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Episode #218: How hard is it to learn Italian?

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Ever thought about learning Italian but felt intimidated by the idea? Learning some Italian to enrich your experience on a trip to Italy might be easier than you might think. Deciding to start is the first step and, especially now, with so many tools at our fingertips, it can now be both accessible and enjoyable to pick up this beautiful language.

Show notes
In this episode, we talk to Monica Cazzamani Bona of Su Misura Italy (translates to ‘Bespoke Italy’) who offer tailor-made Italian classes that approach teaching Italian based on each individual. Originally from the Piedmont region of Italy, Monica now lives in Australia and having come late to her own language journey, is keen to encourage everyone not to be afraid and to certainly not use age as an excuse – with one of her clients recently starting their journey at 92 years old! Monica has kindly put together this mini guide for our Untold Italy listeneresto help you kickstart your Italian learning journey.

What you’ll learn in this episode

  1. Monica is from the Northern Italian region of Piemonte (Piedmont). She grew up in a tiny village, Govone, 1 hour from Torino (Turin). Her grandparents used to own the village shop and knew every customer by name. They had the shop for 50 years and now it is still running – but with a different family. Monica loved watching the connections that her grandparents had with their customers
  2. Monica moved to Australia in 2013. She is actually an architect, having studied that in Italy. She came to Australia with the idea of staying for maybe a year and learning English, as she couldn’t get work as an architect due to her English not being great. She started to do language exchanges with people there in Perth and she started to think that learning a language was not as difficult as she had thought
  3. With lots of practice and having someone very friendly to speak to made it an enjoyable journey for her and led her to start investigating more on how to learn a language
  4. Sharing the passion of learning another language became her major goal – beyond architecture. She studied a lot and then opened her little school, Sumisura Italy, in 2018
  5. Her intention is to give people a friendly guide who can help you learn a language like Monica did when she came to Australia – in a friendly and very relaxed way. A very different to the classic way of learning a language in schools
  6. She started by myself with one-on-one lessons in person, and then when things changed as COVID arrived, the school moved online and they are now a team of five
  7. Mainly, they do lessons one-on-one online. They have students from all over the world, sharing their love for the Italian language

Should learn some Italian before they arrive in Italy

  • When the Lonely Planet guides were big, Monica used to love them and use them when she traveled. They also had a section at the end with vocabulary and a few little sentences that are useful for your trip. So this has always been and still should be a part of each trip abroad to somewhere with a different language and will certainly enrich your experience if you travel to Italy
  • It’s not really necessary to learn Italian if you are going main city like Venice (Venezia), Rome(Roma),  Florence (Firenze) or Naples (Napoli) you will always find someone that speaks English in restaurants, hotels, or when you visit museums and sights. But it will be lovely if you are able to just say a nice word or use one of those sentences from the end of the Lonely Planet in a friendly way
  • It doesn’t matter if you can’t understand the answer, but you are making an effort to communicate with the person in front of you in their language. This will change your trip and make it more enjoyable. You will receive more smiles. People will be more willing to open up to you and make sure that you have a great experience
  • It can be with some easy words, pronounced well – like use ‘Buongiorno’ instead of saying ciao to everyone. Use the right greeting based on where you are, or just order your coffee the way you like it. It doesn’t need to be big
  • Just dive in. While on your journey to Italy – especially if you live far away in Australia or America, on the airplane you have a bit of time to read those sentences and try to make them your own. You don’t have to be perfect, but you need to enjoy. This will make your travel time longer, as studying a little bit before the actual journey, makes the experience longer – you start to be in Italy without physically being there yet
  • Katy was recently at a restaurant, and everyone at the table, though not all Italian, spoke fluent Italian, except her. The server was explaining the menu, and Katy realized she could actually understand what was going on. She felt very proud of herself because she could understand what they were saying
  • It does add just that little bit extra. Apart from anything else, Italian does sound wonderful. It’s a beautiful language

People think it’s hard to learn Italian, does Monica agree?

