Living in Italy FAQ: Language Learning

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Every Monday I'll be adding a new post to our "Living in Italy FAQ" series. With a new baby in Casa Hash and very little time for personalized email responses, I'm answering the questions we get asked most often and archiving them on the site for future reference. Enjoy!

QUESTION: How is your Italian language coming along? My friend (a language instructor) suggests that there are monthly and yearly chunks of learning and that the real learning (true fluency) of a language takes about 3 years once immersed in it full-time. So, this is what we're expecting. But just wondering how you're faring in year two of your life in Italy. -Michelle G.

Your friend is definitely right, Michelle! There is no doubt that our Italian language skills progress in distinct "chunks" of time. We may learn a bunch of new stuff and then have a lull for a few weeks or months. 

It's important to talk about this idea of being "immersed in it full-time." Because neither Rob nor I are native Italian speakers, we are severely limited in our learning potential. Our friends that are part of an Italian/Foreigner couple typically learn much faster because they have a resident teacher to learn from.

We are out every single day in our neighborhood and in these familiar situations you could say we are "fluent." But, throw us into a new situation and we suddenly realize we have no vocabulary to express our needs. It seems to be at the worst moments that you realize you don't know the Italian words for very simple everyday objects, feelings and expressions. So, it's always a learning process -- just yesterday we realized that neither of us knew the word for knife. Nearly two years in Florence and neither of us have ever needed to say the word!

That being said, we are progressing. Being pregnant and having a baby here was a HUGE help. We were suddenly forced into situations that absolutely required us to speak Italian and it really helped both of us a lot. Want to talk about contractions, pain medication and hospitals? I'm your gal. Now, of course, we are in one of those "lulls" of learning. 

An interesting thing happens when you live here full-time and aren't a student or someone that can spend 6 hours a day in language class: you get fluent in the necessities for your everyday existance. Government offices? Check. Grocery shopping? Check. Shopping for baby items? Check. The power goes out in the apartment and we need to explain the problem over the phone? Not so much. But, live and learn (and have awesome friends you can call to help out!).

In the new year both of us will probably enroll in language class again. It's been a while and it's time to advance to the next stage of the language -- we've been existing mostly on present and past tense verbs (and there are about a million tenses left to learn). In the end, you just need to be patient with yourself and learn at a pace that is right for you, but also respectful to the culture in which you live.