How I Learned Conversational Italian in Less than a Year (as a normal person)

In this post, I’ll describe how I learned conversational Italian in less than a year as a normal, unremarkable learner. My lessons-learned could apply to language learning in general, not just those who want to learn Italian.

picture of me with Italian friends in Cefalu

Making friends in Sicily

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Jump to section:

  1. Introduction
  2. My learning timeline
  3. How you can learn Italian
  4. Warning about Italian accents and dialects
  5. Fun stories thanks to language learning

Learning Italian – Introduction

I am not gifted with languages. Hell – I’m not gifted in most things. I am, at least I hope, a normal person. Everything I’m even slightly good at (mountain biking, guitar, Italian, forgetting umbrellas places, over-analyzing most things), I had to work pretty hard at. If you are reading this in search of quick entertainment from some freak of nature polyglot who claims to have learned a language in 30 days, you’ve come to the wrong place. This post is for the rest of us. I want to give you advice you can actually put into action yourself. 

I’m 31 years old. 3 years ago, I spoke one language. I grew up, as most people in the United States do, with one language spoken at home. A few years of mandatory, half-assed Spanish in middle and high school, and a few episodes of Dora the Explorer, and I had just enough to annoy the staff at the local Mexican restaurant with. I think most people in the US can relate. If English was good enough for Jesus, it was good enough for me.

If you’re on the fence about learning a language, I can’t express enough how valuable it has been for me. In my year-and-a-half in Italy, my knowledge of Italian [and Spanish] gave way to experiences and friendships that I will never forget. From meeting online Italian teachers-turned-friends in person, talking to Italian shop owners, connecting with distant family, fellow travelers who don’t speak English, and more – it’s truly been a world-opening experience. 

Staff at Trattoria del Cavaliere taking picture with me
The staff at Trattoria del Cavaliere in Catania was a friendly bunch. The manager (in white) looked like a friend back in the U.S. so we wanted to take a picture with him. All in Italian.

My Language-Learning Timeline

Here’s the timeline of my language learning adventure. It didn’t start with learning Italian, but Spanish.

December 2020

I had just passed the Professional Engineering exam. 6 months of studying during lockdown gave way to a void – now what? With no end in sight for much of a real social life, I decided to embrace an ambient desire that I had been suppressing for a while – learning Spanish.

Being clueless as to where to start – I started Duolingo Spanish, in addition to listening to some podcasts (specifically Coffee Break Spanish – more on this later). Knowing that this wouldn’t be sufficient for conversation, I got creative.

I play gypsy jazz guitar, also known as jazz manouche. It’s pretty niche and obscure (i.e. very few people like it), and has some unusual technique involved. The people who discover it are usually pretty intrigued. Knowing this, I went on the gypsy jazz subreddit and made a post, asking if there were any native Spanish speakers out there would be willing to give me basic Spanish lessons in exchange for gypsy jazz guitar lessons – over video. One guy in Chile went for it, and we did a few lessons over the course of a couple months. His interest fizzled out, and he admitted he didn’t have enough teaching expertise to teach someone at my very low level of Spanish. So that was that.

I had still made some progress though, especially with Duolingo. But it was deceiving.

“Look at me. A 70 day streak. 8,000 XP. Send me to Sinaloa – I’m ready!”

Cut to me in a Mexican grocery store in my hometown asking the guy behind the counter in Spanish why there’s no Valentina’s hot sauce on the shelf. He gave me a very thorough response. I walked away still not knowing why there was no Valentina’s hot sauce on the shelf, but with a new understanding that people in real life talk faster and differently than Duolingo led me to believe.

I was bummed, but had taken some critical steps and was ready to move on to other modes of teaching.

February 2021

A bit of Googling and research into ways of learning a language online and I discovered a website for taking online lessons. I found a teacher from Argentina, Sofia. Now, several people told me to avoid a teacher from Argentina, which has a very particular accent with respect to the rest of the Spanish-speaking world. Being more drawn to particular accents and going off the beaten path, I was more intrigued by this. Even if it meant someone from Spain would judge me for pronouncing it “como te shamas?” I wanted to do it, because it was different.

