With so many options of learning Italian in Italy, choosing the right program can be daunting. There’s the question of where: a big city, with more options for formalized language programs and an easier home-base for travel; a smaller town with more possibility of language immersion and local charm. There’s the decision of which type of program: language schools, private tutors, homestays, organized language vacations…
Unable to resist the pull of living in Florence for an extended period of time, I chose a language school there, birthplace of modern Italian. The school had small class sizes, served a variety of learning levels and seemed to appeal to other students my age (mezza età). I wanted the structure of going to class every day for four hours and mingling with other people who enjoy Italian as much as me. I also met with a private tutor a couple of times, which was where I really felt my language skills grow.
Was it the experience I had always dreamed of? Yes and no. While it was surreal to be in Florence and have so much culture, history and travel options outside my front door, I do believe that my language skills would have been better served in a less touristy spot, where less English is spoken and with a greater possibility of immersion.
To help you select what’s right for your language (and travel) goals, ask yourself these questions:
- Do you want to be a tourist or a language learner?
- What, exactly, do you want to learn?
- Private tutor vs. Classroom?
- Are you going for exposure or mastery?
- The necessary details: pricing, class size, age & abilities of the other students, accessibility, location, field trip opportunities
1. Do you want to be a tourist or a language learner?
It’s challenging to be a fast tourist-on-the run and a successful language student at the same time, so it’s important to be clear on what your priorities are. This can be a difficult distinction, especially if you are traveling to Italy from outside of Europe. Given the time, expense and limited opportunities to travel to Italy, it’s tempting to squeeze in too much during your time there.
If the goal of your experience is language learning, make that your priority, and spend as much time immersed in the language at an appropriate level for your learning. (Keep in mind that just wandering around Italy being surrounded by Italian does not necessarily mean you are actually acquiring the language.) 🙂
Balance your day with learning opportunities (grammar, verb tenses and conjugations, sentence structure) — whether that be in class or private tutor — and authentic experiences and conversations.
Language schools will often offer afternoon field trips for students, organized tours of local sites, and even some weekend road trips.
Another great option to help reconcile the language learning/traveler dilemma is to consider either a language vacation or a homestay program. These tailored programs are a beautiful blend of language classes in the mornings with field trips in the afternoons/evenings. Need recommendations? Check out the language vacation offerings from The Iceberg Project or Studentessa Matta (who also has an extensive list of homestays).
2. What, exactly, do you want to learn?
Do you simply want some great travel Italian or survival phrases? Are you looking to up your grammar game and if so, which part? Do you just want to focus on conversational skills?
Assuming that you have a limited amount of time in Italy, say somewhere between 1-4 weeks, write a few specific goals of what exactly you want to learn, and use these specifics to find a program which will help you achieve this.
Some schools offer Italian for travelers courses, which will provide you with survival phrases while you are on-the-ground in Italy. They’ll likely help you with pronunciation, but you may not cover much in terms of grammar rules and verb tenses.
If it’s honing your grammar skills, I would be very clear on what exactly you want to cover: understanding the correct way to use the multiple different Italian past tenses? Become more familiar with the conditional tense or the imperative tense? Finally get the use of pronomi Italiani right? I used through a whole week of my time in Florence learning il futuro composto and condizionale composto, which I recognized as far too complicated for me to 1. learn and 2. ever use properly in conversation.
As for conversational Italian, I really think this is best achieved by working one-on-one with a private, skilled language tutor. This is likely the costliest option, but, with the right tutor, definitely the most effective. (If you are looking for the best private tutor in Florence, you can find her here!)
3. Private Tutor vs. Classroom?
Do you want a specifically tailored program? How important is it to interact with other language learners?
I investigated a number of different language schools, and all seemed to follow the same format: new students begin on any Monday of the month, except for those absolutely new to Italian, who had a specific start date (often the first Monday of the month). I really wanted to be in a class rather than a private tutor for my experience, because I wanted the interaction of meeting new people.
But there were two big drawbacks to this format that I want you to consider.
First, the logistics of welcoming new students every Monday was a bit inhibiting, because, if they were not at the same level as the current students, it interrupted the progress. When you have a limited amount of days dedicated to learning Italian in Italy, you don’t want to waste a single one.
Second, if you are not an absolute beginner, you will just join the class into whichever topic they are covering at that time, which may not mesh with your learning goals, or allow you to build on concepts previously covered. Class moved pretty fast, with us spending just a few days on each different concept — more of a fly over rather than a deep dive into the content.
