How to Practice Your Italian While Abroad in Rome

Tara Monastesse headshot
Tara Monastesse
February 18, 2024

When I chose Rome as my study abroad destination, I was initially skeptical about opportunities to practice my Italian. I’ve heard from other American students who’ve studied abroad in Italy that it can be difficult when you’re starting out to practice speaking with locals: oftentimes they simply respond back in English when it becomes clear your Italian isn’t fluent.

Luckily, in my experience most Italians are very appreciative of efforts to learn the language! It’s true that many people you’ll meet in Rome likely speak some level of English, but I’ve found that the majority of times I’ve begun a conversation in Italian it’s stayed that way until the end. The most helpful piece of advice that I can give is to be open to making mistakes and remaining humble. Learning a language isn’t something you can do alone—it’s a journey that requires the kindness and patience of others.

1. Read, read, read

You don’t have to rush out and buy an entire book in Italian—in fact, I recommend that you don’t start with something overly difficult, as you’re bound to get discouraged quickly. I’ve found that it’s much easier and more sustainable to start in small chunks. Read as much as you can, whether it’s skimming through newspaper headlines, packages in the grocery store, or even suggested posts on social media that are written in Italian. I’ve found that it’s often a lot easier to learn grammar by observing sentence structure in action rather than only trying to memorize rules (although that is important too!). 

The joy of being completely immersed in a target language is that every errand can be a moment of learning. I’ve noticed that the new vocabulary I’ve picked up includes many words commonly seen on street signs or in advertisements: words like fermata or vietato, or phrases like si prega. Do your best to take advantage of the fact that Italian is written almost everywhere in the city.

2. Speak with locals as much as you can

Whether it’s ordering at a restaurant, getting assistance at the supermarket, or asking someone on the street for directions, try to use your Italian for as many interactions as possible. Doing this is often really scary! I often spend a lot of time psyching myself up beforehand and rehearsing what I’m going to say. In reality, it’s totally fine to make mistakes. Practicing your Italian in real-world situations means that you will develop a vocabulary that is ideal for connecting with others, which I believe is the most fundamental part of learning a language. Also, you’ll be forced to think on the fly while engaging in conversation, which is a great workout for your brain.

And anyways, if you mess up, Rome is a big city! (Huge, in fact). Who cares if you completely botch your pronunciation a few times? Worst case scenario, you’ll have a funny story to tell later. In fact, making mistakes is often the perfect way to learn. Once you get corrected after making a mistake, the correction will stick in your memory much more than if you had gotten it right the first time. 

3. Keep a notebook for new words

At a stationery store near the IES Abroad Center I’ve come to adore, I recently purchased a notebook to use exclusively for jotting down new Italian words that I learn. I don’t always remember to put it in my bag before I head out the door, but I always wish I had! The act of writing by hand makes it much easier to remember than just looking up the word or jotting it down in your Notes app. It also feels so much more rewarding to have a physical record of your learning that you can flip back through. I often think about learning Italian as collecting words. Every time I learn a new word or expression, it’s a small but very tangible marker of progress.

Oftentimes (nearly every day, in all honesty) I feel insecure about my ineptitude and lack of proficiency in Italian. While fluency remains my ultimate goal and I’m still quite a long way off, I try to remind myself that I’m only a year and a half into learning a language that some people have been speaking their whole lives. It feels weird and corny to say, but I’m learning to celebrate the small things. For one, I finally learned how to pronounce “farmacia” correctly this week!

Learning a language gets both easier and harder as you make progress. On one hand, you’ll eventually master the basics—for example, I can order gelato or ask for a bus ticket at a store pretty reliably at this point. However, more complex conversations often extend beyond my vocabulary, and I have to get creative in how I approach certain situations. Don’t be afraid to “talk around” words or phrases that you don’t know by using ones that are more familiar to you. For example, I once realized I didn’t know the words for “paper towels” and had to nervously ask the cashier for “the paper for cleaning!” Overall, people will extend kindness and grace to you if you are respectful and willing to make mistakes. In bocca al lupo!

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Tara Monastesse headshot

Tara Monastesse

Hey! My name is Tara Monastesse, and I am a junior at Mount Holyoke. I am an aspiring journalist studying English and film/media. During my time in Rome, I hope to hone my Italian language skills and become a more skilled writer and scholar.

2024 Spring
Home University:
Mount Holyoke College
Film Studies
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