Real life: Learn a Language

Learning a language can be a refreshing interlude or a life-changing career break

By Lisa Gerard-Sharp
Published 3 Jun 2013, 16:23 BST, Updated 30 Jun 2021, 13:52 BST

Italy's culture, cuisine, lifestyle, language and people add up to a travel experience made in heaven, and the Italians have responded with open arms — and open phrase books.

It also has the greatest number of language schools in Europe and is arguably the friendliest country in which to learn a language. Italy's institutions offer a broad range of courses, some perfectly priced for our age of austerity, and many including cultural elements such as poetry, cookery, architecture and art. Where beach breaks can be boring, learning holidays are liberating and can even change your life. In Eat, Pray, Love Julia Roberts' character 'discovers herself' in Italy while lapping up the lingo and Latin charm over platefuls of pasta.

It needn't be as cliched as that but you still might marry a prince. After all, Kate Middleton studied Italian and history of art at the British Institute of Florence, patronised by Prince Charles, which led her to St Andrews and his princely son. And it's no longer just the preserve of young royals. 'Grown-up gappers', whether they're taking a career break or changing direction, are increasing in number.

According to Amanda Lowe, director of the British Institute of Florence: "There isn't a typical British Institute student any more. Ours vary from the forty-something on a career break to an art history student on a gap year; from people working in Florence for a year to the recently retired. Perhaps the one common factor is their dream to spend time in one of the most beautiful cities in the world studying Italian and art history has finally come true."

Italy perfectly combines language learning with complementary courses in history of art, cookery, painting, architecture, sculpture and music, to name just a few. So you could end up studying Italian in the morning and crafting delicate tortellini in the afternoon — with much of the class conducted in Italian, bolstering the academic experience with plenty of practical lessons.

According to Stefania Gatta of the Italian Tourist Board, "Tuscany is still the top choice for language learners, as well as being considered the place with the purest Italian, and the cradle of Renaissance civilisation." The region ticks all the boxes, with its courses combining anything from sculpture, architecture, music and opera with language. Tuscany's central location is another draw too, as is the ravishing countryside and the cluster of art-encrusted hill towns — who couldn't fall in love with it?

As a former director of studies at language institutes, I'm a demanding student. I've been both a pupil and a teacher in Italy — the former in Siena, the latter in Florence — and I was keen to return to my old haunts to see which city today delivers the best language and learning break. 

Creative conversation

It's the week before Halloween and I'm sitting in on a lesson at the British Institute of Florence. First, there's a vocabulary-building game in which pairs of students match ghoulish images to vocabulary such as zucca (pumpkin) or strega (witch). Then a guided Halloween conversation is built up, brick by brick, and practised in pairs before being acted out, with suitable hilarity. In this way, learners are gently coaxed into using increasingly complex linguistic building blocks, which are at the core of language learning.

The other big lesson is that we all learn more when we're motivated. There has to be a reason for learning or the experience never really leaves the page of a book. The British Institute of Florence launched the first language and culture courses in Italy, and it remains innovative, but with a broader clientele. Susan Madocks Lister, head of art history, enthuses over the new hands-on classes, such as the Experiencing the Renaissance Workshop. This short but wide-ranging course covers everything from fresco, egg tempera and gold-leafing to forgeries in Renaissance art and forgery techniques. Another option, Florentine Frescoes, is not just a stroll through early masterpieces by Giotto, Masaccio and Ghirlandaio, plus visits to their works; it also features several workshops with artist and art historian Alan Pascuzzi, culminating in the recreation of a figure from the Sistine Chapel, using Michelangelo's techniques.

The longer courses are equally riveting, combining lectures with visits to art works in situ, including at the newly-revamped Uffizi Gallery. I attend the Drawing in the Quattrocento Workshop, expecting to find it obscure. Instead, I'm quickly won over by Alan's wit and knowledge. Renaissance artists and their methods are brought to life — particularly Michelangelo's exhortation to his apprentice: 'Draw Antonio, draw, and don't waste time!'

The Institute is noted for its cultural activities, which reinforce the classroom learning. A weekly 'tea party' in the delightfully fusty Palazzo Lanfredini is a pretext for brushing up on our conversational Italian, while the riverside library, lectures, concerts and films keep students fully immersed in Florentine life. The city is also used as classroom, with students occasionally despatched to Sant'Ambrogio food market to practise numbers and learn the names of Tuscan produce. There, they also get to hear the authentic Tuscan accent in all its glory. In class, the teachers tend to tone it down for clarity, as Tuscan Italian is heavily aspirated so casa (house) sounds like 'hasa'.

Where Florence is boldly horizontal, Siena is soaringly vertical; where Florence has grand squares and virile statues, Siena has secret gardens and romantic wells. The emphasis in Florentine art is on perspective and innovation, while Sienese art is all about sensitivity and conservation. One student makes the point more forcefully: "Come to Siena for the culture, art, food, gelato, people, vino and the Palio [a biannual horse race]," she declares.

At Siena's venerable Dante Alighieri school, my fellow students include a Swiss psychologist, a Swedish musician, a Japanese opera singer, a Californian chef and a Nigerian diplomat. This welcoming school proves that mixed age groups and nationalities work perfectly well, as most classes quickly form a family-like bond.

We go to bars to practise polite requests, using the word 'vorrei' (I'd like). We listen out for the alternative, imperative form: 'fammi un caffe' (literally: 'make me a coffee'), learning that in Italian, politeness often resides in the intonation rather than in punctiliousness — as is often the case in English ('Would you mind… ?', 'Could you possibly… ?', etc).

