Italian Immersion Report (Part 2)

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.

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Author: Yearlyglot
I'll lead you through a 12 month journey from knowing absolutely nothing about a language to having professional fluency.

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  • Randy Yearlyglot

    "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."Yes, this is extremely important. An interesting parallel is Switzerland. If I go to a shop in German Switzerland and they will open the conversation is Swiss German, which is incomprehensible to me. As soon as I say something in High German, they'll switch to that. I encounter similar problems in Bavaria and even in northern Germany where some people will start speaking Platt Deutsch straightaway. You were probably having the same issue in Italy.I've heard that many northern Italians find southerners impossible to understand.

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    I've heard that too. Then again, even here in the US it's common for a northerner to have trouble understanding a southerner! :)Thanks for your comments. Very applicable.

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    Another possible explanation is that when you initiate the conversation, people might understand that you are not a native speaker and therefore adjust the way they are speaking to you (pronouncing the words more clearly, for example). Although this effect should the strongest in longer conversation when people have time to adapt.Anyway, I have noticed that whenever I start with a new language, then in the beginning I can quite well talk to a single foreigner, but when that same person is talking to somebody else, then I might have no idea what they are talking about. But I guess that here knowing the context comes in quite a bit also.

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    Yeah, I was sort of generalizing this case into my "scenario A", where a slang-y native Italian form of speech would be (for purpose of generalization) considered a dialect, and when the person heard me initiate in proper Italian, they responded in kind. But I guess that's the problem with generalizations... they're too "general". :)I noticed something similar to what you're describing, actually, in Rome, where I found myself in conversation with three people: one from Rome, one from Manila, and one from Lima. I understood the Roman at all times, and I understood the Filipino and the Peruvian when they spoke to me, but not when they spoke to the Roman or to themselves. This was a clear case where they were taking care to get their accent right when speaking to me, but amongst themselves, they didn't care about their accents... which was no problem for the three of them, living in Italy and surrounded by Italian all the time.

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    Italy is and always has been a nation chock full of not just dialects, but other languages, albeit mostly romance. There was a big push after reunification to educate everyone in standard Italian, thanks in part to newly availalbe radio and later TV. It largely worked, but people continued to use their dialects and languages within their communites. Travel outside any of the major cities and you still hear them a lot. Travel even just a short distance north/northwest of Milan and you'll hear Bergamasco - quite pretty, I think. Same with Venetian in parts of the Veneto.On one ski trip I made to Sauze d'Oulx (a couple hour drive from Turin), I was with an Italian friend. We were waiting in a train station for some other friends and a group of station workers were speaking what sounded vaguely familiar, but was still gibberish to me - it was one of those instances where I thought "I should understand this." My friend, seeing the expression on my face, said completely deadpan: "I've lived here (Turin, proper) all my life and I don't understand a word of it either." It was Piemontese.I suppose you could say the same thing for pretty much any other European country that was once a bunch of smaller city-states, but I've never seen it as widespread as I have in Italy.

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    Yeah, I did notice some strange sounding stuff in Turin.It's quite a fascinating country for anyone with an interest in language. My trip was certainly an interesting experience!

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    Glad you had a good trip. And congrats on a successful year in Italian. Though that particular journey is complete, your Italian will be with you forever. Very cool!

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    Indeed. That's the thing I love most about learning, and why I love to choose adventures that involved learning, such as language and travel. When the adventure is over, that thing you learned is still yours. You don't need souvenirs or trinkets to remember the occasion, or to prove to anyone else that you did it, because you've got the thing you learned — in this case, a language.Wow, I feel a post coming on... :)

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    Cheers, Randy! Enjoying your blog for quite some time now. Thanks for keeping it fresh with interesting articles and stories.You raised an interesting point, and I have a question for you. :) All in all, with your experience, do you think it is better to listen to different accents and dialects, or stick with one until you have a good grasp of the language?I have been puzzled with this topic for some time. I am learning Spanish, and soaking up the differences between Peninsular and Latin American dialects was kind of tough at first. I tried to stick with the Peninsular, but instead I found Southern American Spanish more comprehensible for my current level (Spaniards speak way too fast!) and pronunciation of certain sounds feels closer to my native Russian language.What's your take on this?Roman D.

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    I'm still working out a plan for dealing with this, considering it's something I've only recently discovered to be a problem. I can tell you that based on feedback I've gotten since I started discussing this, it would seem that this is an exaggerated phenomenon in Italy. However from my personal experience, I can agree with you that it's a big deal with Spanish, too.I think there's value in sticking to the easier accent at first, enough so that you build up your confidence in the language itself. But I think that at some point it will be necessary to shift your attention to heavier accents and dialects, in order to train your ears.I'm kind of viewing the issue as similar to having an incomplete understanding of the language. For example, if you are accustomed to Lada, Volga, and Moskvich, you could reasonably think that you know about cars, but later when you see a Volkswagen or a Porsche, you'll be surprised to learn that even the entire engine isn't where you thought it would be.So, using that example, if when a Spaniard says "las sillas" it sounds completely different from when an Argentinian says it, or a Guatemalan, or a Mexican... and if you only learn one way, you will *think* you know Spanish, but you'll be utterly lost. Understanding several pronunciations, however, will shape the word into a more universal, more generalized model inside your head, where the Mexican "ll" and the Columbian "ll" are both reduced (in your mind) to their lowest common denominator... as if you've combined the waveform and then normalized it, and learned the result.Well, anyway, that's how I envision it at the moment. So to make a long story short, I think there's value in both methods, and that's what I plan to do this year.

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    Thanks for the detailed reply, Randy.I was thinking something along the similar lines myself and, for now, decided to stick primarily with the kind of Spanish that is easiest for me to understand. At least, when it comes to listening to the language. For reading practices, I try to diversify and use different sources in order to glance at the bigger picture from time to time.

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