Anyway, I did a trial lesson with Sofia, and we clicked. I continued with 1 hour conversational video lessons about 3 times per week. We went over grammar, vocabulary, common phrases, etc. Almost 3 years later, and we are still doing lessons over video, and I consider her one of my best friends that I’ve never met in person.

In addition to the video lessons, I kept with Duolingo and supplemented with flash cards.

Planning a trip to Italy and looking for recommendations? I’ve got them here!

July 2021

I’m in New England visiting extended family. Around a family dinner, as Italian-Americans do, we were talking about our relatives. We were also talking about the possibility of us getting Italian citizenship through our ancestry. I learned about this possibility about 2 years before, but now my cousin Mike and I were casually talking about going to Italy (I had never been) for a vacation, and maybe exploring the citizenship a bit more.

August 2021

Mike and I go to Italy. My first time, his second. I heard Italian spoken in person for the first time in my life at the Boston airport. The trip was incredible – Rome, Amalfi Coast, and the town our ancestors came from. I was in love. A little more research, and I learned that I could expedite the citizenship process by living in Italy and doing the process there. You can read more of this story here. I became infected with the idea of moving to Italy.

My knowledge of Italian at this point: “grazie”, “ciao”, and “dov’è il bagno?”

Picture of me and cousin Mike on the Amalfi Coast
Mike and me on the Path of the Gods on the Amalfi Coast (see my Amalfi Coast recommendations here).

October 2021 – Learning Italian Begins

The decision was made to move to Italy. I started Duolingo Italian and online Italian lessons with a few teachers. Learning two romance languages (Italian and Spanish) at the same time wasn’t going to amount to anything, so I had to put Spanish on pause to focus on just Italian. For the next 5 months, I did 3 one-on-one conversation lessons per week, plus flash cards for learning vocabulary and verb conjugations, and Duolingo every day. Plus a few Italian shows, movies, podcasts, and YouTube channels.

March 2022

I move to Italy. The prior 5 months of study, mainly the one-on-one video lessons, gave me a huge head start. I began my Italian life. I was living in a small town for about 5 months. Only a handful of people in town spoke English, which was great for accelerating my learning.

Technically, at this point, after only 5 months of study, I was conversational – but at a very basic level.

As one would expect, being immersed accelerated my learning, specifically speaking and listening comprehension.

July 2022

As the months went on – I’ll be honest. I got lazy. “I’m speaking Italian every day – do I really need to be spending this time and money on lessons?” So I tapered off on the lessons. But I realized that I was plateauing. If I was in a group of Italians all speaking at their normal pace, in their regional accent or dialect, I was getting lost. I could communicate with an individual one-on-one easily, but in a group I didn’t want to slow anyone down so rather than asking someone to repeat themselves I would just stay quiet. Not ideal for learning.

Picture of me and downhill mountain biker Eleonora Farina
European downhill mountain bike champion Eleonora Farina and myself at Vale di Sole in 2022. She’s from the northern Italian region of Trentino-Alto Adige.

Continuing

While in Italy, I traveled to all 20 Italian regions. This was a great way to see how much the Italian language varies throughout the country (spoiler alert – it’s a ton). This gave me some great perspective.

Check out my Essential Italy Travel resources, including where to buy train tickets, book hotels, and more here.

After about a year in Italy with some time in between back in the states, I decided to pick back up on doing lessons. So I’m back in the learning state. Still probably learning at a pace slower than when I started, but progress is better than perfection. That’s where I am as of this writing.

Oh and for the Spanish – I picked back up doing about one lesson per week. It’s not so much to learn, but simply to not lose what I had. Shoutout to Sofia for putting up with my Span-taliano that I now subject her to every week.

How You Can Learn Italian (or Any Language)

Let’s get this out of the way: I am not a professional teacher. I am not qualified to teach languages, I am not a linguist, nor did I study languages at a university level. I am a mechanical engineer who happened to pick up an interest in languages in his late 20s. My recommendations below worked for me – your results may vary.

