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Trip Report Two weeks learning Italian in Florence - A Language School Review

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We are recently back from Italy, which included spending 2 weeks at an Italian Language School. When researching this part of our trip I found limited useful information in terms of reviews of language schools, so I thought I would post our experience and hope it is of some use to other Fodorites.

My daughters (aged 16 and 17) and I attended a 2 week beginners course at the ABC Language School in Florence (www.abcschool.com). None of us had any previous Italian language experience, so as total beginners we did not have to sit any placement tests. As background, we have some foreign language abilities between us, but not in Italian. I speak Afrikaans and studied German for 5 years at school. My elder daughter has a good command of French having studied it for 6 years and having gone on exchange to France. My younger daughter studied French at school for 1 year. We decided to attend a language course when my younger daughter chose Beginners Italian for her Higher School Certificate, and we wanted to make sure she enjoyed it before committing to it for 2 years.

Dealing with ABC via the internet was very easy, and once we had booked our course it was guaranteed to go ahead even if there were no other participants enrolled for that period. Our course was actually 9 days as our second day was a public holiday. We did not use the school’s accommodation facility, instead organised our own apartment (a wonderful apartment which I will review separately!!) just around the corner from the Duomo in the heart of Florence. It took us less than 10 minutes to walk to school each day.

CLASS STRUCTURE: Our classes ran Monday to Friday from 9am – 1pm with a 20 minute recess break in the middle. The first 2 hours of each day were grammar and after recess we had 2 hours of conversation classes. “M” was our grammar teacher every morning except for Wednesdays. We had a different stand-in teacher each Wednesday, but this was not a problem as it gave us access to slightly different teaching styles and accents. “L” took the conversation classes every day except for one day when she was sick. During the second week we also had a “student teacher” who was lovely. Generally we found the teachers spoke clearly and usually not too fast. One of the stand-in teachers spoke quicker and with a much “thicker” accent, and we found that more difficult on the days we had her, but we felt it was all part of learning a foreign language.

WHO WAS IN THE CLASS: The three of us (aged 16, 17 and mid 40s); an Australian girl (23) – she only attended the course for the first week; a Spanish girl (23 year old lawyer); a Somalian fellow (23) and an Eritrean fellow (25). We spoke no Italian; the Australian girl spoke no Italian but had an Italian boyfriend and had been in Italy about 3 weeks, so was exposed to the language at home and in social environments; the Spanish girl had no Italian but commented on the similarities between Spanish and Italian; the two fellows had been in Italy for about 8 months and seemed to have quite a good vocabulary, but poor grammar. In summary, that left the 3 of us starting at the bottom of the class. The common language between us all was ...... Italian.

WHAT DID WE LEARN: The pace of the class was fast and we covered a large amount in just 9 days!!! In grammar we covered: the alphabet and how to pronounce sounds; gender and plural rules for nouns and adjectives; conjugation of regular and irregular verbs; question words; adverbs; determinative and indeterminative articles; prepositions (with and without articles); reflexive verbs (all in present tense) ........ The conversation classes were mostly related to themes: ourselves; time; I like / don’t like; in the house; going shopping; food etc etc. The entire lesson was in Italian and if we did not understand anything, little drawings etc were used to aid understanding.

HOMEWORK: We had about 45 minutes to an hour’s homework set each day and double that at weekends (mostly grammar but often something related to our conversation classes as well). We felt the success of the course was related to the amount of effort we put in out of class and spent about 2.5 – 3 hours each day doing homework, consolidating what we had learned that day, and checking our homework amongst ourselves. Without this we would definitely have been lost as the Spanish girl and the two fellows were at a definite advantage over us in terms of vocabulary. We never did the grammar home work by just “applying the rules”; we always tried to understand each sentence we were working with, so our dictionaries were in constant use at homework time. (We had only taken one dictionary between us, but fortunately there was an English - Italian dictionary in the apartment!)

WHAT DID WE THINK? We all really enjoyed the course and feel we learned a lot in a short period of time, but all agree some “revision” or consolidation would have been good. Once we had covered a subject it was finished and not reviewed again, which we thought was surprising given the fast pace of the course.

