Choosing an Italian Language Course in Italy
The author enjoying food, wine and conversation in Italy.
"I've made you something really special for lunch," Mario's mum said, kissing me on the cheek. "I hope you like horse."
Being a strict vegetarian, I was less than thrilled that a horse steak was being served in my honor, but also knew that if I refused she would have caused a "brutta figura."
I looked for my boyfriend to get me out of this situation but he had already gone, lugging our cases from his polished-to-perfection Alfa Romeo. As lunchtime approached, I was getting less and less hungry.
Of course, had my Italian been better I would have known that horse had never been on the menu. I had mistaken cavolo (cauliflower) for cavallo (horse).
That of course is a minor example of problems that can occur when you are trying to immerse yourself in a new culture but don’t speak the language.
Admittedly, Italy is stunning. From the brick-red rooftops of Tuscany to the dazzlingly white villas of Sardinia, you could spend several months simply immersing yourself in your glorious technicolor surroundings.
If you don’t speak the language you are missing out on the real experience - the people. It is like watching a film but with the sound turned down.
Even if you do speak some Italian before you visit Italy, enrolling in a language school in Italy is the best way of getting to grips with the sing-song sounds of the language.
Hundreds of Options
Type "learning+Italian+Italy" into Google and a bewildering number of pages will come back at you listing hundreds of options. So just how do you go about choosing the school that is most suitable for you?
First of all, you need to make a list of your objectives: are you after holiday Italian or real qualifications? Do you want a formal school where you will be given a paper qualification at the end of your studying or would you prefer a relaxed informal environment where you learn by doing? Are extra curricula activities important or would you prefer to spend your time as you choose? A homestay program is also worth considering. By living with your teacher for the duration of your course, you will have the advantage of expert tuition throughout the day. For an example, see the Languages Abroad websitem which runs homestay programs in Italy.
Italian academic Francesca Mattiussi-Seaman is the director of the Scuola Insieme Italian Language School that she set up in her hometown of Grado, in northeast Italy, when she was still a sophomore at Stanford University. She now splits her time between Grado and teaching at the University of Depauw, Indiana.
"The idea of the school was born from the desire to offer the community around me a payment for the education I as receiving. I wanted to teach the Italian language in an authentic way, with all the love I could carry for the culture in which I had grown, and the care that I knew I could give. Scuola Insieme was not born to be a business but an investment in education."
Once you have decided your objectives you can start your search for a language school. The first thing to do is consider your location. The tourist haunts of Rome and Florence have far more language schools than small towns buried in the Ligurian hillsides. While this means that you will have more choice about the type of school you choose, you will also be mixing with far more English speakers. And it follows that the more Italian you do speak, the more it will improve.
Apart from scrolling through the listings on google, try www.studyabroaditaly.org which provides listings of language schools along with a comprehensive profile. This could be a good starting point. Pagine Gialle, the Italian version of the Yellow Pages telephone directory, www.paginegialle.it will also provide you with a list of language schools in the area you want.
Talk to School Director
Before choosing a course, however, Ms Mattiussi-Seaman, whose husband Michael Seaman organizes Scuola Insieme’s cultural program, believes it is vital that prospective students speak to the school director.
She says: “Some interesting questions that they may want an answer are: How many students per class? It is important to note that statistics or average numbers are deceiving because they take into account the number of students in the class in the winter months. Also, where is the school located and what is the attitude of the locals towards foreigners, particularly Americans? And what is the teaching philosophy of the school? I would also ask how the classes are scheduled. Sometimes an overwhelming number of tuition hours is counterproductive. Usually both students and teachers are not productive over a period of longer than two hours.”
Facilities Available: Next, ask about the the type of facilities available. A good school will have lots of facilities: Italian-language books and DVDs or videos that you can borrow and a computer lab where you can use the internet and special computer programs to help you improve your skills. But don’t forget to check other things too: where is the school located and is it easily accessible on foot and by public transport? Is there a bar or "mensa" (canteen) on site where you can eat lunch? (Probably not if it is a small school.) If not, are there bars and restaurants nearby where you can eat well on a budget?
Lesson Length: Another point often overlooked is the teaching time: in some schools an hour is exactly that: 60 minutes. But in others the lesson hour may only be 40 or 45 minutes long. Even if the schools insist on providing you with a complete package ask for the hourly rate so that you can compare schools.
Where to stay: Do you want to live in a flat with other foreign students, in a family or B and B? A good school should be able to provide you with lots of different options. Remember, if you are in a family, you will be forced to speak Italian. While this can be a more scary option, it means that you will be practicing real Italian all the time, meaning that you will be getting a better return on your money.
Cultural Activities: Ask about the cultural program and whether it is an optional extra or integrated into the course. You need to know if you will be paying for a service you do not want. If this is your main priority then find out if the cooking or sailing lessons or pottery classes are given in Italian or English as this will make a difference to your language progression. Immersion programs are an excellent way of learning more about the culture while improving your language skills at the same time.
The School’s Reputation: If the school is reputable, it will be delighted to provide you with the contact details of former students who have already taken a course at the language school. Talking to former students either on the phone or via email can be invaluable. And it is a way to ensure that you can find out what the teachers, classes, city and housing are really like from someone who has been there and done it before you. It also proves that the school has nothing to hide and is proud of their students. If the language school is reluctant to do this, you need to think why.
Quality of Language Schools: Two people who have already taken the plunge and learnt Italian in Italy are junior doctors Louise and Simon Reed who took a year’s sabbatical from their jobs in the UK and drove to Italy in their Mini. The result is the best year of their lives and a book simply titled Learning Italian in Italy: the essential guide to the best language schools and universities in Italy.
The book, which is available at www.learningitalianinitaly.org and covers their 18,000-mile journey around the Bel Paese, is packed with the authors’ comprehensive advice on how to choose the right course.
"We spent a year in search of the perfect language school for this book. Our experience would have been different if we had arrived at an overpriced, overrated private language school. When we researched this guide we found that the quality of the brochure and Internet site bore no relation to the quality of the school.
"Learning Italian in Italy was easy and exciting. Our 6-month trip turned into a year. We drove 18,000 miles, visited virtually every language school in every region and fell head over heals in love with the country, people, food, and language"
I started learning Italian nine years ago in a highly academic setting that wasn’t conducive to my learning needs. My progress was slow because I mistakenly thought that a university would offer a higher standard of education. It was only when I sought out a friendly but professional teacher who insisted on teaching me over aperitifs at the beach that my Italian really began to improve.
There are no hard and fast rules on learning Italian, but you do need a school and teachers that suit you and your personality.
And if you do that, the chances are that it will be the school that is right for you.
Ten Questions to Ask:
- How big is the class and the school?
- Can I get extra help if I need it?
- How much experience do teachers have and do they speak languages?
- Will I be in a group according to my ability?
- Will there be lots of other English speakers there?
- What is the attitude of the locals towards foreign students?
- Does the school offer the facilities I want?
- Will I be treated as an individual or just a number?
- Is there a good social/cultural program?
- Is my gut instinct positive?