Now that I’m an American who’s lived abroad, this is the part where I say, “You have to immerse yourself. You need to move to another country and speak with locals every day.”

Guess what – most people aren’t in a position to move to another country for the purposes of learning a language. And I’m sorry, but a 10 day vacation won’t get you conversational either (though it will give you some great exposure and perspective). That said, if you are looking to locate to or just vacation in Italy and need help planning from someone who’s seen more of Italy than most Italians, feel free to contact me here.

Let’s assume you are not living in Italy and want to learn Italian. How do you do it?

The Recipe for Learning Italian

Phase 1

Start with Duolingo

Language learning snobs like to frown on Duolingo, saying it’s too slow, basic, gamified, and elementary for real language learning. And it is all of those things. But I do think Duolingo is good for a few reasons. One – it’s a great way to learn vocabulary especially at the start. Due to it’s gamified nature, it’s kind of fun, and gives you a confidence boost. Second, as you continue learning and eventually lose motivation at times, it’s a good way to move the needle forward, even if ever so slightly, every day. Just have reasonable expectations for it and know that it’s just one small piece of the puzzle. I have always used the free version.

Cost: Free

Duration: 1-2 months at least (recommended you continue more for reasons mentioned above)

Picture of me on my phone in a subway

Optional alternative/supplement to Duolingo: Babbel

Babbel is another platform that I used to learn Italian. It’s a bit more structured and academic than Duolingo, but it’s not free. I would recommend if if you can afford it. You can at least try it for three months for free if you sign up with my referral link here.

Listen to a Podcast

You should also listen to a podcast – specifically, Coffee Break Italian. They teach Italian at the most basic of levels, and in short 10-15 minutes episodes (short enough to listen to on a coffee break – cute, right?), so it’s not overwhelming. I’m sure there are many others out there. The “Coffee Break” team in fact has the same format for Spanish, French, and a few other languages.

I don’t listen to CBI much these days because it is a lot of English that they speak on the podcast. Great for beginners though.

Cost: Free

Duration: 1-2 months at least (recommended you continue as long as it’s entertaining)

Follow a YouTube channel

Specifically, Easy Italian. These folks do a great job. It’s a combination of specific topic lessons as well as just interviewing Italians on the street about various topics of interest. All videos have both Italian and English subtitles, and the hosts speak at a reasonable pace. See also: Easy French, Easy Spanish, Easy German, and more.

Cost: Free

Duration: 1-2 months at least (recommended you continue as long as it’s entertaining)

Phase 2

Take live online video lessons.

Live, one-on-one video lessons were an absolute game changer for me while learning Italian (and Spanish). As mentioned before, I’m a big fan of italki (link). italki is simply a website/app where casual, amateur, and professional teachers can provide video lessons for an hourly rate determined by them. You can filter by language, level, qualification, and where the teacher is from (this is especially important for Spanish as country-specific accents and vocabulary vary quite a lot).

Find a teacher for almost any language on italki here!

italki logo

If you can find a teacher who will start with you from square one, you can start lessons right away. For most people, I would start this after 1-2 months of Duolingo and Coffee Break Italian. It’s important to find a teacher that you click with. They may turn into a friend that you meet in person! Global connections – I love it.

Cost: Depends on teacher – starts at around $10 per hour

Duration: at least a year (but keep going)

picture of Giada and me in front of Milan Duomo
I met my teacher, Giada, in Milan! (Warning teachers are shorter than they may appear in video – and students taller). Giada is a fun teacher – you can find her on Instagram here.
Watch Shows or Movies in Italian

People throw out this recommendation all the time. Take it from me: if the show sucks and you don’t enjoy it, this will feel like homework. You want to enjoy the learning, so don’t watch something that isn’t entertaining to you. 

There are two versions of this. One is to watch a show you’re very familiar with, originally in English, but watch it dubbed in Italian. The second is to watch a show/movie which is originally in Italian, with English subtitles. 

