Top 10 Tips on Moving to Italy and Learning Italian

By: Sue

Moving to Italy? Not the foggiest idea how to speak Italian? Do not be alarmed. In just a few short decades living in Italy, you could be fluent! I jest. I really hope it doesn’t take that long. I moved from London in the UK to the tranquil suburbs of Ancona in the stunning Le Marche area of Italy to start a new life over six months ago. Of the many challenges that I have faced, the biggest hurdle by far has been learning the language.

The Italian language feels completely alien if you are a native English speaker: for instance, all the phrases are back to front and there seems to be 90 different ways of saying a single verb compared with English, where there are about three. There are so many “exceptions” to the rules for speaking Italian that they should be called “unexceptionals”. On the plus side, the language is beautiful, it’s a fascinating learning experience and the elation of getting your first phrase right using the conjunctive tense simply can’t be rivalled!

So what gems of advice can I pass on?

1.       Enrol in a language school in Italy. Apart from it being an excellent way of learning the language, it can be a great way of finding your feet in your new country. The school will often help you find accommodation with a local family, your own apartment or somewhere to share with other students. Some schools offer excursions so you can really get to grips with your local area and they can help you to understand the minefield that is Italian bureaucracy.

2.       Do a “language swap”. There are many Italians looking to improve their English. Meeting up with them and spending some time speaking in your respective languages isn’t just an excellent way of improving your Italian, but a great way of making friends too. There are various websites that offer language swaps – I used Couchsurfing, which is also good for finding free accommodation with like-minded people across the world. Beware though, if you’re a girl, you’ll get several dozen messages from guys who seem to want to swap more than just languages!

3.        Write a diary in Italian. So you’ve gone to school and you’ve learnt how to order food and book a hotel room... Great. That will come in useful. Unfortunately, it’s absolutely no help at all when you want to make friends! Writing a diary in your new language helps you to learn the relevant vocabulary and grammar to have the conversations that you want to have with people in the real world. It’s good practice in itself but, if you can, get a bona fide Italian to check it through and make corrections.

4.       Read papers and magazines. Making any sense from the news on TV or on the radio is nigh impossible at the beginning. Many of the news channels don’t have subtitles. However, if you’ve read the stories first, understanding them is a lot easier. Then, when you’re a bit more advanced, the TV/radio makes more sense. Alas, all the papers seem to be large, daunting looking broadsheets. If you go online there’s TG24, which has short news articles. It’s a much better read and a great way of keeping up to speed with events while improving your Italian.

5.       Watch TV. I’ve devised a different TV watching strategy to suit my language capacity energy levels! When you start, lip reading is important so you can get an understanding of where words start and finish and how sounds are formed. In this instance, it’s better to watch authentic Italian programmes. Start off with subtitles on if they’re there – it’s a lot easier and later on you can test yourself without. There are lots of dubbed films and programmes. Recently, I discovered a sneaky button on the remote control that changes the language to the original. I was initially horrified – would I ever listen to anything in Italian again? But no, it has emerged I prefer the Italian speaking versions - everything just sounds nicer! Even if you do watch programmes in the original English, occasionally you can still have the Italian subtitles on so it’s an excellent learning experience nonetheless.

6.       Go to the cinema. When you’re watching TV, it’s easy to be distracted, particularly when whatever you’re watching requires your brain to be in gear. If you go to the cinema, there are no distractions (or at least, you can’t walk out and make a cup of tea halfway through). Pick your film wisely! Action films are ideal because you can get a gist of what they’re saying from the context alone. I’ve watched several films now in Italian at the cinema. The storyline comes through regardless and, these days, I completely forget that I can’t understand what they’re saying half the time but “get” them anyway.

