Tongue tied in Italy

It is always a challenge for non native speakers of any language to learn and assimilate into a new country but Italy has its own particular surprises reserved for struggling expats.

  COSI language collage

Before moving to Italy permanently I thought I was quite savvy with my Italian. After all I had almost majored in Italian, lived in Bologna and did the usual Florentine study thing. Heck it would be a breeze. I’m Italo Australian for god’s sake, how hard could it be to become fluent? A few more months of should do it, right?

Man, I was never so wrong about anything in my life. I soon discovered, Sicily isn’t like the rest of Italy, it is another planet.

Sicilian’s don’t know how to handle foreigners trying to learn their language, they will pretend not to understand you, furrow their brows, pick your accent, painfully point out your terribly foreign sounding voice and try to charge you the triple price.

A world away from my beloved ‘Firenze.’ I remember one time in Florence while ordering an iced tea drink, I accidentally said I wanted a ‘pesce’ (fish) flavour instead of pesca (peach)! I got a strange look from the barista but the charming Florentine smiled and corrected my mistake in the nicest way. He said I shouldn’t lose heart and told me if it wasn’t for the mistake with the words he wouldn’t have picked me for a foreigner at all *gush*.
Meanwhile in Sicily when I open my mouth it’s:
‘You’re not from here are you?’ After the first syllable.

There are Sicilians who are dipped in a thick syrupy dialect. Most people have grown up speaking their local tongue at home and look at you strangely as you speak Italian to them. If you think learning Italian is going to be difficult, going all feral and trying to learn a dialect is nearly impossible, it takes years of practice to speak a dialect well and it helps if you’ve been born speaking it too 😉

So how did I handle my first moments of living in Italy full-time? Very awkwardly and shyly. At first, I didn’t speak too much, thank goodness hand gestures are big in Italy. Then one day I just told myself to stop being a big baby and stop caring about making mistakes. Even native Italians aren’t perfect while speaking ‘proper’ Italian and if the only thing they can say is I’m a foreigner well, then that really is the truth and why should it bother me so much. So that’s been my attitude until this day and it seems to work fine.

The one thing bothers me still is the lack of actual Italian lessons I’ve taken while living in Italy, which is none. So in a vain attempt at perfecting my Italian I searched out courses for foreigners, the closest school was at Taormina and now there is another place at Cefalù but both are terribly far away from me and expensive.

Taormina art studios

I thought about going back to University and enquired at the language faculty at the University of Messina. I wanted to study Italian as a second language and perhaps pick up French or another European language. It was an ambitious idea, but surprisingly enough even if the course was taught in Italian they didn’t offer Italian as a second language. So I’d be doing everything in Italian and studying English, French and German. It wasn’t going to work for me!

This left me with the long hard old school of language learning known as ‘total emersion.’ I had a basic grammatical foundation so I spoke only Italian, watched t.v and as a workout made my way through the convoluted journo-speak of Italian newspapers.

Now after twelve years of living, working and interacting with Italy I can say I am a fluent speaker but I still feel insecure as I lack a certain level of academic or intellectual polish. I’d love to write in Italian but I am lost when it comes to the conditional tense which is used to express opinions, wishes and hypothetical ideas. Those pesky reflexive verbs give me the creeps as do feminine and masculine word endings and other tricky stuff which doesn’t exist in English.

Santo Stefano Ceramics

I’m trapped in the present tense and simple past participles as my grammar is very basic. It’s enough to get by and understand the world around me but I hope to study more to wrestle this monster that is Italian language.

Not to mention what it’s doing to my English! I often reverse my syntax and it seems I’m inventing my own personal dialect. When I can’t think of the word in English I will throw in an Italian one into the mix. I think I may be accidentally teaching my young son pigeon.

My son has begun to attend school here so I can always learn Italian with him as Italian school children study truckloads of grammar. Most high schools who are geared to preparing students for university do Latin, which is like the ultimate grammatical workout for Romance languages. Could I go back to High School? Hmmm, perhaps I should simply invest in an online language course!

One thing is for certain, you never truly finish learning a language and there are no secrets to it, you simply need to dive in or else you will lose your independence.

And above all ‘Nil carborundum illegitimi’ (Don’t let the bastards get you down) as everyone has their own special way of acquiring language it’s an individual journey, enjoy it!







19 thoughts on “Tongue tied in Italy

  1. Deciding to make mistakes is so liberating. I’m not in Italy yet but I’ve begun meeting up with an Italian to practice and I find that being corrected actually helps me to remember things more easily.


  2. “Gutta cavat lapidem non vi sed saepe cadendo” or a water drop hollows a stone not by force, but by falling often. You just need to consistently speak the language and you will learn it, am not sure how a course could help at this point. You would just get bored…. I learnt English thanks to my bf, correcting me at every mistake I make, I still have trouble with bring or take and some other stuff, but hearing the corrections over and over will make me learn at some point. And don’t be discouraged, Italian grammar is complicated, much more than the English one, am sure you’re doing just fine!

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  3. “Sicilian’s don’t know how to handle foreigners trying to learn their language, they will pretend not to understand you, furrow their brows, pick your accent, painfully point out your terribly foreign sounding voice and try to charge you triple price.” wow this stuck with me, I give you 100% kudos for even attempting to learn Sicilian and I’ve always wondered what the culture shock might be like moving somewhere like Sicily after Florence, do you ever come back and visit?

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    1. Sicily is a real hard nut to crack, not for the faint hearted! Thanks for the kudos as Sicilian’s aren’t great with compliments either 😉 You can pick up any dialect if you mix with the locals 24/7 for many years. I haven’t been to Florence for years but it’s my favourite Italian city, even if I dislike all of those tourists (perhaps I’m become Sicilian after all!?!) If I ever get the chance I’d love to spend more time in my beloved Firenze I have many fond memories!


      1. My bosses at Italy Magazine reside in Sicily and they tell me some stories about life there as well, it’s fascinating if I’m honest. I need to make it over there myself! If you do come to Florence, we absolutely have to get together, I live in the oltrarno which is at least a little bit of a breath away from the craziness that is piazza duomo!


      2. It must be awesome to work for Italy Magazine, I was really please to see they are ‘following’ me on Twitter (no doubt thanks to you). Yes Sicily is a totally different experience to the rest of Italy, a lot of African and middle eastern influences all over from the cuisine to the culture, truly fascinating! If I ever get back to Florence, I’ll let you know. The last time I was living in Firenze I stayed at a wonderful palazzo on the other side of the Porta Romana near the Boboli Gardens which was owned by two brothers, one was a film director and they had many guests coming through, the final week I was there a ballet troupe took over the whole villa! Che bello Firenze, amo tutti quelli artisti!


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