What are you dreaming of for your study abroad trip to Italy?
Invigorating lectures on art history punctuated by conversation over well-made espresso shots with your fellow students?
Delicious food and wine?
A bit of romance with a striking Italian you meet in the university library?
That’s all well and good, but if you don’t know what you’re doing, the Italian press may just run a snarky piece about your misadventures, as it did with these two American students who set fire to their kitchen because they didn’t know how to make pasta (tip: add water).
You, of course, can do better.
I’ve lived through multiple study abroad trips myself, and can assure you that some personalized prep goes a long way towards making sure you have the background, language skills and awareness to come away from the experience with more knowledge and great stories.
Ready for Your Study Abroad Adventure in Italy? 8 Pro Tips
Language Preparation for Study Abroad in Italy
Either way, your language skills aren’t necessarily up to snuff for living and studying in Italy. To get there, I strongly suggest a thorough and honest self-assessment of the areas below, and then taking action in the month or two before your trip (at least!) to improve specific skills.
1. Learn informal spoken Italian.
It’s one thing to be able to regurgitate pristine Italian grammar in an exam, and quite another to understand a joke. You’re going to want to be able to communicate with your fellow students, right? Do you understand their slang? Their text message abbreviations?
2. Learn Italian for getting around.
If you’re not planning on taking the opportunity of your study abroad to also hop on a train and bounce around Italy a bit, you’re completely out of your mind.
Whether it’s before or after a semester, or just a weekend break, you’re going to want to see as much of the country as you can. Do you have the useful (nay, necessary!) phrases down, like for ordering train tickets and finding your seat?
3. Learn Italian for bureaucracy.
Hopefully, your study program spares you from the brunt of this. But Italian bureaucracy, especially in universities, is a nightmare. Do you understand not just the procedures you’ll need to go through, but the names of specific documents that you’ll be asked for and what equivalents are acceptable for a non-Italian? Do you know how to haggle and plead, politely?
4. Learn Italian for your subject areas and interests.
It’s common to go to Italy for specific subject areas, especially art history. Do you know the vocabulary for your subject area and interests in Italian? For example, you might need the Italian names for the artistic movements you’ll study, common Italian phrases and adjectives for responding to art and the ways that Italians pronounce the names of famous artists.
Also, do you have specific interests like cooking, skiing or dancing? You’ll want to keep doing those things in Italy, so make sure you have the vocabulary to discuss them!
5. Study up on local languages, accents and knowledge.
It’s great if you already speak some Italian, and it’s almost exclusively the language of universities. But there are of course dozens of other languages in Italy, some of them nearly dead, some very much in active use, including by young people. These may be referred to as dialects by Italians for purely political reasons, but they’re approximately as distinct from each other and from Italian as German is from English.
I’ve found that in some regions (e.g., Naples, Sicily), speaking even just a bit of the local language can be incredibly fun and goes a long way towards winning friends and jumping into adventures. Do be aware, however, that some people (especially older people with poor Italian) may think your efforts to communicate in their “dialect” are meant as mockery. I’ve found this to be something to be particularly aware of in Bari, to give one example.
6. Supercharge your skills with a killer study plan.
Now that you have a good handle on exactly what you need to improve about your Italian (or local languages), it’s easier to make an individualized study plan.
A great way to take on your particular challenges is with private online Italian lessons. These are readily available on italki, a service that gives you access to teachers with varying experience and interests.
You can choose teachers who come from the area where you’ll be studying, and who speak regional languages if that’s a goal. You may quite possibly be able to find a tutor who’s a student from the university where you’ll be studying, who can provide quite specific localized advice and practice (especially by choosing “teacher type: community tutors” when you run a search).
Another way to improve your Italian—and one that’s a lot more fun than university Italian classes—is by watching videos. Even better if you can find videos that match your language level and personal interests, and fortunately that’s exactly what happens on FluentU.