7.       Join the library. Now, books can look quite daunting. They are if you attempt to understand all the words and analyse the sentence structures and what on earth tense they are using. However, if you approach books with the view that you just want to understand the general gist then it becomes a lot easier and it won’t take you an hour to read each page. Alas, at the beginning when you have the reading ability of a toddler, it’s a challenge finding books at your level without them being made of card and with a touchy-feely component! However, before long you’ll be reading teenager books and it turns out they’re quite engaging!

8.       Make use of your smartphone. There are dozens of great, free apps for learning Italian to suit every level. It’s one of my favourite things about having a smartphone. Check out “Italian Verbs” by Appicentre LLC, which gives you a list of common verbs and how they’re conjugated (i.e. the different versions of the verb depending on who’s the one doing it and when).  “Italian Trainer” by Appicentre LLC, which tests you on the conjugations. “Italian Class” gives guidance on grammar, phrases and gives you some exercises to do.  “Duolingo” and “Babbel” are also excellent apps for learning vocabulary and grammar.

9.       Don’t expect to be able to use a dictionary. One of the challenges you’ll soon realise when it comes to using dictionaries in Italy is half of the words aren’t in there. It’s because they often have only the “infinitive” form of the verbs and base forms of other words and unless you’ve been born with some kind of innate understanding of Italian you’ll simply stand no chance of finding them. Use the Wordreference website to help you; it knows all the conjugations and it will bring back the infinitive verb, its meaning and often it will give examples of how it’s used.

10.    Keep going! There will be moments of despair, there will be moments of fury, you’ll be frustrated that you can’t express yourself, you’ll need to gather all your courage to even ask for bus tickets at the Tabaccheria, you’ll have a morbid fear of talking to people on the phone... Have faith - it doesn’t last forever! Keep at it. The Italians are a truly lovely bunch and have a generosity with their time and patience that I’ve not come across elsewhere.

Finally, the first few weeks will be like a game of charades and an amusing one at that. Keep a sense of humour and laugh at your mistakes (I once accidentally asked if anyone wanted to be blackmailed rather than have their portrait taken. I still chuckle at that one). People put a lot of kudos in the “immersion” environment. Indeed, I did too. However, simply immersing yourself among Italians who are speaking at the speed of light and talking over the top of each other does nothing other than make you realise how little you know. Confidence comes with time though, and the Italians helpfully add in what I think they intend to be a rhetorical question (“capito?”, understand?) to the end of many of their sentences.  Learn “no, non ho capito niente che tu hai detto” (no, I don’t understand anything you’ve said) and you’ll go far!

In bocca al lupo! (Good luck, or rather curiously literally translated “in the mouth of the wolf”!)

About the author

Expat Blog ListingSue is a British expat living in Italy. Blog description: Escaping the rat race and beyond... The experiences and challenges of moving from the UK to Italy's stunning Le Marche region(by Sue)
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Contest Comments » There are 23 comments

Phil Chatterton wrote 10 years ago:

Love Sues funny, entertaining and enlightening updates on Italy. Great blog which contains some really helpful and hysterical reflections on moving to Italy.

Chris Lambourne wrote 10 years ago:

What a great blog! Honest , clear, instructional and informative. Sue really does tell it how it is and makes her journey much more accessible to those who can only imagine her exiting adventure.

Pecora Nera wrote 10 years ago:

I love Sue's blog, it is nice to see how another non Italian struggles with learning Italian and manages to get through life in a crazy country.

Norman Adlam wrote 10 years ago:

Love the way the blog is presented - amusing and informative. Gives hints on some of the 'catch out' things that happen in 'normal' Life! Keep it up!

G wrote 10 years ago:

Love Sue's blog ... Great for her family to know what she's up too! Also very entertaining but informative too, Sue tells us about the little things you don't always think about when moving to new countries.

