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Studying Italian in Italy

Carol from CA (Carol M)

After 3 years of studying Italian on my own (from scratch) and taking courses at the Italian Cultural Institute in Los Angeles, I made plans in August 2001 to take a 3-week course in Italy.  My sister planned to accompany me, and we rented two places in Lucca, a cottage about 20 minutes' drive from town for the first week, and one in the historic center for the next two weeks.  Original plans had been to study in Siena, but we were frustrated in finding accommodations, so changed to Lucca.  Then came 9/11.  In the aftermath, my sister felt uncomfortable being out of the country, so I forged on by myself and arrived in Lucca on 9/27/01.

At the recommendation of an Italian-class friend in L.A., who had spent 5 weeks in Lucca in August and raved about the experience, I enrolled at Centro Koine (www.koinecenter.com) for 3 weeks.  The school is privately run and has a distinctive philosophy of language acquisition, very committed and professional teachers, and a varied student body, both in age and mother-tongue.  About 40% are European, 30% non-European but English mother tongue, and quite a variety of "other."  We had 4 hours of classes each weekday, and I signed up for 2 hours of private instruction each afternoon.  In retrospect, I think I pushed myself a little too hard, but more on that later.

The first morning, each student took a written test, completing as much as he/she could, and then had an interview with an instructor; then there was a walking orientation tour of Lucca and in the afternoon, a welcoming wine festina and an opportunity to meet other entering students.  At that time, we also found out where we had placed in terms of class level.  The entire spectrum of experience was well-represented from neophyte to impressive fluency.  Given my previous study, I placed in an intermediate class.  After the first week, I asked to join the next level up (glutton for punishment that I am!) for a greater challenge.  It was certainly that.

At Koine, the staff and teachers resolutely refuse to speak English except in an emergency and as a result, students find themselves speaking more Italian sooner than they would otherwise.  Speaking is my own particular weak point (grammar and vocab and reading much easier for me), and I benefited greatly from the structure and variety of activities in class, as stressful as it was.  The students come with different strengths and ways of learning as well as experience with the language, and I was both fascinated and impressed with how the range of class activities addressed and affirmed the learning process.  Lots of conversation, with partners, different partners, in contests, giving summaries of stories, etc.  Lots of listening, to songs, taped conversations, film clips, all very participatory, all very intensive but affirming. 

It's about time for me to admit that I am well over 50 years old and that I am in awe of how much faster much younger people acquire the language.  One of my motivations, indeed, is a belief that the brain is a kind of muscle that atrophies unless it is engaged in something challenging.  Another motivation was to enhance common ground with my son, who learned Italian during college and a half-year in Florence.  In school, I had courses in Latin, French, Spanish, and German, and I speak none of them now, although, curiously, in any first week in Italy when I am struggling to re-immerse, the words that come automatically to mind are French, which I learned at 21.  Weird?  At any rate, on that first trip to Lucca and Koine, I was determined to make great progress, obsessive about my mistakes, and frustrated to not be able to say the things I wanted to say.  It all hit the fan at the end of the second week, when I "lost it" at the end of my morning class, and was rescued by my private lesson teacher, who sat me down to watch Pane e Tulipani, one of the loveliest of romantic comedies, if you haven't seen it.  I then went back to my apartment and watched the Memorial Mass at the one-month anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, and cried my eyes out.  I then realized that I had never really absorbed the grief and shock and tension of those events.  After that day, I began to relax a little and really enjoyed the final week.

I think that one of the most interesting endorsements of the school is how many returning students they have.  I have since returned twice myself, at 6-month intervals, for 2 weeks each.  On the first return I took the 4-hour group classes, and on the second, 4-hour private lessons to pursue special interests.  My Italian is MUCH better now, but of course it's not easy to keep up the conversational facility here in L.A., a subject for another inquiry on Slow Traveler's Message Board.

In retrospect, I should have signed up for the homestay accommodation which the school arranges for my initial visit, but that was all fixed because of my sister's initial plans to come with me.  I should also, under the circumstances, have enrolled for just the classes, instead of the 2 extra hours of privates, 6 hours of intense study was over the top.  The second time, I did stay with a wonderful family and enjoyed it immensely.  The third time, an English friend and I rented an apartment together but saw Lucca friends all the time, so we spoke Italian most of the time.  The really challenging moments came during dinner parties where mutual friends were all talking at the same time, understood, as we do in our mother tongues, how the sentence would finish and started laughing in the middle of the punch line and using molto slang.  I may never get there, but it's become a lot more fun than it used to be.

We'd all like to speak Italian, I'm sure, but how much and how well is very much a personal choice.  No question that it enhances the experience of the culture, which is wonderful even without the language  It's important to know what one's own motivations are, how much time and effort one wants to take and what the desired goal is.  For me it has become a labor of love, but you can still hear the gears grinding.  Oh to be able to speak with sprezzatura! 

Koine has its headquarters in Florence and branches in Lucca, Bologna, Cortona, and Orbetello.  Check the website for details.  I highly recommend the experience.

My impression is that the fees for the school and especially for the accommodations are quite reasonable.  I have no other schools to compare it with but found the quality high and the level of enjoyment high amongst most of my fellow students.  All in all, three times great experiences.  And Lucca is wonderful.

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Slow Travel Italy - Trip Planning: Language Classes

Trip Report 293: Language School in Lucca, by Carol M from CA, Spring 2003

Two weeks in May - Attending the Centro Koine' in Lucca

Trip Report 454: Florence On My Own: Three Weeks of Studying Italian and Very Slow Travel, by Marian from New Jersey, Spring 2004

May 5-26 2004. Three weeks in Florence, staying in an apartment in the Oltr'arno and studying Italian at the Centro Koine.

Trip Report 679: A Student in Florence, by colleenk from MA, Spring 2004

I spent 17 days in Florence studying Italian at the Koine school for 2 weeks and then soaking up the beauty and culture of this fabulous city. This trip report has been edited from my blog.

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