The grammar teacher was quite loud and somewhat intimidating (scary was a word we sometimes used to describe her). She did not mean to be so, it was just her nature and I really don’t think she realised how scary it can be when an exercise is done in class and it is your turn to answer ..... you know the rules but don’t understand the vocab so don’t know what the sentence means ...... so you slowly work your way through it and she says “R your turn to answer” ..... and I answer in English “just give me a minute....” .... she says”R!!!!” .... I try to ignore it while I work out the answer ...... she says “R!!!!!!!!!!!” ........ by then I just give up and say “I don’t know!”. I know this is not true; I can work out the answer, but not as fast as she would like! There were days when my younger daughter and I felt close to tears in class (and I know the young Australian girl felt the same), and towards the end as it was getting harder I wondered whether I wanted to finish the class, but I DID (and am so pleased I did)! We coped with this in a few ways. Firstly, we knew grammar was only 2 hours of the day, and our conversation class teacher was a much calmer / gentle person, so we had that to look forward to. Secondly, we knew the grammar teacher was not mean spirited (just intimidating), and she was the first to encourage “Just try!!” and “Remember, you have only been doing this for 5 days, you cannot expect to know it all!” Thirdly, we used to laugh about it at home in the evenings, imitating her exclamations of “No stress!! No STRESS!!” (knowing full well we had in fact felt some stress that day). Lastly, my elder daughter has the greatest aptitude for languages and found similarities between French and English, (I think she was actually the star of the class), so we used to sit either side of her and she used to help us both in our times of need!

We were amazed at just how much we did learn. We found we could follow parts of overheard conversations on the street, we could often understand signs and labels, we travelled buying tickets, asking directions, shopping etc using our newly learned Italian! When we had arrived in Florence I tried to talk to our landlady who spoke no English, and she resolved the issue by calling her son on her mobile and letting him act as interpreter. By the time we left Florence two weeks later I was able to have a basic conversation with her and explain that we had not used one of the beds in the apartment and that the bedding was therefore still clean on that bed! She exclaimed in return “You speak Italian!”

After nearly 5 weeks in Italy we travelled to Budapest and felt so isolated not understanding any Hungarian, and often found ourselves saying “Grazie!” to the Hungarians. We realised then just how much Italian we had learned and how we had continued to use it in our further travels!

Towards the end of our course my younger daughter had serious doubts about continuing her Italian studies back at school. We explained that the pace would definitely be slower back at school, and that it would be taught from an English context. Well she eventually decided to “give it a go” and so far is enjoying it very much, feeling quite proud that she has already done some of the work. My elder daughter is starting university doing a double degree in Commerce and Arts, and is considering adding Italian to her French studies at university. I have been invited to join some ladies studying Italian at home and am weighing up whether to continue my Italian studies (which was never MY passion but something I did with my daughters), or whether to return to German and further my studies there. Either way, the course reignited my desire to speak a foreign language fluently.

HOW DID STUDYING FIT IN WITH SIGHTSEEING? The ABC Language school did offer after school activities in Italian (eg. a visit to the Uffizi etc), but we never participated in these activities, so we cannot comment on those. We felt we probably did not have enough language as beginners to get much out of these activities which were open to all students irrespective of their level of study, and also we enjoyed being able to “switch off” the brain for a while after school each day, and to be “just us girls” (hubby/father was joining us later in the trip). After school we used to hurry home for lunch and then spent a couple of hours visiting an art gallery, a church, shops, drinking hot chocolate etc etc. Then at about 4:30pm we would head home for homework time before cooking dinner and dropping into an exhausted sleep. (I knew we were making progress with Italian one night when one of my daughters started speaking Italian in her sleep!!) Also, we had arrived in Florence on a Friday, so we had 2 full weekends and a public holiday for longer sightseeing trips. We took the bus to Fiesole in the hills a couple of times; we went to Pisa for a day one weekend; we had a Friends of the Uffizi Pass so we could go in and out of galleries for relatively short periods of time; we climbed up to Piazzala Michelangelo one day, we attended an English church service in the Duomo one Sunday evening ...... I would say that we saw a lot of Florence and felt that we “lived the life” during our two weeks there. It was certainly the highlight of our 7 week trip to Europe!!!

I would definitely recommend such Italian classes to anyone trying to learn Italian. I think had we gone with some Italian to start with, it would have been even better (I could imagine doing something like this in German!) I imagine if my daughter had attended classes for say 4 – 6 weeks and had lived with an Italian family during this time, she could have been quite proficient in a short period of time.

When looking at language schools we had initially wanted to attend one in Orvieto, thinking the small nature of the town would have been ideal to practise our newly learned language in. However, as our dates were very close to Christmas this did not work out for us. We did however spend 5 days in Orvieto after our course, and whilst it is a lovely town, we were all SO glad we had been in Florence for 2 weeks. Florence was big enough to keep us amply occupied for two weeks, yet felt small enough staying in the old town to feel safe living alone. We really LOVED Florence and its people and the language school was a large part of that wonderful experience! It was definitely a “memory making time” and something I would consider doing again!! Please don’t let my descriptions of the grammar classes deter you from going to the ABC Language School. I have tried to be perfectly honest on this review, and even despite what may seem to be some “negatives”, I would definitely consider returning and doing a further course at the ABC Language School.

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