Should I Learn the Language?

Posted by Matthew Daub – Arts Sojourn

If you are taking the time to read this blog entry, perhaps you are contemplating a trip to Italy or one of the other European countries served by our Slow Travel Tour operators. You may be wondering, “Should I try to learn the language before I go?” This topic is frequently brought up on many of the internet travel community forums. While I can only speak from my own experience in Italy, my response to this question is, “Yes – if possible, try to pick up some language skills before traveling!“ Is it an absolute necessity? No, particularly if you will be part of a facilitated group or are heading for a region frequented by English speaking tourists, but a rudimentary understanding of a few basics can be most useful, not to mention fun!

I have always enjoyed using my Italian – some might say “inflicting” my Italian – even when my language skills were barely existent. I have found the Italian people to be most patient and generous when it comes to foreigners trying to communicate in their language. I believe that most Italians appreciate the effort and see it as a sign of respect for their culture, but there have been more than a few times when knowing some Italian has proven to be invaluable.

To speak Italian well is difficult, but to communicate some necessities on a basic level is not. My best recommendation would be to take a short class if you can find one in your area. My wife and I were able to find a six week class offered in a Catholic church through a local Italian social club. We ended up joining the club and becoming friends with our teacher and her husband. If you cannot find a class, a set of beginner’s CD’s can also be helpful. For those who are more ambitious, a more comprehensive series such as those offered by Rosetta Stone, or an actual semester in a university, or junior college class would provide excellent preparation, but this is certainly not needed for a first time traveler.

I once heard an American tourist in Liguria talking about the “Sing-Quay Tair-ay.“ I knew what she was talking about, but I wonder if many Italians would have. The most important thing is to practice your pronunciation. Once you learn pronunciation you will be able to ask directions and be understood by local non-English speakers.

Unlike English, Italian is consistent in its pronunciation. The vowels are constant, and once you learn them and the consonants, you can pretty much pronounce most Italian words like a pro (although the repeated rolling “R”s in Arqua Petrarcha, a little town in the Veneto, still give me fits). One of the tips I offer to my clients during our orientation session is to repeat the name of their desired destination in the form of a question to someone standing on the train platform to be sure that they are boarding the correct train. You don’t have to be a great linguist to understand the reply, “Si,” or “No!” Add to this the numbers and the days of the week, along with a few crucial expressions such as “Where is…?,” and “How much…?,” and words such as “bathroom” and you will be more than good to go. Although it may not be a necessity, a little language study before your journey can increase your confidence and greatly expand your possibilities for independence.


Matthew Daub is a professional artist and university professor with works in major public and private collections throughout the United States and Europe. He has been leading plein air painting workshops in Italy since 1994. In 1999, Matthew and his wife Barbara formed Arts Sojourn as “a vacation for artists and their friends.” The program is designed to appeal to artists of all levels as well as non-artists who enjoy the company of creative people in a slow travel format.

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