Speak in English! But can I say it in Italian?

At school I loved learning a language. I loved the beginning part, the memorising of the basic vocabulary, the sound of the unfamiliar words difficult to pronounce, the expectation that you will one day be able to converse with a native. It’s a bit like the start of a new relationship, everything is new, awkward, full of promise, exciting. But then it gets more difficult. And that’s when I get fed up. I’m too impatient, too lazy. I don’t like to struggle. If I’m not good at something straight away, I’m reluctant to continue. But I live in Rome, so I can’t give up.

   If you’re new to Italy, the best advice I can give you is don’t be afraid. Throw yourself into situations where you will be forced to listen to and speak Italian. In Rome it’s all too easy to stay within an ex-pat comfort zone, but Italians are very generous with their time and have a great deal of patience for people giving it a go. They appreciate the effort and even though in touristy areas they will continue to speak to you in English, persevere. However, I can give you all the advice in the world, but I haven’t always followed it myself.

   I have done the lessons, I have been to the language exchanges and the meet-up groups. There are lots of great organisations who provide you with lots of opportunities to meet Italians and practise the language here in Rome, FriendsinRome, ExpatsLivinginRome and The Koiné Centre being three that I know. I have had conversations partners; Federica, Giuseppe, Viviana and Francesca I thank you for your efforts, but fluency continues to feel a world away. 

   For English speaking people pronunciation of Italian can be a problem. We seem to get the stress wrong in exactly the same way. We elongate and stress the end vowel meaning words seem to always end with a horrible ay sound – Piramidaaay, mangiaraaaay, posaceneraaaay. We have problems with masculine and feminine objects, is the table male or female? Is it plural? There are 7 ways to say ‘on the’. Seven! Completely inexplicable at first, but which do begin to make sense, eventually. For adults language learning can be a real challenge. An Italian lawyer friend told me, “I know really stupid people who can speak English well, why do I find it so difficult?” Like me, he hates to feel foolish.

   As a teacher at an international school, I watch as Italian children try to get to grips with my own rather more difficult language. It’s fascinating watching the struggle from the other side and it’s a real help to your own language learning. Children tend to be braver, but trying to get them to ‘Speak in English’ is a challenge and obviously the natural tendency is to speak in your native tongue. The temptation to ‘Say it in Italian’ is just too strong. Here are some of my favourite Italian/English-isms: 

I can go to the toilet?
Is line up? 
I go to the party of the brother of my friend.
Butt-er, Miss Simes …
You’re giving me a fastidio.

   I once went to a workshop entitled “How to teach English to Italian children” which I thought would be a detailed examination of the particular difficulties faced by Italian children, but which instead consisted of advice to constantly pick up on their mistakes and tell them they’re wrong. Not sure my own fledgling Italian would survive such harshness.




  1. I share your frustrations Catherine – after twelve years in Italy I can hold a good conversation together but still have regular crises about verb endings and tenses! As for the classroom, I banned all questions that started with 'but' on Friday and didn't have to answer a single one all day. Still have little hope that they'll start with 'why' or 'how' tomorrow though!


  2. Persevere! It's amazingly difficult for them to start without but … Having said that I'm terrible for using ma … as a holding/thinking word at the beginning of any sentence, it's contagious!


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