Teaching English in Italy

6 minute read

“Non capisco.” This phrase in Italian means “I don’t understand.” It was undoubtedly the most heard and most used expression during the first few weeks of my six-week stay in Italy.

My host family picked me up from the Venetian airport at approximately 10 a.m. on June 10, and we started off with greetings that are universal: hugs, smiles, laughing, etc. But, as we walked to the car and began the drive to their hometown, we went through introductions. Here I met Giuseppe, the father; Monica, the mother; and their son, my new student. I was more than eager to begin teaching and, since we had about a two-hour drive ahead of us, I figured now was a good time to start! Quickly though, I learned the phrase “non capisco.”

My new student had been taught plenty of sentence structure, grammar, and vocabulary in his school, but it was very apparent that conversation and pronunciation were not really focused on. I had difficulties understanding what he was saying because it was generally the wrong pronunciation and, in addition, he was forgetting basic English because he was cracking under the pressure of meeting an American for the first time. He too had difficulties understanding what I was saying, not because he didn’t know the words, but because he had heard them mispronounced for so long that the correct pronunciation sounded foreign to him.

It was clear that I had a lot of work to do already, but as if teaching English to a 15-year-old Italian wasn’t already difficult enough, Giuseppe and Monica began talking in Italian to their son. At the end he very roughly translated for me that although they never mentioned a want to learn English in their application, they were wondering if I could manage to find time to teach them during my visit as well. This, of course, I was more than willing to do, but the task seemed incredibly daunting. Giuseppe didn’t know any English when I arrived and Monica only knew “bye-bye,” which she thought meant “hello.” After a series of gestures, rough translations, charades, and the use of Google Translate, we were able to work out that I would spend mornings with the son while his parents were at work, and the evenings with Giuseppe and Monica to start tackling sentence structure and grammar.

Not long afterwards, we entered the small town of Nogara, Italy, where I would be spending my six-week Italian adventure. Nogara, consisting of mostly farmland, a small town center, and scattered houses, is home to only 8,000 Italians. It was like driving through a movie set. On my right were sunflower fields as far as the eye could see, and to my left were fields of wheat, rice, and corn stretching all the way out to touch the horizon. It was breathtaking. Shortly after, we drove through the town center, which isn’t more than one mile by one mile and contains the town’s only supermarket, about five bars, one pub, one gelataria, two restaurants, various apartments, and a small assortment of other miscellaneous shops (such as a butcher that specializes in horse and donkey meat).

Once we arrived at the house, the older brother welcomed me. Unlike the 15-year-old, the older brother had masterful pronunciation, but poor grammar and sentence structure. Unfortunately I only got to see him on the weekends because he spent his weekdays studying at a local university. After getting acquainted I was shown around their lovely home and to my fantastic bed, which I didn’t hesitate to make quick use of since I had just been traveling for twenty hours straight.

The next day began the first official day of lessons. Working with the younger brother was fun and easy. The great thing about his problem with English was that talking with him was the best way to cure it, and we never ran out of things to talk about. Of course, he wanted to learn about America and my life in California, while I wanted to learn about Italy and his life in Nogara, but these weren’t even our many topics. Luckily, he has many interests that I do, including guitar, piano, sports, and many other things. I used this to my advantage to keep his interest and keep the conversation going. Since I was always talking about something he liked, he always wanted to learn more so that he could understand. Occasionally we would work on some grammar or vocabulary whenever I noticed that he seemed to be lacking in one area, but this wasn’t complicated because he already had a basic understanding.

Working with Monica and Giuseppe was different. When I first started lessons with them we began with very basic phrases and words that they could begin to use in everyday life with me and get a better feel for the language. I taught them “hello,” “goodbye,” “good morning,” “How are you?” etc. Once they had a good foundation of basic words and phrases, I explained sentence structure and grammar. We ran into a few speed bumps here and there, for example having adjectives before the noun rather than after like in Italian. However, for the most part everything went smoothly and as I began to learn more Italian through daily exposure and studying it in my free time, I was able to understand what confused them about English because I had more knowledge of their native language. Teaching was absolutely phenomenal and it was always filled with laughter and smiling as we stumbled on remembering phrases and mispronounced words.

For most of my weekends in Italy I had the opportunity to travel to far cities by train and really immerse myself in a big Italian city. I visited Mantua, Venice, Rome, Florence, Ferrara, Lake Garda, and various other small cities. During some of these trips the younger brother accompanied me, but for the majority of them, especially for the farther cities, I traveled alone or with another InterExchange teacher in the area, Janna. However, when I went to Lake Garda I went with the whole family and they rented a small condo for five days. During these five days (the last of my stay in Italy) we traveled around the area together and continued lessons on a daily basis. By this time I was able to have conversations in only Italian, while Giuseppe and Monica were able to have conversations in English. We had made outstanding progress together in such a short amount of time.

If I had the time, I could write about my trip through Italy for hundreds of pages because I saw and did so much. I knew my trip to Italy was going to be something I’ll remember for the rest of my life, but I had no idea that I’d be considering moving there. I fell in love with the people, the food, the language, the cities, the culture, the history, everything. I was hoping to leave Italy with a good experience and happy memories. Instead I left with a whole new understanding of a culture and country, a reassurance of what I want to do with my life, the ability to speak Italian, and, best of all, a new family. I really became part of the family and we are looking forward to being long-time friends. Every day I email Giuseppe and Monica (I write in Italian and they write in English) and every weekend I video chat with my original student for an hour to continue practicing his English, while I continue to practice Italian. The family is even planning to come visit me in California next summer and will be staying with my family at my house.

I can’t thank InterExchange enough for making this dream of mine come true. I look forward to using the program in the future and will most definitely be recommending this organization (as well as traveling to Italy) to all of my friends and family. Again, thank you so much!

Ryan D. By

Ryan taught English in Italy with the help of the InterExchange Foundation.

U.S. Department of State-Designated J-1 Visa Sponsor
Alliance for International Exchange
The International Coalition for Global Education and Exchange
European-American Chamber of Commerce New York
Global Ties U.S.
International Au Pair Association
WYSE Travel Confederation