We're despatched in pairs to Siena's illustrious pastry shops to check concoctions so prized they even have their own protector saint. We visit both Caffe Nannini and Pasticceria Bini, which occupies what was allegedly once the workshop of 13th-century painter, Duccio. This would explain the wide medieval doorway, needed for the artist to transport his masterpiece, the Maestà, to Siena Cathedral. We call in for pastries and conversation practise but come out instead with a potted history of the city. We discover exotic panforte fruitcake dates back to 1205 and uses spices that reached Siena on the Via Francigena pilgrimage route.

Most days end in the slanting, shell-like splendour of Piazza del Campo, the heart of civic life since medieval times. The square is at its most theatrical in the late afternoon. Studying in such a self-contained city offers a chance to share the local passions, notably the Palio di Siena, the ferociously contested horse race that holds the entire city in thrall and turns the Campo into a medieval stadium. It's strange how a race lasting 90 seconds can require a year's planning, a lifetime's patience and the involvement of the whole city. But it does. The Palio has been raced through war, famine and plague, and all students who study in Siena leave with a sense of awe for such civic pride.

Select your school

It's hard enough to choose between two — or more — cities as a place to study but harder still to select a school. First and foremost, go for one that's well established, ideally with strong academic links and equally convincing social and cultural agendas. Both the British Institute of Florence and Siena's Dante Alighieri run programmes endorsed by British, US and European universities. But if you nurture a secret passion for sculpture or cookery, for example, match your interests to a school that shares yours.

Reputable language holiday operators such as Cactus are an alternative booking option, but agencies often feature only partner schools, which may not be the best. If in doubt, raise your concerns, request student testimonials, check class sizes and opt for smaller classes. And understand your own learning style. It's important to consider whether you're an instinctive learner, happy to blunder on regardless, or more of a cognitive learner, set on knowing the precise grammatical rules. But always go with the flow, even if you're swimming through a language you don't always fathom. Accuracy and fluency are the yin and yang of language learning, with good teachers fostering both.

The loveliest cities, especially Florence, may be awash with fellow English-speakers, but since classes are conducted entirely in Italian, a keen student should still make dramatic progress. At Dante Alighieri, Alessandra's highly motivated advanced class has kept its pact to speak Italian at all times. The students simply fix a nightly rendezvous on Piazza del Campo and welcome whoever turns up, whatever their language ability. At the wine bar, high spirits and Tuscan reds do the rest.

But the British Institute accomplishes a comparable feat with coffee alone. Guided by Massimo, the weekly caffè e giornali(coffee and the papers) session is open to all linguistic levels. Fuelled by coffee, we tackle the local rag and its flood warnings on the Arno River, which Massimo relates back to the dire floods of 1966 and their damage to artworks. This is largely an exercise in listening — and in wading well out of our depth. But by the end, even the beginners are smiling: after being thrown into the river, so to speak, they've been given a lifeline: a bridge built with new vocabulary. Later, over cocktails at Se-sto, Florence's most scenic rooftop bar, an English art history student points to views unchanged since the Renaissance. "This is also why I'm here," he says.

As for Siena, the departing students are asked to describe the city as a sensory experience. For me, it's autumn, when the aromas of roasting chestnuts and mossy mushrooms intermingle with garlicky wood-smoke and sickly-sweet pastries. American Allie loves "the light beaming through the rose window inside the Duomo". She finishes with a flourish that her fellow students applaud: "I'll carry the feel of this city with me for the rest of my life." Two cities; two uplifting stories — and each told in a foreign tongue.


How to do it
Pisa is the region's hub for low-cost flights, served by the likes of EasyJet, Jet2 and Ryanair. The Terravision shuttle (€10/£8.80 return) makes the 40-mile journey into Florence city centre, or there are frequent, direct trains for comparable fares. Air France, Alitalia and CityJet Air fly between London City and Florence. Meridiana flies from Gatwick. Sita runs a fast coach service between Florence and Siena or there is a slower train service.

Average flight time: 2h.

Where to Study

The British Institute of Florence. Palazzo Lanfredini, Lungarno Guicciardini 9 and Palazzo Strozzino, Piazza Strozzi 2. 
Courses: Italian, history of art, fine art, including short, thematic art courses.
Sample cost: Italian classes from €240 (£210) a week; €650 (£570) a month.

Dante Alighieri Siena, Via Tommaso Pendola 37. 
Courses: Italian language and/or cookery. 
Costs: Language courses, from €190-230 (£166-201) a week; language plus cookery and wine classes, from €490 (£429) a week.

Where to Stay

The St Regis Florence. Arno-view suites and frescoed winter gardens. 
Hotel Brunelleschi Firenze. Boutique hotel with a romantic Byzantine tower, gastro restaurant and homely Tuscan inn. 

Palazzo Ravizza. A beguiling, time-warp mansion with sweeping views. 

Where to Eat & Drink

Restaurant Santa Elisabetta. Refined Tuscan cuisine at Hotel Brunelleschi
Se-sto, Westin Hotel. Great rooftop spot for cocktails or brunch, with the best view in town. 

Osteria Le Logge. A Sienese institution for pumpkin ravioli, truffled pasta and porcini mushrooms. 
Caffe Nannini
Pasticceria Bini

More info
Insight Guides: Tuscany, by Lisa Gerard-Sharp. RRP £14.99. 

Published in the April 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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