My favorite parts of language school? I loved the international aspect of it. I got to know people of all different ages, from all over the world (Germany, England, Switzerland, Lithuania, Austria, South Africa!), in varying stages of life and with the shared passion of learning Italian. I enjoyed how the different teachers, most of them Florentine natives, gave me a glimpse into life as a local. I also appreciated getting an overview of multiple different grammar aspects that I had previously not learned, and would not have attempted to study on my own without this prior exposure. Finally, I was grateful that there was very little English spoken during class time. If students didn’t understand something, teachers were very good about explaining it another way, but still in Italian. If we didn’t understand a word, they defined it, rather than translated it. To my benefit, my brain stayed in Italian during the entire class time.
But for sure, my language learning was supercharged during the time I spent in conversation with a private tutor, and, if there’s a next time for me, I would spend a greater chunk of my time one-on-one with a tutor.
4. Are you going for exposure or mastery?
What I really mean by this is Be Realistic About Mastery.
If you have a limited amount of time, it’s realistic to master one or two particular aspects of the language (“I want to finally learn how to conjugate the _____ tense correctly!”) versus “I want to be fluent.”
I felt certain that after years of studying Italian, four weeks of language school and eight weeks in Italy would push me into that ever-elusive fluency. But, turns out, the Italian language is molto complicato. So, mastery escaped me, but being exposed to a variety of Italian grammar now helps me to focus on what I would like to master in the future.
Still, if mastery on a grander scale is the goal, immersion is key. Keeping your brain in Italian full-time, rather than just in class, is absolutely necessary. For this experience, try a small town or homestay option.
5. The necessary details: pricing, class size, age/abilities of other students, accessibility, location, field trip opportunities…
Ultimately, choosing a language program may come down to these persnickety details. A language school is likely going to be the most cost-effective and, if pricing amongst different schools is comparable, I would focus on class size and geographic location to help make your decision.
If learning Italian in Italy is on the horizon for you, in bocca al lupo! (Good luck!) I hope my suggestions will help you to have a successful and joyful experience.
This post first appeared on Prayers and Piazzas. If you have specific questions about the language school experience, please get in touch! firstname.lastname@example.org
4 Comments Add yours
I agree, there is so much involved with choosing the best location and school. I’ve studied at many language schools in Italy, Germany and Austria. Some were better experiences than others, but they were all different. I, too, chose Florence for my first Italian-language experience. While the class was good, the city experience was not conducive to language learning. As you say, touristy locations are not good choices if acquiring the language is your goal. I would also recommend enough study beforehand so you aren’t stuck in a complete beginner class. Most of those A1-Level students never move on and so those classes are full of tourists who are there for reasons other than really acquiring the language. I would also avoid the summer where classes are much more crowded and full of college students. And the more time, the better. If you can swing a month or two, it will pay off.
Great recommendations and thank you for sharing your thoughts on language school!
Hi Bonnie, I’m so glad you liked the post, I had you in mind as I wrote it! We are on the same wavelength about language learning, and from what I understand of your level (congrats on advancing levels in Siena!), you would benefit most from one-on-one time. I would love to hear more about your friend’s experience when he returns! I had thought about a 3-city tour similar to his, I think that’s a great idea. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and for being a kindred spirit in our love of learning Italian! Un abbraccio!
Love this! Most important – language learner or tourist. I have taught beginning Italian classes several times and the majority of the participants would like to pick up some basic vocabulary and phrases for ordering food, buying bus/train tickets, making reservations, asking directions. After their trip to Italy they are no longer interested in learning the language.
If you are a language learner you need to honestly assess where you are and where you would like to progress to. There are sooo many levels of “fluency”and they vary over the different modalities: reading, listening, speaking.
I took a one week course in Siena last fall. Have studied/taken classes in the US for a number of years. I was quite lucky to be moved from a class of 12 to a class of 2 (plus private tutoring sessions)!! It was fun and helpful but to really move up a level in fluency I think it would be beneficial for me to have one-on-one sessions focusing on conversation and particular areas of grammar.
A friend in our local conversation group is in Italy for 3 months. He is enrolled at 3 different schools for one month each: Sardegna, Palermo and Rome. Can’t wait to see what he has to say about his experiences and where his language level is when he returns.