In December 2014, I downloaded Duolingo for the very first time, to learn Italian. I had never studied it before, so I started the Italian course from scratch and had a lot of fun with it for a good semester or two—until I got sidetracked with writing a dissertation about linguistics and language learning. 😅 In May 2022, shortly after buying flights to Italy for a family vacation, I picked up Italian again. I had four months to get comfortable enough to navigate around Rome and Florence, read restaurant reviews in Italian, and build up some conversation skills for our week in the countryside.

Could I do it?

Sì… sort of!

Four language mistakes I made while traveling in Italy

  1. I didn't know all the words I wanted to say. I studied Italian diligently for a few months, but it takes years to build up advanced proficiency! I could usually describe what I wanted to say, and sometimes I resorted to pointing, but I couldn't have anticipated all the things I'd want to say. (Suddenly, there I was in Florence wanting to buy a souvenir apron from a restaurant. 🤷‍♀️)
  2. I used the wrong grammatical gender. Even when I knew the word I wanted to use, I didn't always use it correctly in sentences, especially when it came to making adjectives and other words agree with masculine or feminine nouns. Once, thinking I was being clever, I used Spanish to guess a word in Italian: In Spanish, the "check" or "bill" at the end of a meal is la cuenta, so I guessed that it must be la conta in Italian… and it is not 😅 Instead, it's il conto (masculine), which the waiter gently told me after my mistake (and after one of the best meals of the trip!).
  3. I mispronounced plenty of words. That linguistics dissertation that derailed my first attempt to learn Italian was all about pronunciation, so I usually pay a lot of attention to sounds and accents! But even so, I'm still a new learner, and I confused lots of things or forgot all the letters and syllables in words. I'm not sure I ever clearly said vogliono (they want) instead of volano (they fly)! People also frequently guessed I was from Spain… because my Italian pronunciation sounded so Spanish! 😬
  4. I didn't always know the best way to say things. Really knowing a language means not only knowing words, grammar, and pronunciation, but what's the most appropriate thing to say in a given context. I didn't quite know when to stop saying buongiorno (good morning) and start saying buonasera (good afternoon/good evening), and there were lots of conversational tidbits that I understood but wasn't used to saying myself. For example, I didn't know to say a lei, literally "to her" or "to you (formal)," which shopkeepers would say to me after I said grazie (thank you).

Why those mistakes didn't matter

I spoke so much.

I used Italian with everyone I could: hotel staff, tour guides, store clerks, taxi drivers, florists, the people at the next table. I spoke it to anyone who would let me try (and nearly everyone did!). I made restaurant reservations on Italian webpages, coordinated taxis via WhatsApp (where I could spell check and proofread, too), and communicated in Italian with the front desk. When restaurant staff greeted me in English, I responded with "Buonasera!" and a smile and continued on in Italian. I always said grazie and never thank you. I woke up every morning thinking "ITALIANO!!!"

In many cases (or maybe even most!), people in the tourism industry in Italy spoke much more—and much better—English than I did Italian. But with just a few months of dedicated study under my belt, what mattered was that I tried. Most tourists use only English (including many people who know English as a second language, and hats off to them!), so someone—an English speaker, no less—really trying to connect and communicate in Italian delighted many and surprised others. People were patient, and they listened to my simple sentences and funny word choices. They sensed my curiosity and eagerness, so they slowed down, repeated things, and were happy to help! When things got really complicated, I could switch to English, with a sheepish smile and "Mi dispiace, non parlo molto italiano" (I'm sorry, I don't speak much Italian), but people appreciated the effort.

And here's what happened as a result

All that fearless practice through short conversations, texting, and reading Italian really paid off—not despite the inevitable errors, but because of them. Making errors heightens your attention to the relevant pattern; after the waiter corrected me by saying il conto (the check), I never again forgot. I tried, made an error, got great feedback right when I needed it, and learned the connection between the thing (the check) and how to say it (il conto).

Here's what else I got out of trying:

  1. I learned new words and phrases. Sometimes I picked up new words in passing, like prenotazione (reservation) from restaurant and museum websites, and other times people told me outright, like d'asporto (or da asporto) for ordering food to go. Repetition is really important to make learning stick, and so it was great to get to use and see those words over and over!
  2. My pronunciation got better. All that shameless speaking and trying meant I was getting tons of practice myself and I also heard more Italian in return and so got to hear the target pronunciation for words I was unsure of. By the end of the trip, I was a much clearer, more confident speaker—because I just kept trying!
  3. I connected with Italian speakers across the country. I got to chat with so many people! It was clear I was interested in learning, and so people shared more with me: about words and language, naturally, but also about the history of places and favorite dishes, tips for what to check out around town, and their lives and families. In small towns in the countryside, I really needed my Italian skills, and I found I could navigate, ask questions, and translate the basics for my family.
  4. I became more motivated to study. My lessons on Duolingo meant a lot more to me, because I was thinking more than ever about how and when I'd use every bit of grammar and individual word. (And also, I kept up my streak in Italy because I'm obsessed and I'm not the only one.) Now that I'm back, doing lessons reminds me of my amazing trip, seeing some phrases spelled out has made things click in my head, and I imagine all the conversations I'll have next time!

Il viaggio perfetto 💯

Using Italian in Italy showed the people I interacted with that I was invested in their culture and wanted to engage with them—and for travel, that mattered a lot more than any forgotten word or mistaken adjective ending. I decided to focus on what I could say and to speak fearlessly, and that really worked! After all, language has always been more about connecting than about grammar.