FluentU takes real-world videos—like movie trailers, music videos, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons. It’s a platform for regular Italian videos integrated with language learning, so you can retain and actually use what you learn once you find yourself in your Italian university.
Socializing with Your Fellow Students in Italy
You have two big things going for you if you’re hoping to socialize with Italians, in Italian. One, Italians are very chatty and flamboyantly social, as per their fame. Two, they tend to speak terrible English, and are more than happy to tolerate your shaky Italian instead.
This means that achieving an all-Italian life during your study abroad trip is yours for the taking. And yet, many (most?) students spoil their semesters abroad by speaking English and hanging out with other foreigners.
With a little strategic planning, you can do better.
7. Dive into student life in Italy (i.e., leave the campus!).
Don’t expect your Italian host university to be an all-consuming experience, as many American universities are. Italian students tend to just go to their universities for classes, and that’s about it. They often live at home with their families if they’re close enough, or else go back to their home family and friends on weekends.
That means that if you want to socialize with Italian students you need to take part in activities outside of the university, just as Italians do. This might mean hiking groups, drawing classes, swing dancing, whatever.
Here are some specific suggestions:
- Two good ways to find groups are Facebook and Meetup, although you’re just going to get initial contacts there and the information may not be up to date. Especially in the South, it pays to confirm (many times) that an announced activity will actually take place.
- Sports groups are also great if you’re into that; run a search for local associations for your favorite sport. University sports are quite marginalized in Italy compared to in the States.
- If you are, as is the case with many foreign students, studying in Bologna, check out the famous options for practicing languages at the Biblioteca Salaborsa, as well as the events organized there; Italians will be delighted to practice English and other languages with you. Other universities may host similar meetups, and you can always post a note on bulletin boards explaining that you’re looking for a language exchange.
If you meet people who are interested in practicing languages, you can suggest “Facciamo un tandem (let’s do a language exchange).”
- Finally, go to lots of rock shows in small bars. Local Italian rock/pop/jazz/whatever musicians tend to be amazing.
Be aware that however you meet people, Italians tend to initially be extremely friendly but then very unreliable compared to other cultures when it comes to follow-through on any promises to show up somewhere specific or hang out; this is particularly and infamously true in the South.
It’s best to make lots of plans as some will always fall through, and also to try to keep as laid-back of an attitude about these things as the Italians do themselves. Never be afraid to go to events on your own when Italians cancel on you at the last minute; you’ll likely meet someone interesting, anyway. Or if you must, invite a fellow foreigner or two to make it guaranteed that someone will show up.
8. Date your fellow Italian students, if you wish/dare.
The standard caveats apply: As usual, with any generalized cultural observations, the information below varies enormously by region and individual, and doesn’t describe everyone, but may be useful to foreign students trying to understand local behaviors:
- If you’re a woman and you want to meet Italian men, it’s pretty easy to strike up conversations: Just stand there for a moment. You may unfortunately get a lot of very rude attention but also, eventually, some nice guys. Make an effort to chat up the more reticent, and you’re more likely to be rewarded with a guy who’s not just talking to you because he thinks foreign women are “easy.”
- If you’re a man who would like to meet Italian women, Italian dating culture can seem to be the most frustrating and bewildering on the planet. Men are archetypally expected to be the “hunters,” and women are expected to at first flee male attention, even if they’re interested (but of course you shouldn’t assume that they are).
- If you’re interested in meeting people of your own gender, the above behaviors still apply somewhat. Also know that while Italy is rapidly becoming more tolerant, people still often expect homosexual romance to be less out in the open (as opposed to the vigorous displays of heterosexuality everywhere). Big cities and the North are broadly more accepting than small towns and the South.
Hopefully, this overview has gotten you motivated to put some effort into preparing for the social and language challenges that studying in Italy will bring.
Know that the rewards are likely just as enormous as you’re expecting, and can be even greater with just a bit of the right prep.
Mose Hayward regularly dispenses advice based on his years spent studying and then working throughout Europe. One such piece is on the best travel gear for study abroad.
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