Learning the Language of ITALY

Italian courses are easy to find in the United States. Just about every local college offers a class at night or on the weekends, and any independent language institute will certainly feature it on its brochure. Learning the basics before you come is a smart idea. Mastering the grammar should only take a few months, and then you’ll be free to improve your pronunciation and build your vocabulary by the time you arrive in Italy, rather than poring through lists of irregular verbs”something that could just as easily be done at home.

If you’re a college student and are considering a move to Italy after graduation, obviously the wisest option is to take a semester abroad in Italy. You may end up speaking a lot of English with your cohorts, but at least you’ll be surrounded by Italian-speakers for a few consecutive months. Italy remains the second most popular destinations for U.S. students abroad, after the United Kingdom (13 percent of all students abroad go to Italy, versus 15 percent in Britain.) It’s amazing how many of them fall in love with Florence or Rome on their junior year abroad and then decide to move back for good. That field is destined to grow as more students keep flowing in. In 1985, U.S. undergraduates studying in Italy numbered around 4,000. By 2010, there were about 32,000 of them at some 400 U.S. programs or in a curriculum of their own design.

TU AND LEI For English-speakers, the trickiest parts of mastering any Romance language are remembering a noun’s gender and deciding whether to use the formal or informal version of the pronoun you. The first distinction is pretty straightforward in Italian: Ninety-nine percent of the time, if the word ends in an a, it’s feminine; if it ends in an o, it’s masculine. The second dilemma is more difficult, because there are no hard-and-fast rules. It’s a social judgment, not a linguistic one, which means that the guidelines used in one generation may not be good for the next. For instance, in the past, it was always proper to use the formal lei to address your elders. That’s not necessarily the case today. Many of today’s elders, especially those who grew up in the 1960s, shudder at the formality and will insist that you address them as tu. Some of your friends’ parents, however, will have been brought up with a certain decorum at home, and will expect everyone but close friends to address them as lei. The safest bet is to err on the side of formality, then switch over to the informal if you get the green light.

Then there are nuances that have little to do with age or respect. The lei form is a convenient way to put distance between yourself and a person with whom you don’t want to be too familiar, especially in a business setting. Suppose you have a problem with something you bought, and you call customer support for assistance. An operator that genuinely wants to help you may switch to the informal right off the bat to establish a close rapport. If, on the other hand, you run into an operator who just wants to get you off the phone at all costs, expect a generous helping of polite distance. Another example: You walk into a restaurant when the kitchen is about to close. If you hear the tu form, there may be some room for negotiation, and the right smile and joke may get you a table. But if you hear a stern lei immediately, just say thank you and head for the door.

Two popular self-styled options are the universities for foreigners in Siena (www.unistrasi.it) and Perugia (www.unistrapg.it). Both offer three-month beginner courses in Italian, as well as more advanced programs. Both cost in the vicinity of ‚1,500. There are dozens of other institutes spread throughout Italy. Two examples are the Dante Alighieri Society ( www.dantealighieri.com) in Siena, and Lingua Due (linguadue.com) in Milan. Both offer two-, three-, and four-week courses for about ‚150 200 per week. A number of private U.S. companies also offer language courses in Italy. One of the more reputable is Education First (www.ef.com), based in Boston. It conducts both a year-abroad program and shorter-term classes at its school in Rome.

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