  • There are studies on which languages have different levels of difficulty for English speakers. The American Foreign Service Institute did some major research into this and has four different tiers of languages. Italian is in the easier tier. Tier one is Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, Danish, Dutch, French, Norwegian and Swedish. Tier two is German, Indonesian, Malay, and Swahili. Then tier three has Hebrew, Hindi, Greek, Russian, Turkish and Vietnamese. Tier four has the languages that have different letters and alphabets – Arabic, Chinese (Cantonese, Mandarin) and Korean and Japanese
  • There is an indicator of how many hours you need to learn a language to be at a normal proficient level. If your goal is to go to Italy and have conversations about day-to-day things, like asking about the weather, what someone did last night, what their plans are, what they do for a living, etc – for Italian, tier one, it will take you between 600 to 750 hours to reach that level. For the last tier, however, it will take you 2,200 hours of practice. A big difference and shows that Italian is not too difficult to learn compared to other languages
  • In general, it depends on what little goal you set for yourself but if you think about it – how hard is it to repeat a sentence? Even if it’s not the perfect pronunciation – it is not too hard. If someone asks you to repeat “Vorrei un caffè” (I would like a coffee), you can repeat it and once you can remember it,  you can use it in Italy
  • Everyone can learn. It’s not something like maths or chemistry, where you really need to have a certain type of brain. Language is something we learn from birth. Monica has 2 little kids. One is 19 months old, and it’s amazing that she can speak with him in both English and in Italian, and he understands. They have a fresh brain when they are that young
  • But whatever your age, everyone can learn. It’s just a matter of practice
  • You’re not going to be able to play the piano or guitar, and you’re not going to be able to do a dance routine without practicing. As adults, we often forget this rule – we want everything to be instant
  • There is a book called Atomic Habits that says when you practice or do a little bit of something all the time, there’s a tipping point where that pushes you over the edge and something becomes a habit
  • If you’re not practicing something, you can’t expect to get very good at it
  • Monica says a lot of people come to her saying “I wish I could speak Italian, but I’m too old, I wish I learned in the past” or “my parents or my grandparents were Italian, but never spoke with me and now it is too late, I will not be able because I’m too old”
  • There is a difference – learning at a really young age and being involved in a language from day one is certainly great to learn – with that fresh brain, but there are also lots of young people learning at school because they have to. But when you learn Italian as an adult, you are making a decision. You decide to learn!
  • When you say “I want to learn” it is better to be and adult making the decision – you study because you choose to study
  • You might sometimes need someone to guide you. But these days, it’s much easier to find ways to learn the language than in the past with so many tools available to us
  • Many people start playing around with Duolingo and then buy a course or something like that. Katy finds it better to have someone to hold her accountable. She finds as she gets older and older, and so many things get in the way, she needs to have some accountability in place that’s external to her. Everyone’s different, of course, other people have got the self-discipline to do the learning on their own
  • Monica has students that are so good – she wishes she was like them. Some will set a timer every night before going to bed and they do five minutes of Italian. Other students, when they go for a walk every morning before going to work, they put on their podcast
  • If you like to cook, you can go on Instagram and follow all these Italian cooks and listen them to speak, read out their recipes and you try to make the recipe and learn while you are cooking. If you like play video games, you can play video games in Italian. You can watch movies too
  • Some apps make it easier to learn. For instance, there are apps that you can download on your computer, for when you’re watching Netflix, even if the Netflix show doesn’t have subtitles in Italian, the app will put the subtitle on for the language you choose
  • There are lots of tools – from YouTube to podcasts, traditional learning from books and online courses
  • At the end of the day, we want to speak. We can have a lot of vocabulary, but then if we can’t put them together and we don’t have a structure, which sometimes is a bad word, it’s called grammar. But if we don’t have that, then it’s very difficult to start speaking. I feel like if you have a guide, and then it could be a tutor, but it can be once a week, once or once every six months, doesn’t matter. They give you a plan.
  • Sometimes people needs more guidance. Monica is the same. She doesn’t really like to go to the gym but she knows if she has a personal trainer, she will go and she will exercise. She will also think about it when she’s not with them and do some of the exercises that they suggest for her. The brain is another muscle, and you have to train it!
  • As adults, we sometimes put too much stress on ourselves and judge ourselves harshly. We say “At this point, I should know this and that, and I should be better”. “I went to Italy and I couldn’t speak Italian”. But then if this is the first time you have gone to Italy and you can’t speak, then next time, if you practice a little more, you will be able to speak a little more. It’s a journey

