How to Learn Italian from Your Couch

May 27, 2015
How to Learn Italian from Your Couch

I’m fluent in Italian. It’s a very weird thing to say because I never feel worthy of the word ‘fluent.’ However if Italians tell you that you are, you probably are. And if your Italian fiancée delegates you tasks such as chasing after legal documents and opening your own bank account, all done in Italian, you probably are. The first time I came to Italy, I couldn’t speak a single word or understand anything beyond bella and gelato. It was traumatic and after a week of communicating with my future in-laws using hand gestures and smiling as if I had slept with a hanger in my mouth, I vowed to learn Italian as a second language.

Sure, you can get away with smiles and gestures, but how deep of a rapport can truly be achieved without the power of conversation?

I started six years ago, first by self-teaching. By self-teaching, I mean that I bought and read every single book on Italian available at the time and listened to the included CDs in my car on repeat. After I felt I had exhausted those options, I enrolled in a very casual, very basic Italian course as part of a continuing education program for adults (you know, the kind that retired people take before doing a Mediterranean cruise so that they can effectively order a gelato). The cherry on top were the three years of university classes which I took while I studied for my actual pharmacy degree. 

Don’t let this last detail scare you because according to my expat friends here in Italy, university classes are the last thing you need in order to learn a language.

I can’t stress enough that striving to learn Italian will not only enrich your experience in Italy, but it will completely turn it upside down. You’ll be able to get off the beaten path, cruise through untouched villages that most tourists can’t experience due to their lacking Italian skills.

Sure, you can get away with smiles and gestures, but how deep of a rapport can truly be achieved without the power of conversation? The Italians are incredibly accommodating and they appreciate any attempts at their beautiful language, so no need to feel afraid or embarrassed!

If you have the ability to do some formal lessons whether at college or through a community program, absolutely do it. But in the case that you don’t, here are 10 steps that will help you start preparing for your trip to Italy:

How to Learn Italian from Your Couch

1. Buy an Italian language book.

I highly recommend Italian for Dummies, a true classic, especially if you like how these books are formatted, as well as Living Language’s Ultimate Italian Advanced. Don’t be intimated by the “Advanced” because the latter is a completely comprehensive book with a CD set that can literally take you from no Italian to perfect Italian, and everything in between.

2. Make a schedule to get through the book, making time for daily review of what you’ve already learned.

This can be anything from setting aside 15 minutes to read a few new pages and 15 minutes to review what you learned the day before. Review is absolutely key to learning a language though so if you run out of time to learn something new, just make sure to do your review!

3. Listen to Italian every, single day.

This also sounds intimidating, but it’s so important to get used to the normal speed of the language, the sounds and the cadence. This can be achieved by either popping in a CD that came with your book or, as I prefer, using a radio app such as TuneIn Radio and streaming live radio direct from Italy. Even if you understand one word out of an hour program, don’t fret, it’s not about comprehension, it’s about getting a sense of the way Italian sounds.

Another way to accomplish this is to watch Italian movies with English subtitles or watch your favourite movies in Italian. For example, I could quote The Notebook, so I used to watch it in Italian and not need English subtitles because I knew the lines by heart. Often using CDs made specifically for language learners can be detrimental as they are often overly clear in their pronunciation and talk slower than normal speech would be.

How to Learn Italian from Your Couch.

4. Connect with native Italian speakers.

You could do this either in person or online. In-person options could mean finding a language exchange in your city, contacting the nearest college or university and seeing if they have any student conversation groups, or my personal favourite, checking out Meetup groups for Italian speakers that literally “meet-up” in your city. If you live in a smaller town, Skype language exchanges can be a great option. Some more popular sites include The Mixxer and Italki which allow you to connect and talk to native speakers using Skype.

5. Label everything around you.

My mom actually used this technique when she was learning Italian. Our entire house had stickys of Italian words, from the phone to the tables. Seeing the vocabulary every day helps to cement it in your memory. mJust make sure to also say the word out loud every time you see it. Or for example, everytime you use the phone and before you can actually make a call, say “telefono” under your breath.

6. Have conversations with yourself.

Not only should you find a language buddy, but talk to yourself at home. Try to decide on a topic or interaction and play both sides while speaking aloud. Successful language learners also tend to do this in the shower or while driving.

How to Learn Italian from Your Couch

7. Download Duolingo or Babbel (or both!).

These are both phone apps that help to teach a variety of languages through written and verbal exercises and they have both been tested personally by me. I still use them whenever I have a free minute or am waiting somewhere. Duolingo lets you set a daily goal, so set it, and meet it!

8. Pull an Elizabeth Gilbert and read one Italian article a day.

In her book Eat Pray Love, Gilbert mentions that she attempted to read one article in Italian every day while in Italy. Well, you don’t have to be in Italy to do this. Head over to Corriere della Sera and choose a short article. Then bust out your Italian-English dictionary. It will start out with you having to look up every, single darned word. But keep truckin’ and you’ll soon see that little by little, you’re having to look up less and less.

9. Check out The Iceberg Project

The Iceberg Project was created by Las Vegas-based Cher Hale who went on a study abroad to Italy, became obsessed with the language, and now dedicates herself to helping people learn it. She has a myriad of resources as well as inspiration to keep studying, including podcasts (one with yours truly!) of people who took their Italian from 0 to 100 in the blink of an eye.

10. Finally, book your trip.

I once had a language teacher say that people will only ever become fluent in a second-language for one of two reasons: love or survival. So you need to have a goal in mind- whether that’s for ‘surviving’ a trip to Italy or perhaps to find love with a sexy Italian?

In bocca al lupo ladies! (The colloquial phrase used for “good luck” in Italian that literally translates to ‘in the mouth of the wolf’. Quick language fact: don’t respond with “grazie”, the correct response is “crepi” which is like saying “here’s hoping the wolf dies”…aren’t languages interesting?!).

How to Learn Italian from Your Couch


Photo credit for How to Learn Italian from your couch by Jasmine Mah.

About Jasmine Mah

Jasmine is a former pharmacist, foodie, and fashionista from Alberta, Canada living the sweet life in Bergamo, Italy. A city girl with a country heart, she currently curates all things fabulous and Italian on her blog Questa Dolce Vita and enjoys drinking wine in her spare time.

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