The hitch­hik­er’s guide to learn­ing Ital­ian

Whether I was going to the beach near Tarquinia or trying to get back home from Vesuvius: Hitchhiking proved to be the best way for me to practise Italian. As it turns out, the class room is only one way to acquire language skills.

Jemina outside.
To improve my Italian, I tried different routes. Photo: private

I wanted to spend my semester abroad in Italy primarily because of the language and culture. I had taken several language courses during my Bachelor's degree, so I already had the B2 level before I left for Rome. However, it had been a while, and I definitely wanted to continue working on my Italian. When applying to Sapienza University, it’s important to indicate your desire for a language course during the application process, as it is no longer possible to enrol later. Unless you start at A1, you will then be invited to take a virtual placement test. I voluntarily decided to take another B2 course to brush up on the basics.

The ‘Erasmus Bubble’ is real!

The language courses come in the form of intensive classes before the semester, five days a week, as well as an extensive format during the semester, in 12 three-hour sessions. I opted for the extensive course - thinking that classes over a longer period of time would be more effective for me. Unfortunately, I guess I wasn't very lucky with my course: At the end of it, I didn’t really see an improvement. I enjoyed the language practice exercises the most, as fluency was my main goal. The grammar, however, was often done far too quickly and one topic after another was swiftly ticked off. In the end, at least I passed the exam and could now attend a C1 course.

Computer screen with an Italian course.
Better Italian in 12 sessions? Unfortunately, that didn't really work for me. Photo: private

Another reason why the language course was very important to me at the beginning: I quickly realised that the 'Erasmus bubble' really exists. The first place to make friends in Rome is the Erasmus Student Network (ESN). The group organises numerous social events, excursions and trips, which I often took part in at the start of my semester here. It was very helpful in meeting new people, but of course these new acquaintances were exchange students themselves, and we mainly spoke English. Getting in touch with actual locals was more difficult.

Italian on the go

An unexpected opportunity to interact with Italians arose a few weeks after my arrival. With friends, I took a day trip by train to a town not far from Rome. Tarquinia is a nice little place, but a bit far from the sea, where we wanted to go next. We would have had to wait a long time for the next bus, so we decided to hitchhike. Of course, everyone has to weigh the risks when getting into a car with strangers. But we, as a group, felt very safe and were given a lift by a nice elderly lady. We got talking and learned that she had once been a tour guide in Tarquinia herself and therefore had a lot to share with us tourists.

Nice view with the sunset.
Several times, my friends and I went hitchhiking - and were lucky enough to end up having interesting conversations. Photo: private

On our next outing, we met an elderly Neapolitan couple. After taking a long hike along Mount Vesuvius to watch the sunset, we were reluctant to walk back in the dark. The couple drove my flatmate and me all the way down to the train station, even though it meant they had to take a detour. My flatmate, who speaks little Italian, always motivated me to ask more questions. So we learned that the couple came from Naples and had worked in the porcelain trade, an art they obviously appreciated. They also had several children, one of whom now lives in Germany. Of course, they asked me how "Frau Merkel" was doing, and told me that Ischia, an island just off Naples, was their favourite holiday destination. It had been a long time since I had had such a detailed and entertaining conversation in Italian!

New impressions and insights

I was impressed, again and again, by people's willingness to go out of their way to take us to our destination. Most of our encounters only said that they hoped others would do the same for them or their children. As a Berliner with an Italian family background, it was exciting for me to notice again how many Italians have connections to Germany as well - be it for their own work or through their children who have emigrated to Germany. It was also interesting to notice how people think about us Germans: Often the older people we talked to remarked in a surprised tone how nice we were.

In the end, what all of this showed me is that it’s most important to speak a language regularly in order to improve. For me, it was not a traditional language course that taught me the most, but encounters with locals that I would not want to miss.

(Published 12 June 2023)