Grammar and pronunciation

  • A lot of people have memories of learning languages at school and are put off by the grammar. People will say To Monica “I want to learn a language, but I don’t want to learn the grammar – it’s too difficult. Can we just do conversational?” Monica will say yes, we will cover conversations from day one, but you do need to touch some grammar
  • Monica finds if she changes the word ‘grammar’ and says she is going to teach some rules, it scares people less. She says she will give people some tips on how to put words together and how you can change the ending of these words to make it work in a sentence – and people feel more comfortable about that
  • Monica feels sometimes people think they don’t have good pronunciation, but it is actually the accent. Good pronunciation can be learned, but accent is very difficult
  • Monica speaks English well, but you definitely can hear her accent. She can still communicate. She’s been learning English for 11 years, so it has taken her a long time to get to this level, but she has an accent of course. You will find it very hard to have a perfect accent, but you can learn the right pronunciation
  • There are little tricks for pronunciation. Every time you see ‘gn’ in Italian, Monica says to think of ‘New York’ and ‘canyon’. Use the same ‘ny’ sound in ‘canyon’, to say ‘gnocchi’. This is a rule (and actually a grammar rule)
  • You may sound a bit American/Australian/English or Spanish – it doesn’t matter
  • If an Australian or American is speaking Italian – Monica can tell but not many Italians can. As an English speaker, when you hear an American, you know he’s American – same for someone English, Australian or someone Indian that speaks English. For an Italian, when they hear them speaking in English, they will not recognize the differences – unless they have perhaps studied or spent a lot of time in those countries
  • When someone is Italian, however, they can determine if the Italian person they are speaking to is from Piemonte or from Rome, or Naples. Not because of their dialect, but because of their accent
  • Monica’s company has a program called ‘Italian for Tourists’. Because they customize it for each student, they always ask where their client is going to go on their Italy trip. There are some words that are used more in the South, some more in Rome, or maybe Piemonte, so where they go will very much change the language. It’s not a different language, but just a different way they speak.
  • When Monica speaks her local dialect, her grandmother always says, “You sound like someone that comes from Torino”, which is the Piedmont capital city – an hour from their hometown. She says that Monica’s dialect is not the dialect their village dialect,  it’s more of a refined, city dialect
  • It is so good to learn a language because you’re not just learning another language, you learn more about your own. Monica has students that say the never understood English grammar rules until they studied Italian
  • It opens up your brain. Studies show that when you learn another language, you have less chance of getting dementia.  Learning another language activates all the gray and white parts of your brain as well as opening up your world

Knowing something is better than knowing nothing!

  • Whether you study at primary school, or whether you have learned with Duolingo for five years – everything is useful to build up your knowledge
  • You don’t need to pass an exam. When we learn as adults, we do it for ourselves. But there are different ways you can assess as markers for how far you have come with your language journey
  • Firstly, you can visit Italy once a year. You will notice that you can understand more or you can speak more every year
  • Monica also suggests to her students to record themselves. Record yourself and then record yourself again in six months or a year’s time and you will notice the difference. Take any Italian article or some pages from a book and record yourself reading
  • If you have the help of a tutor, the tutor can tell you when you are making progress. They can tell how much you have learned – when you can talk about things in the past for instance
  • Monica feels the best way to know that you are making progress is how you feel about the language. Sometimes you become a little addicted and things become a habit. When you get so used to learning a language, that you actually start thinking in Italian – that is a great marker
  • For instance, while you’re driving, looking at the car in front and wondering “Oh, how would I say blinker/indicator in Italian?” and then looking it up when you get home. The word for Indicator in Italian is actually ‘freccia’ which also means arrow. Monica has confused her husband saying to her husband “You didn’t put on the arrow”. Freccia is also a type of train because they go very fast like an arrow. A little bit of curiosity can find yourself learning different things
  • Many English speakers have a block on learning languages because they are not being taught a great deal of English grammar when they are at school
  • Monica has found when she is talking about verbs, adjectives, adverbs, etc – people don’t know what some of them are. She raised that if they nlearn those words before starting to learn a language then it will make the process easier.  She suggests a quite small book English Grammar for Students of Italian before starting to learn. It explains all the English rules and names of the grammar terms
  • Even if you think you know your grammar, Monica suggests doing it anyway, because it will make your process of learning much easier.
  • A verb is a doing word – so like iron, brush your hair, or speaking. In English, it’s any word that can be anticipated by the word ‘to’. To eat, to play etc In Italian, they don’t have the to, but they have the end of word change – to ‘are’, ‘ere’ or ‘ire’. So words like mangiare (eat), bere(drink), parlare(speak), cantare(sing) are verbs

