A few weeks ago I gave you all a progress report on how things were working out for me actually being in Italy, using the the Italian language as I had learned it from here at home.
That last update was just slightly past the half-way point in my trip, and it represented two significant things in my experiences. First, it represented my initial culture shock upon actually being in the country. And second, it represented my experiences with accents north of Rome, as I had spent my time in Pisa, Florence, Milan, Turin, Genoa, Verona, Bologna, and Venice.
After that post was written, I headed south, spending the remaining two weeks in Bari, Naples, Sorrento, Capri, and Rome. And yes, when people say that the north and the south are different, they're not exaggerating. They could just as easily be two different countries.
I felt quite comfortable with my Italian through out the north, especially after I got over my initial culture shock. But in the south, I found it completely the opposite: there wasn't much of a culture shock, but I had a terrible time understanding anything.
The one thing that is perhaps a bit comforting about this is that I believe there might have been different languages being spoken. I come to this conclusion based on the following observation: when people spoke to me first, I rarely had any idea what they were saying, but when I spoke to them first, I usually had no problem understanding their responses.
There are two probable interpretations for this (and I suppose it's possible that both are true). The first possible scenario is that they were speaking a different language, dialect, etc, when I didn't understand, but when I initiated a conversation in Italian, they responded in Italian. I am inclined to believe that this was true in several situations, because it wasn't a low percentage of comprehension I was having, but rather none at all.
The second probable scenario is that when a person initiates speaking to you, there is usually very little context from which to derive the meaning. They could be saying literally anything. But when you speak first to them, the array of expected responses is relatively small, and it's easy for you to have a subset of what to listen for, even if only subconsciously, making the response a bit easier to understand in most cases.
I think that the latter was probably also true in several cases, and that makes a further argument for the necessity to hear as many different accents as possible during the learning stage. I did notice that after my first week in the south, my ears began to open up to the southern accent, and by the end of my time in Italy I was starting to feel pretty comfortable with hearing accents and colloquial speech and slang.
I have many more experiences and observations from my trip, and soon I will be adding them to the ebook, along with some additional tricks I discovered for learning and practicing Italian. The update will be free to everyone who has already purchased the book, so don't think you have to wait.