With content originally in Italian – you need to be careful here. Italy has some very diverse regional accents, dialects, and languages. In a show like Gomorrah (which is phenomenal), the actors speak almost exclusively Neapolitan, which has some similarities to Italian but is in fact it’s own language (despite HBO calling it “Italian”). Italians outside of the region of Campania usually cannot understand Neapolitan. As much as I love the Neapolitan language, it’s not a great starting place for learning Italian. There’s a show I like on Netflix, a short rom-com miniseries, called Generation 56K. Yes, it’s also filmed in Naples and the actors speak some Neapolitan but mostly Italian with a Neapolitan accent. It’s a great, light, and funny series. 

Procida Italy Travel Tips
The island of Procida, in the province of Naples, was one of the settings in the series Generation 56K. The natives here speak Neapolitan.

Note: Netflix, especially Netflix original content, has the best selection and most thorough of shows with audio (dubbing) and subtitles in other languages. For example, Money Heist. 

Cost: the cost of a Netflix subscription

Duration: Don’t stop.

Conversation Exchanges

When you’ve gotten to the point where you are conversational, you’ll want to maintain it. If you’re not living in Italy, you need to find a way to keep the conversation going. Conversationexchange.com is a great place to meet other people who want to learn your native language, while you want to learn theirs. It’s a free platform, so don’t let the 2003 web design aesthetic turn you off. While a bit dated, the site is super easy to use. You can find people with similar interests and goals, and set up ways to speak with them (video, email, etc.). Like italki lessons, it’s a great way to make a friend on another continent.

Cost: Free

Duration: at least a year, but keep going

Results

After a year of following my recommendations above, you should be conversational in Italian. 

Warning about Italian accents and dialects

There’s a joke that Italian is the most widely spread foreign language in Italy. Italy unified in 1861 and prior to that was made up of a bunch of smaller nation states who all had their own languages. The Tuscan dialect was chosen as “Italian”, which was then taught throughout Italy in schools (this is a very abbreviated version of this history, FYI). If you spend any time in Italy today, you’ll still see very strong regional accents, dialects, and in some cases separate languages (for example Neapolitan). So much so that towns 5 miles apart can have different dialects. 

An extreme example of this (shoutout to my friend Martina for this insider information) – natives of Monte di Procida, a Naples suburb, can tell by someone’s accent that they are from nearby Bacoli. If that doesn’t blow your mind, you should see a doctor.

Trattoria Altri Tempi Menu
Menu at Altri Tempi in Palermo, Sicily. They have three menus here: one in English, one in Italian, and one in Sicilian dialect.

Why am I telling you this?

Because most people in Italy don’t speak neutral Italian. The clean educational version of Italian, whether from podcasts or apps, doesn’t really exist. You can only expose yourself to all of the true variation if you’re in Italy. 

If you’re learning Italian without living in Italy – try to expose your ears to as much variation as possible. Watch shows with actors from all over Italy (but be mindful of whether or not they’re speaking Italian with an accent, or another language like Neapolitan – see above: Gomorrah). If you can, after about 6 months of video lessons with a teacher, get a second teacher from a different region. Preferably one from the north and one from the south. Ask your teachers to speak in their natural accents with you. 

The more you can get accustomed to hearing the way people actually speak, the more you will actually follow along in conversations with native Italians.

Fun stories thanks to language learning

As I mentioned before, learning Italian and Spanish have given way to opportunities and experiences that I’ll never forget. Here’s a few of the highlights. 

Connecting with ancestors

Talking with locals about their culture and their lives in their native language is the single best way to connect. If you happen to have Italian ancestry, you can leverage this even further if you learn Italian.

My first time to Italy was in September 2021 with my cousin Mike. We went to our ancestral town near Salerno, where our great-grandparents lived over 100 years ago. Not only did we want to explore our roots, but we also wanted to get some documents that we would need for our path to Italian citizenship (if you’re interested in learning about doing this yourself, read this). I’ll keep the story brief, but it was an incredible day of meeting distant relatives, the mayor, and other overwhelmingly-gracious people in the town. We were lucky enough to have two English speakers in the town who could translate for us – without them, the whole day would not have happened.