You can learn if you want to learn

  • Olivia, who runs our Untold Italy Tours is often on the podcast and who Monica also knows, is a great example of someone who was determined to learn Italian, and just did it. She learned a little bit at primary school like Katy did, but she was determined, so she did some classes and then decided she wanted to learn it more deeply and took herself off to Italy and stayed with a family and went to a school there. She’s now completely fluent (apart from if something is very technical or legal)
  • What you receive at the end of language learning is a beautiful prize
  • Olivia, who is marrying Italian, Andrea, later this year, also changed the course of her life by this will to learn Italian
  • Monica was certainly not deemed likely to have a life involving languages. When she was at school, a teacher told her mum that she should send her to a professional school – to be a hairdresser or similar – because she was not good at learning things and studying. Her English is so bad and she will never do anything with her life. This was all said in front of Monica. Very harsh to say the least – but now look at her. Her English language skills are her career, she is married to an Australian and she’s also learned Spanish, (spending a one year in Spain) and  Portuguese, as well as understanding French pretty well
  • Monica was 26 when she started learning English in earnest. Her company has some younger students, starting at around 10, and her oldest student is 92. She started a few years ago and she said to Monica that she had always had the desire to learn Italian and her husband had just died so she had more spare time and so decided to go for it
  • We can all get confidence from knowing that a 92-year-old has started their learning Italian journey
  • To get in touch with Monica, and maybe get some one-to-one tuition with her team, you can go to her website, sumisuraitaly.com where you can find her contact details, or book a meet and greet. Once you book a meet and greet with Monica she can then build a plan. She will want to know everything about you to help make this plan for your study.
  • You can follow her on Instagram too. Feel free to get in touch with any questions or if you just need a little motivation to start your Italian journey

About our guest – Monica Cazzamani Bona

Founder Monica Cazzamani Bona brings a passion for Italian culture and language. Born in Govone, Piemonte (Piedmont), Monica learned the essence of Italian hospitality from her grandparents’ grocery store. With a background in Architecture from Turin, Monica’s heart remains tied to the Langhe & Roero hills. Su Misura Italy was founded in 2018 to share Italian culture and language in a personalized way. Monica’s teaching vision focuses on making learning relaxed and enjoyable, with customized attention for each student.

Su Misura Italy offers bespoke Italian language lessons tailored to your needs and goals, since 2018. One-on-one sessions are conducted on Zoom for flexibility and convenience. They specialize in helping adults navigate their unique journey to fluency and provide an alternative to standard group classes, catering to individual learning styles and preferences. Monica and her team work with students all over the world.
 
Book a free meet and greet with Monica to discuss your language goals and preferences >> here. The meet and greet helps Monica match you with the best teacher from her team and create a customized lesson plan tailored to you.

You can find Monica on these channels:

Places mentioned in the show

  • Govone – Monica’s home village in Piemonte (Piedmont)
  • Turin – capital city of Piemont with a grand, royal history

Resources

  • Lonely Planet – travel guidebook publisher. Founded in Australia in 1973
  • Atomic Habits – An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones, book by James Clear
  • Duolingo – language learning app
  • English Grammar for Students of Italian – useful book before you study Italian
  • terza media – before you go to secondary school
  • Vorrei un caffè – I would like a coffee
  • freccia – car indicators/blinkers and also meaning arrow
  • mangiare – eat
  • bere – drink
  • parlare – speak
  • cantare – sing

Resources from Untold Italy

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Transcript

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