Learning a new language can be intimidating, but it's worth it. Language is a means of connection, opening doors to new people and experiences. Ashley Feiler outlines a few strategies to learn and apply your newly acquired language skills in the classroom and real world.
The first Italian word I learned in Florence? Frizzante. I tried to learn a bit of basic Italian before arriving at my study abroad location, but once in Italy, I realized how much there was to learn just to complete simple daily tasks. For example: buying the right bottled water. I personally don’t like anything carbonated, but in Florence, sparkling water is quite common. After a rather unpleasant experience with some bottled water my roommates had bought at the grocery store, I quickly learned that frizzante means—you guessed it—sparkling.
Luckily, one of the two classes I chose to take while studying abroad was Beginner Italian Language 1. Having spent two years studying linguistics in general, I was excited to try applying that knowledge to learning a specific language, not to mention I could use all the help I could get immersing myself in an Italian-speaking city for six weeks.
Our class meets three times a week in the CAPA center for 2 to 2.5 hours. With classes condensed into a six-week summer semester, they are a bit long; however, our professor, Anna Kraczyna, keeps every class engaging. As an introductory course, we focus on a lot of basics such as general vocabulary, numbers, and times, but she makes sure to include functional vocab and phrases that will come in handy as we navigate living abroad. We’ve covered proper greetings when entering a store, how to make a reservation or ask for the check in a restaurant, and basic questions such as “Where is ___ ?” (Dove è___ ?) or “What does ___ mean?” (Cosa significa ___?) The class is also planning to go on a field trip to a café, which will be a great opportunity to practice our skills in a real-world environment.
This combination of classroom and real-world language learning is truly a unique opportunity while studying abroad, with each setting providing valuable insights. Had I not been taking an Italian language class, for example, I wouldn’t have known the intricacies of Italian greetings. While “ciao” is the greeting I was most familiar with, we learned in class that “ciao” is generally more informal. It is typically reserved for people that are already acquainted or is spoken to someone the same age or younger, so it is more appropriate for us to use “buongiorno” or “buonasera” when greeting someone in a store or restaurant. On the other hand, I learned from firsthand experience that “buongiorno” is commonly spoken until later in the evening (in my experience until around 5 or 6pm) rather than switching after noon like we would in English.
I am certainly no expert in the Italian language, but here are a few strategies I’ve picked up that may help you improve your own foreign language skills while abroad, whether or not you’re learning that language in a formal classroom setting.
Practice, practice, practice!
This probably goes without saying, but one of the best ways to quickly improve with a language is to speak it as much as possible. So far, nearly everyone I’ve met in Florence speaks English, so it can be easy to just slip into what I’m most comfortable with. However, trying to stick it out in Italian will help you learn the language so much faster, plus you’ll be introduced to new words and phrases you may not have heard otherwise.
Have a few staple phrases.
If you’re new to the language, it’s probably not realistic to expect yourself to be able to hold a full conversation in Italian right off the bat. Having a few opening phrases for common settings you find yourself in can at least give you a good starting point. For example, one phrase I’ve mastered when going out to eat is Ha un tavolo per due? This means “do you have a table for two?” Some other basics I would suggest are:
Per favore/Grazie – Please/Thank you
Possoavere… – Can I have…
Quanto costa? – How much does it cost?
Read signs aloud.
One of the things I’m still working on with my Italian is learning the correct pronunciations for different spellings. Specifically, the letter “C” gives me a bit of trouble as it’s pronounced differently depending on what letters follow it. I have about a 20-minute walk to the CAPA center for my classes, so I’ve found it helpful to read aloud any signs I pass that are written in Italian. It makes me practice the different pronunciations while taking no extra time out of my day.
Learning a new language can be intimidating. I’ve messed up more times than I can count—sometimes I’ve ended up with a different sandwich than I thought I ordered or came home from the store with pre-packaged pancakes instead of pancake mix, but it’s all part of the learning experience and you will improve in time. The first time I successfully bought gelato entirely in Italian, from order to payment, I was over the moon! This entire experience has reminded me why I fell in love with studying linguistics in the first place—language is a means of connection, opening doors to new people and experiences. Taking an Italian Language course with CAPA has been incredibly helpful, but I would encourage everyone studying abroad to embrace the language of your new country whether or not you can take a language course. You’ll not only learn more of the language itself, but you’ll also gain a better understanding and appreciation for the culture that goes with it.
Ashley Feiler is an official CAPA blogger for summer 2022, sharing her story in frequent posts on CAPA World. An English Writing and Linguistic major from University of Pittsburgh, she is studying abroad in Florence this semester.
Ashley's journey continues all semester so stay tuned.