Fast-forward about a year, and I went back to our ancestral town. This time with my dad and aunt, so they could see where their grandparents came from. At this point, I was the translator. I was able to converse and translate well enough with the locals. After they showed us the town cemetery where our distant-distant relatives could be found and the house my great-grandfather grew up in, we were invited into their homes for coffee and gelato. Language-wise, it wasn’t seamless. I still struggled at times, and the thick regional accents made it more challenging – but compared to the year prior, I was satisfied.

Not only will locals appreciate that you have put forth the effort to learn their language, they will be more excited to share other parts of their culture with you.

Making new friends

Me playing foosball in Florence with a group of fellow travelers
Foosball in Florence at a conversation exchange meetup event

While on my gap year in Italy, I was at a train station in Pisa going back to Florence. I was one of a few people waiting on the platform and suspected I was about to get on the wrong train because the train tracking app and the train status board at the station disagreed (this happens, FYI). I asked a woman near me in Italian if this platform was for the train going back to Florence. She didn’t speak any Italian, or English, and it turns out she was from Argentina and spoke only Spanish. Being excited by the challenge and testing my limited Spanish, I got my train question resolved.

We chatted a bit on the train back to Florence. We connected over the fact that I speak Spanish with a slight Argentinian accent, and we were both traveling solo. She seemed cool, friendly, and normal, so I sheepishly asked if she wanted to get dinner back in Florence to which she agreed. We had a lot of fun conversing over dinner, despite me saying “can you say that again but a little slower?” more times than I would have liked, but it ultimately added to the fun.

Anyway, dinner in Florence turned into a weekend in Venice with my new friend, Carolina, where we met up with another friend of mine, Sara, who lived on the island and gave us a tour around the canals on her boat. Sara speaks Italian and French natively, plus English and Spanish fluently – thank god (but also, you’re making us all look bad, Sara). That night, Sara was finishing up a jazz vocals course that she was teaching, and she invited me to bring my guitar and play some songs with a piano player for her students to sing their “final project” songs.

Venice at night
If you haven’t gone to Venice yet, you need to. Especially at night. Check out my recommendations here.

So with Sara, Carolina, and a room full of strangers, we played some swing tunes in a beautiful apartment overlooking the canals. Then we all went to a great Venetian restaurant, and after more than enough squid-ink risotto we played music in the restaurant with a couple guitars until they kicked us out. While we were in the middle of a song, I had one of those moments – you know – when I looked around and thought, “what the hell am I doing?”

What should have been a dream was in fact a very real, incredible experience. This all happened because I was willing to test my far-from-perfect Spanish with a stranger at the train station (and because I met awesome people). 

That’s All For Now

While learning a language, especially while traveling, you come across some truly gifted people who know 8 languages and seem to have picked up a 9th since you met them 2 days ago. Admire, compliment, be impressed, ask questions, but don’t beat yourself for not being at their level.

I’ve accepted that I’m a slow learner with most things. I’m learning (it’s an uphill battle) to compare myself to my past self, not others, as much as possible. The “me” that went to my ancestral town in Italy in September 2021 couldn’t speak to anybody except two people who also spoke English. A year later, I could not only talk with the people in the town, but I could share and extend the moment to my dad and his sister so that they could experience long-lost familial connections in a way that none of us expected to ever happen.

Language learning is like exercise. The best exercise is the one that you actually do and continue doing. Just keep at it, even if slowly. Progress is more important than perfection. That’s it. It will pay off – I promise. 

I sincerely hope you found value in this article.  If you have recommendations of your own or have suggestions on what else you would like to see covered here, please write in the comments below. Additionally, if you’re planning a trip to Italy and need one-on-one support or guidance, check out my services page where you can get in touch with me.

4 thoughts on “How I Learned Conversational Italian in Less than a Year (as a normal person)”

  1. You are truly an inspiration, Anthony! So proud of you and the bravery and courage you exhibit every day in learning and continuing to become the best version of yourself and at such a young age! You truly should be so proud of yourself and I know your entire family is as well. And so am I! What a pleasure to read about your adventures! I’ll look forward to the next blog!

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