A club member wrote to me this week about his plan to spend a month in a small Italian town to improve his Italian – by chatting to waiting staff, and so on.
He was worried that they might insist on speaking English to him, which is likely any place ‘touristic’. Or just not want to chat. Did I have any suggestions?
Well sure – besides taking a course at an actual Italian language school – I had plenty!
If it was me, first thing, I wouldn’t choose a resort destination, but somewhere ‘normal’, ideally a larger city.
Hai presente (useful Italian term meaning – “Think of…” or “Bring to mind…”) a town or city near where you live, where you’re unlikely to find foreign visitors? Somewhere like that, then, but in Italy.
As an example, I’m thinking about my own home town: Exeter, in Devon, in England (in Europe, or used to be.) It has a cathedral, a few Roman ruins, but, apart from in the summer, not so many foreign students or tour groups.
So what might you do in the Italian equivalent of Exeter, or wherever you choose to go to improve your language skills and confidence?
Talk to waiting staff, sure. If you’ve chosen wisely, they’ll not likely speak a foreign language, now most of the young EU workers have gone home. So you’ll have to do it.
And visit the sights, naturally. The cathedral used to be free to enter, but perhaps there’s a charge these days. In any case, if I was specifically looking to improve my language skills, I’d pay to take a tour, or even to have a guide, making sure that this would be in the language I want to practice.
This is not how I’d usually spend my holidays, but as language practice, it would work OK, if you avoid those headphones with translations into your own language. This is, in general, a good tip – do what you might not normally do, if it’s in the language you want to learn.
For instance, I wouldn’t ever do a ballroom dancing course, or anything requiring coordination. But if I was in another country and aiming to meet people to practice speaking with? It would be an option on my list. Any course, really. Cooking would be more my thing, proabably.
Still with the tourism side of things, though, Devon is very pretty in parts, so perhaps I’d check travel agents for day trips, by bus, departing from Exeter and heading to wherever else might be worth seeing. It need not be anywhere amazing, as I’d be looking for trips aimed at elderly locals, people who don’t have a car, with the idea of grabbing a couple of hours sat down on a coach with nothing better to do than talk to the other travelers.
See? Find out where the people who’d value your company are going to be, and make sure you’re there too. I recall spending a pleasant afternoon in a grotty part of central Copenhagen, where there was some local party going on. Kids were dancing with their dads, there was a beer truck, the sun was shining. That’s the sort of thing! Then compliment people on their dogs, ask how old the baby is, anything it takes to make some friends.
Besides tourism ‘proper’, I’d check out other local amenities – public libraries (be sure to read the notice boards for any local events, the aforementioned bus tours, and so on), sports centers (why not join a gym, take a class or two?), social clubs, and so on.
Ideally, I’d want to get away from the downtown. Walking is a good way to do that, or hop on public transport just to see where you end up (and talk to anyone who looks like they might be up for a chat – if you have no better ideas, ask where you should get off to find a… )
Shopping centres (called malls in the USA) are impersonal, but British city centres have charity shops (often staffed by bored volunteers), and pubs of course! Choose one that’s quiet enough that people might want to chat. If the bar staff are bored, they might pass the time with you. The locals, too. Maybe buy a round, if you can afford it?
Think laterally, I advised my correspondent. Look for any place you can meet the locals. What about volunteering, attending a political meeting or demonstation, or even – killer idea, this – going to a church service? Just as long as it’s in the language you’re learning. You can’t NOT meet people at a church service. Oh, and talk to Jehova Witnesses, even if you’d avoid them at home – they always have lots to say!
Last but not least – organised walks? In your destination itself, or in the countryside nearby. If you’ve ever done a day-long ramble, or a group trip on a long-distance footpath, you’ll know that there’s ample time to make friends and trade life histories.
I ended my emailed advice with a reminder:
But you don’t need to visit a country or live in it to improve your listening comprehension to near-native speaker level. In fact, plenty of people who migrate never obtain that level, despite living in the country where their second language is spoken. With the internet now, and all the media and content that’s just a click away, it’s totally possible to immerse yourself in the language you’re learning without leaving home. And so, eventually, master it.
I rarely travel anywhere, personally. But it doesn’t stop me learning. This morning I was in Sweden for half an hour, then in the Spanish parliament, listening to various politicians bickering about whose policies were better for Spanish women (it’s International Women’s Day.) Maybe later I’ll spend a half hour in France or Turkey, while vacuuming or cooking the dinner, to hear how their ladies are getting on.
Have Bluetooth headphones and a smartphone, will travel.
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“Devono brillare queste scarpe, ragazzo! Oggi non ho fretta. Come ti chiami?” Il ragazzino risponde con un forte accento italiano: “Joe, signore. Mi chiamo Joe Petrosino. Le sue scarpe saranno come nuove in pochi minuti.”
Il poliziotto annuisce distrattamente: “Fai del tuo meglio, Joe.” Intanto osserva il negozio di alimentari fatto saltare in aria il giorno prima. La bomba ha distrutto la porta e la vetrina, l’insegna che dice: “Da Felice, prodotti italiani” è rimasta al suo posto, ma è storta.
Il poliziotto irlandese sospira scuotendo la testa, mentre altri due colleghi più giovani gli si avvicinano. Uno di questi gli chiede: “Chiudiamo il caso, signore? È il solito regolamento di conti fra italiani, è inutile perdere tempo” e l’altro aggiunge: “È impossibile capire quello che dicono e quello che gli passa per la testa. Sono una razza di criminali, e il proprietario del negozio vai a sapere se non era un mezzo mafioso anche lui… tutti uguali, tutti uguali.”
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I was thrilled to read you touch on this subject because I’ve been toying with the idea of going to Italy for a few days (can’t afford to leave for a month), and have been wondering exactly the same: where would I find people to try my Italian with (I’m A2/B1). I’ve come up with two ideas you didn’t mention so I thought I’d share: staying in a B&B. From experience in France and a few anglophone countries I know the hosts in these places are usually delighted to chat with their guests. (Yes, I know, this doesn’t work with the one month scenario, but for a shorter stay it could be an alternative to hotels or AirB&B or whatever.) The second idea I had also stems from my experience in France where I live: go to a mercato. If Italian markets are anything like French ones, you’ll get a lot of listening practice. And there’s potential for asking the sellers about their different fruit, or which formaggio they’ll recommend to accompany whatever, and if the market is very busy, you might end up chatting with the person next to you in the coda.
While waiting for my chance to hop the border, I’ll mentally bookmark your ideas to add to mine.
Let us know how you get on, Mayken!