Saturday, March 02, 2019

Italian. Bella Lingua!

Learning the Lingo

American tourists traveling to Europe today hardly need trouble themselves about a language barrier, at least in the major cities or on organized tours outside of the cities. Many Europeans, especially in the major cities, speak English as a matter of course. In airports, major rail stations, and city retail shops, you’re sure to have little problem making yourself understood and finding answers to most common questions. Whether you have need of knowing the unique hand gestures of Italia (or wherever you're going) probably depends on whether you’re renting a car or not (just kidding).

However, you may want to know a little of the lingo for the country you’re visiting. When you visit on your own outside the major tourist areas you’re not as likely to find most people speaking English. Also, native people generally appreciate when you try to communicate in their language. For whatever reason you choose to learn a language, there are numerous methods for pursuing your language education. Let’s ignore the hand gestures for the time being.

My trip to Italy is going to take me to Rome, Florence, and Venice, but also outside those major cities to the smaller cities of the Tuscany and Umbria provinces.

I decided I wanted to learn enough Italian to speak a bit and also to understand what people around me were saying. This, I think, is the most difficult part of learning a new language, absorbing what you're hearing and making sense of it.

Years ago, I bought a package called “Just Listen and Learn Italian.” I now have more incentive to delve into it.

It came with three 60-minute CDs and a book with dialogues, vocabulary, and illustrations. What I like best about it are the recorded dialogues. When you hear the segments about rail arrivals and departures, you hear the background noises of a rail station, exactly the types of noises you’ll have to filter the real announcements through when you’re traveling. I’ve started using the package lately and I really enjoy the way it is structured. Early on the book shows present-tense verb conjugations, talks about cultural issues, shows signs that you’re likely to see as you travel, and gives a brief overview of Italian geography. It has the written dialogues to follow that are on the CDs. It’s helping me a great deal. Alas, this package is no longer available for retail sale, but there are quite a few alternative packages for sale on Amazon and you can find one that you believe suits you best.

There are various language-learning Apps available to assist learning a language for your tablet  and/or smartphone and the ones I looked at present lessons on vocabulary, grammar, sentence structure, and listening skills. I’ve been using two: Duolingo and Babbel. I intentionally stayed away from the more expensive ones: Rosetta Stone and Pimsleur.

Duolingo is a free app, with plenty of frustrating ads, and plenty of opportunities to buy your way out of them. I choose not to.  Duolingo seems a little scattershot to me and doesn’t provide as much guidance around grammar issues, nor does it introduce new words in a structured manner as I’d like. One nice feature it does have is a random vocabulary match quiz that includes words from past lessons, so they stay fresh in your mind. The App provides groups you can join if you’d like to converse in writing with fellow students.

Babbel charges a nominal fee of $45 for six months (if I remember correctly), with 50% off for initial signup. I like the way Babbel is structured and presents new information. It follows a precise method for presenting new material and important grammar areas are emphasized with a popup. It also has a nice review function so you can go over the words and terms you’ve learned without repeating the full lessons. The structured lessons can seem a bit repetitive, but because the lesson subjects are more targeted, I didn’t mind that.

Learning to speak with proper pronunciation is important to advance in both apps. Babbel provides a greater opportunity to listen to the spoken language and interpret what you’re hearing. I think with a diligent effort, either of the Apps would be helpful in teaching you the language fundamentals.

My latest tool to learn Italian is a course at my local community college. Although the counselor told me that “Italian Grammar 1” meant that it was more a reading and writing course, my teacher tries to ensure each class session includes a routine of listening and speaking the language. She is native Italian, born in Brindisi, Puglia at the heel of the boot, and although sometimes she doesn’t hear correctly what we’re asking her in English, her perspective is helpful. The immediate feedback in a live class makes the learning process more efficient. Although the book we're using is "Italian in 10 Minutes a Day", I can tell you it takes significantly more time than that to master the lessons. Our teacher helps students understand the principles and then the shortcuts one can take. For instance, when we answer a question in English, we don’t always formally repeat the full question in our answer. That’s true in Italian too, and her tips on how to do that are appreciated. 

I've found plenty of additional tools to help me learn Italian in my local Barnes and Noble. It takes a little help from all of them to feel confident that a lesson is adequately covered. Your experience may vary. 


I’m really looking forward to trying out my new language skills on my trip to Italy. I’m sure I’ll have many opportunities to embarrass myself as I try, for instance, to ask for a beer and find I’m given butter. Nothing ventured, nothing gained!

Bella lingua! Bella Italia!
David, but not The David