Mauro P. wrote 10 years ago:

Without the point 2 I wouldn't met Sue. Everything she wrote is the truth, and even if I'm Italian and I never slept outside my bed for more than two weeks I found this blog useful... that it's interesting and a pleasant reading is evident. I passed with her a lot of time, doing language swap at the restaurant, cinema, at home watching tv, walking for the villages in the surroundings, doing hiking... follow her advices and you will do the same improvements she did in these months. With the R letter she hasn't hopes, but we are working on this too :)

Claire Oatridge wrote 10 years ago:

So, the ladies from home were secretly mortified when the spreadsheet finally came off and Sue announced she was moving to Italy - for keeps! The blog is amazing - we get a weekly flavour of life in Le Marche and Sue's experiences - her charm and Witt brings the blog alive. Awesome.

Jo Kempster wrote 10 years ago:

I always look forward to Sue's latest blog update arriving in my inbox - she has such a good writing style & it's so amusing to see the world through her eyes... it's my escapism from a dreary day in the UK, I get a slice of life in Italy & feel like I'm actually there with her! Keep up the good work Sue xx

Raj wrote 10 years ago:

Her blog is always entertaining and informative. Her pragmatic and organised approach contrasts nicely with some of the realities of living in Italy and only makes me admire her more for her courage and determination in making such a change.

Suzie wrote 10 years ago:

Hi Sue, what a great list to learn Italian (or any foreign language). Glad to have discovered your blog through the contest. Saluti from Calabria (the seaside village is my entry for Italy) Suzie

Brad Hillier wrote 10 years ago:

Sue's blog is always full of useful and constructive tips, as well as humorous personal experience of immersion in Italian!

E wrote 10 years ago:

Sue writes with warmth, humour and enthusiasm... and a small amount of exasperation at the things that make little sense to her. Full of useful information and observation; it reads well in it's own right, but even better if read in her voice.

Madeleine Magnet wrote 10 years ago:

Sue is a great writer and blogger!She makes me laugh with stories of her life in Italy. I met her there this summer, she's funny :))

Antony Holloway wrote 10 years ago:

Very funny, sometimes sue almost makes moving abroad sound possible for a language luddite like me!

Lisa wrote 10 years ago:

I look forward to reading Sue's blog each week. She has an incredible way of describing her adventures with wit and hilarity! After moving from the US to the UK several years ago, I can relate to some of these experiences....thankfully language wasn't one if them! If I ever decide to move to Italy, I will use this as my guide!

Peter G wrote 10 years ago:

An extremely funny blog which cheers me up on a Monday morning. As well as the humour, the photographs are exceptional, and serve as a great advertisement for the area around Ancona.

Diana wrote 10 years ago:

There’s certainly nothing ‘unexceptional’ about this informative article! By sharing her hard-won experience Sue will surely benefit many others in their endeavor to learn the intricacies of the Italian language. She has clearly taken her own advice – and certainly impresses with her confident use of the language that she has gained in such a short time.

Steve wrote 10 years ago:

Guidebooks can only go so far in telling you what it's really like to up-sticks and move to a new country (let alone learning a new language at the same time). Sue gives a real-life insight of the trials and tribulations of setting up a new life in Italy. She has the perfect blogging style that mixes useful information with funny anecdotal stories. I always look forward to the next installment...

Pete wrote 10 years ago:

Sue's blog provides such an interesting window on another world. Funny, smart and informative, I love it!

Maverick wrote 10 years ago:

Excellent! I'm thinking of moving to Italy in the new year and a friend pointed me to this article. It has a lot of great advice and I'm sure will be invaluable as I try and navigate the minefield of learning a new language and starting a new life abroad.

Lisa Chiodo wrote 10 years ago:

Hey Sue now I have my eleven year old daughter talking Italian like a native and I'm saying 'What?"....I have to catch up lol xx Great post ciao lisa

Doddy wrote 10 years ago:

Very useful article which nicely complements the blog. Some good ideas in the article which can only help me pick up the language a bit quicker. Molte grazie...

Jennifer wrote 10 years ago:

I learn so much by watching Peppa Pig with my daughter and so does she.

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