladies I’ve ever met. She talked to me in a barrage of discussions, knowing full well, I didn’t speak a word of Italian in the early days. Little by little her discussions began to sink in. During the first couple of months, I even avoided passing time with other English speakers. When you pass company with co-nationals you don’t use or learn a foreign language. At times, progress was slow, and frustration ran high. You are constantly tired and I often had a headache from shear mental exhaustion. But it is important to point out (although somewhat obvious), the key ingredient here is full immersion. And this is the first recommendation I can make to any expat wanting to learn a foreign language. Get involved, spend as much time with locals as possible, and put your fellow Anglophones on hold for a while.

The other key to leaning a second language is your state of mind. If you really want to learn a language you need to think like a child again; mind wide open, with none of the social inhibitions and barriers we created from adolescence on. These filter what you say and block  the natural process of experimentation that occurs when learning a language. Watch children learn their own language, any language. They make tons of mistakes, apply rules in areas they don't apply, and say ridiculous things... We think it's cute, but adults don't want to make those same mistakes. Unfortunately we have to... To learn a language you need to use a language. Not having the foundation you’re sure to make mistakes. It’s natural and quite simple. Mistakes mean a few laughs at our expense, but also endears you to those around you and helps you continue to learn. I can offer a few anecdotes which looking back still make me smile. Of course,  two of my more ridiculous linguistic blunders seemed to happen at the table in front of my wife and my in-laws. The first was when talking to my father in law, I asked him about the different quality and quantity of “condoms” in Italian food as opposed to American food (mistaking preservativi—condoms, for conservanti—preservatives). I’m not certain I made the best impression about our culinary practices in the United States. Another early blunder was when I asked someone to pass me the “doggy-style” (simple mistake of changing the "o" at the end of pecorino cheese to an "a" and your cheese becomes a sexual position).  Even with my Italian friends today, I sometimes embarrass myself. A short time back, I was playing poker with some Florentine friends one night. I started the night strong and had a nice pile of chips in front of me. After a series of bad hands, my pile of chips—“MAZZO” was shrinking, of course when I commented on it, I mistakenly used the feminine—“MAZZA,” which means bat or club, but has an easily assumed slang meaning as well. We are still friends, and no matter how hard I try to explain to them, they are convinced that I take my poker games way too intimately!

I learned you need to have fun with the language, it is beautiful and it will open a lot of doors for you while you are here... try to immerse yourself, and try to rediscover it’s fun to be a child again. Good luck and in bocca lupo!!