In the months between my acceptance and moving to Italy, I spent a good chunk of time learning Italian through as many venues as possible. I went through three levels of Rosetta Stone. I read Italian blogs and newspapers. I discovered some great Italian films (and some pretty terrible melodramatic, sad-violin ones). Then, I stepped onto my first train in Italy, promptly missed the transfer and ended up in Cuneo. It was about 8 pm on a Mon night, and the trains stop running shortly thereafter. Panicked, I tried to ask the guy across the aisle for help, but all the Italian I’d learned had flown out the window. Luckily, he knew enough English to tell me I had 5 minutes left to catch the last train of the night. Clearly, my Italian still had a ways to go.
For the most part though, I don’t need to know that much Italian for day to day living, other than talking to vendors. All coursework is in English, and Italian classes are not part of the Food Culture & Communications program at the University of Gastronomic Sciences. So, if you are serious about learning Italian, you’d better do it on your own. Alternatively, you can also make your way through a year in Italy by honing your skills at charades, but that is passing up a grand opportunity to learn one of the world’s most beautiful languages.
It is not well-publicized, but the city of Bra actually offers Italian classes for foreigners through the Informagiovani office. The website is not updated to have information on course offerings (of course), but according to this article, there are not only foreign language courses, but also classes on film and computers. You can also sign up for classes in other languages (French). But let’s stay focused. For a mere €12, I signed up for a year-long ISL (Italian as a Second Language) class. Or is that ITL for me?
Forget the Renaissance art galleries; if you want to know what life in Italy is like, come to an Italiano per stranieri class. In a beige high school classroom hung with curling maps and a portrait of the Virgin Mary, our Professore maintains a freewheeling grip on order, gently correcting errors, exhorting us to study our prepositions, and shouting down students who get unruly. Most of us want to be there and are eager to learn, but for some, attending class is mandatory, and they make their disgruntledness quite known. The students hail from all over the world: Ukraine, Hungary, Burkina Faso, Dominica, the Philippines. Some are here temporarily, privileged to be living in Italy as students or working at the Slow Food headquarters. Others are here only out of necessity. “Hey, you’re from Chicago?” said the Albanian student. “I like Chicago, I like the United States! Except they kicked me out, so now I am here in Italy and the people are not friendly.”
Assuming you make it through the sign-up process (it took me 3 attempts to register for class, which is fewer than the poor woman behind me who was on her 6th try), this class will be the best thing you can do to formally learn Italian. Or not. I tested into the second level, so my comments here pertain only to that class.
This is a weed-out class. No joke. We started off with a full room of 20+ students and have now dropped to a core group of about seven regulars. Since starting in mid-September, we have gone through about 16 chapters of Grammatica practica della lingua italiana. It is a whirlwind pace to learn a language, and I thrive on that kind of pressure. I also had a stronger foundation to build on than most people, since a lot of this is review for me.
Part of the problem is that the bar for testing into the 2nd level class is low. I think that many of the drop-outs would have been better off if they had instead been placed in the 1st level class (where it is assumed that you know no Italian at all). So choose wisely. By the way, all classes are conducted entirely in Italian, the registration process is in Italian, and even if you don’t know a word of Italian, you still have to take the placement exam. Welcome to Italy.
Back to the surviving members of the level two class. From the beginning, it was clear that there are two types of students in the class: those who have great oral fluency but little formal training (immigrants), and recent arrivals who might not be as fluent but have a better grasp of the linguistic syntax (UNISG students). Though the immigrants were rather bored at the start of the year, we have now advanced to a level where everyone is confused.
The best part about learning Italian in Italy is the cultural currency that comes with it. For one particular exercise, I was able to fill in the correct indirect pronouns, but I still couldn’t figure out what holiday involved “children finding a sock filled with sweets.” Turns out, this is in reference to Epiphany. In the chapter on adjectives, there was a playful description of the regional stereotypes in Italy, where the people of Genoa were described as being “greedy as Scots,” and Milanese were “always hurried” and “rather arrogant.” Finally, there was a fun evening where il Prof went through a select few curse words, warning us that Italians are prone to smiling broadly as they swear at you.
Perhaps next time there is a rude interruption in class, I ought to be shouting, “Vai a farti fottere!”