Making sentences, remembering words, expessing yourself… how hard it is to find the words to say in Italian?
In this interview, Giovanna from The Limonata Lounge is going to share how she learnt Italian, dealt with her first conversations when she arrived in Ischia, and found a tool to improve her skills and find the right words to say.
Giovanna, over to you!
How long have you been living in Ischia and why did you move there?
I moved to Ischia in December 2017 with my Italian husband Davide, who is from Venice. So it’s been a little over two years now. We moved here from London and wanted to move back to Italy.
I was born and raised in New York, but my mother is from Ischia and my father was from Monte di Procida, a small town outside of Napoli. I spent my summers in Napoli while I was growing up.
Davide always wanted to live by the sea and since he is a massage therapist we thought it would be possible for him to find work in one of the hotel spas. And I’ve always wanted to live here, it is my favourite place in the world.
How did you begin to learn Italian? Which tools did you use?
My parents are both from Italy and the Neapolitan dialect was spoken at home. I understood it, but I always answered in English so I never really spoke it properly.
I had all of this Italian/dialect in my head, but I couldn’t really speak it. When we would go to Napoli in the summer, I would speak with my aunts and uncles and cousins and improve, but then we would go back to the States. Whenever I tried to speak it in the US with my Italian relatives, they would always tease me for speaking in dialect, so I would get embarrassed and stop speaking.
But I promised myself that I would one day learn Italian and speak it better than any of my relatives in the US, that I would learn how to read and write and that I would one day live in Italy.
The summer after I graduated from university, I studied Italian in Florence. I took a two-month intensive language course and refused to speak English (although I did write in my journal), so I could get the most out of it. That and a short course in Italian at the Italian Cultural Institute in London when I first moved there were the only formal language courses I took. The rest I learned by studying on my own and by living in Italy.
For self-study, I use Italian grammar books and listen to lots of music and watch films. When I was still living in New York, I had a long-distance romance with a man from Rome and we wrote each other emails every day for almost a year. That definitely improved my Italian, especially with learning the conditional and congiuntivo forms. I can say that now I speak Italian well, I supposed I’d be at a C1 level, but there is so so so so much more to learn.
I recently started a journal in Italian to help improve my writing and I follow a lot of Italian teachers online and on Youtube. It’s really fun.
What were the difficulties you encountered, as a native speaker of English?
One of my repeated mistakes is that I make some verbs reflexive that shouldn’t be reflexive. Like diventarsi instead of diventare or cadersi instead of cadere. And of course, I often forget the gender of a noun.
My biggest difficulty is making tenses agree in one sentence, especially when the main clause is in the past and the relative clause verb occurs after the main clause. This is especially the case when the congiuntivo is involved. An example in English would be, ‘He thought that by the time that he arrived, she would have already been there.’ This is something that is very difficult to figure out while speaking and no one has the patience to stand there and wait while I puzzle it out. (Is it ‘Lui pensava che quando sarebbe arrivato, lei sarebbe già stata lì‘????)
Did you begin to speak right away? How did you find it to speak with the locals?
I think I really felt the freedom to speak with others and make mistakes when I studied Italian at a language school in Florence. That was really fun because I could speak with others who were learning and we were from all over the world so I got a chance to get used to Italian spoken in different accents. When I went out, I spoke Italian in bars and restaurants and I found Italians were really encouraging and friendly when I tried to speak Italian (so unlike my relatives in the US).
When I moved back to Italy in 2017, while I could speak Italian, I found it frustrating that I couldn’t really have in-depth conversations with people. I always felt talked over or that people just wanted me to listen and didn’t have the patience to listen to me. But I think this was a bit of a cultural learning curve that I needed to get through, as I had been living in the UK for 10 years where conversation styles were different. I soon learned to interrupt someone’s monologue and shout ‘Let me finish’ when someone tried to talk over me. This felt very rude to me at the beginning, but I soon got used to it and found that people would make the room to listen to me speak when I demanded that space. Lol.
Do you consider yourself a perfectionist? How did you deal with making mistakes when using Italian at first?
I wish I could speak Italian the way I speak English and sometimes my reluctance to make mistakes holds me back. When I’m nervous or feeling shy, my Italian goes down the tubes and I make so many mistakes that I wouldn’t make when I’m feeling more confident. It’s hard, I don’t know how I deal with mistakes. It’s like the more Italian I know, the more conscious I am of the mistakes I make.
You’ve recently started journaling in Italian. Why did you make this decision? What benefits are you getting from using this tool?
I started journaling in January because I wanted to improve my writing. I already keep a journal in English and I have been journaling since I was a kid. I thought doing it in Italian was going to feel like a chore, but it turns out that it’s A LOT of fun. I have so much more freedom in my notebook than I do when I speak to people. I’m not afraid of making mistakes and I don’t judge myself when I do (I can just correct them afterwards when I read what I’ve written). Also I can play with language and spontaneously try out new words and phrases when they come into my head. By writing, I can take the time to look up words and complex grammar structures (like those sentences with multiple tense agreements).
I’ve also started collaging and drawing in my notebook so it’s also become a creative practice and makes me really love this notebook as an object. I’ve found that my spoken Italian is improving too because the notebook lets me get familiar with new words and phrases. While when I speak, it’s easy to revert to the same words over and over again, something is bello or interessante, but in my notebook I can say geniale or appassionante.
What do you write about? Do you ever think you have nothing to say? Do you ever experience writer’s block? And what do you do to overcome it?
For my Italian journal, I write about what I’ve done during the day, something I’ve been thinking about, how I’m feeling. I started the notebook soon after I came back home after surgery so I’ve been documenting my recovery as well as writing about what I’ve done during the day. I didn’t give myself too many rules in the beginning because I didn’t want to overwhelm myself to the point where I’d stop writing in Italian. But I found that I really liked it and I soon started writing about what I was thinking about, how I was feeling, something interesting that I read, new Italian vocabulary words, etc. I also started collaging and pasting things in my notebook and adding colour to the pages. I started wanting to make the notebook beautiful, something to be proud of.
This February, I’ve been using writing prompts from Cinzia of Instantly Italy who set up a writing challenge for the month and that’s been a great way to keep writing in my notebook. Each daily prompt has been giving me something to look forward to.
I don’t really get writer’s block or feel like I have nothing to say because I can just record what I’ve done during the day. Some days I write more than others and if there is a day where I don’t feel like writing much, I can add some collage elements to the notebook and that makes me feel good.
Giovanna is an American with Italian roots living on the island of Ischia with her Italian partner. She is a writer, teacher and cat lady. She left the US 12 years ago and has lived in London and Rome and moved to Ischia in December 2017. You learn more about Ischia and what it’s like to live in Italy by following her on Instagram and by visiting her blog The Limonata Lounge.