Language & Lit Picks for Travel to Italy

Lonely Planet and Barron's Italian language resourcesOur trip to Italy is drawing near, so it’s time to learn a bit of the language and stock up on reading material.

In an attempt to learn some basic Italian, I attended a one-day ‘Italian for Travelers’ class through a local community college. Sadly, I think I came out of it more confused than I went in! The pace of the class was so fast that we moved on to a new concept before I had a chance to practice, let alone master the previous one. To make matters worse, Italian is similar enough to Spanish that my minimal knowledge of that language kept confusing me. I’d estimate my retention level at about 10%.

But, it wasn’t a total waste. Some unexpected good things that came out of the class:

  • It was helpful to hear the instructor’s accent and pronunciation, and he threw in some entertaining cultural tidbits
  • A pocket Italian phrasebook and dictionary was included with the class fee
  • The instructor provided a list of online resources for further study, listening and practice

For many of us, language classes are the best way to learn. A longer, more reasonably-paced and in-depth class might give you skills with more staying power. But, let’s face it, for occasional travel, you don’t need to become fluent. Here are some other resources for learning enough Italian to get by on a trip.

 Online video lessons – for studying Italian before traveling

  • One World Italiano’s online video course includes 12 lessons, each with a 5 to 10 minute video clip and  a review of key concepts in written form.
  • Girls4Teaching has a series of introductory Italian videos on YouTube. Most are around 4 to 5 minutes long – easily digestible chunks.
  • Italian Pod 101 has a YouTube channel featuring 8 of their Italian in Tre Minuti lessons. Guess how long these videos are?!

 Apps – for practicing in transit and in-country translations

  • Google Translate – the gold standard for digital translation. The app accepts input via speech, typing, freehand writing and even photos and images. Of course, it can be used for practically any language in the world. Just be sure to download the relevant phrasebook – in this case Italian – before you leave home so that you can use it offline.
  • Barron’s Italian at a Glance – This is the companion app for the phrase book I received in my language class. It’s really just a static set of written phrases with audio pronunciations, but it’s designed to be used completely offline, and it’s quick and easy to navigate.

Phrase books – for those who prefer, or when batteries die

Barron’s Italian at a Glance was included with my language class. Highlights include:

  • pocket-sized, comes with a laminated cover to stand up to the rigors of travel
  • recommended by my language instructor for its representation of contemporary language.
  • pronunciation guides are easy to follow
  • incorporates cultural tips such as advice on tipping or when to say ‘buon giorno’ vs ‘buona sera’
  • has a chapter on driving, including common road signs, and a special dictionary section for business travellers.
  • Best for: longer or multiple trips, business travelers, anyone planning to drive.

Not realizing I’d be getting the above book with my class, I had already bought a copy of Lonely Planet’s Italian Phrase Book & Dictionary. My take on this one:

  • pocket-sized; a wee bit smaller than the Barron’s book
  • pronunciation keys not as easy to follow as Barron’s
  • useful features include a ‘menu decoder’ section and shortcut phrases (easier-to remember, less formal ways to say things)
  • no content on driving, but it does have more comprehensive coverage of phrases for socializing, dating & nightlife than the Barron’s book
  • Best for: foodies, travelers keen on nightlife, those traveling by train & public transport

If you’re just looking for the basics to get by, Lonely Planet has an even smaller mini phrasebook: Fast Talk Italian. This one is:

  • focused strictly on phrases you’ll need for travel
  • about a third as thick as the other Lonely Planet book – thinner than some mobile phones!
  • Best for: shorter trips to tourist-friendly areas where you may not need much Italian

stack of 4 books set in ItalyItaly reading list

Reading books set in my destination always gets me inspired and provides a sliver of insight into the place I’m visiting and its people. Even if it’s fiction, there will be some reflection of local culture. Here are the books I’ve rounded up so far:

  • I expect the The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone will provide fascinating context for seeing the art collections at the Vatican. It’s a fictional biography of Michaelangelo that’s grounded in history.
  • For Christmas, I gave my sister (who will be traveling with me) a copy of The Midwife of Venice by Roberta Rich. It brings to life the atmosphere of the city in the 16th century through the story of a Jewish midwife practicing her craft at a time when tensions were high between Jews and the powerful Catholic Church. It’s high drama on the canals.
  • Fast forward 100 years, hop to the next island and shift from midwives to artists for The Glassblower of Murano by Marina Fiorato. The novel shifts between present day and 17th century Italy in telling the stories of two glassblowers separated by 500 years, but still somehow connected.
  • Venice seems to be a popular choice for dramatic stories, with a used copy of Donna Leon’s Death at La Fenice also making its way into my collection. This book is the first in Leon’s series of detective novels set in the city and featuring Commissario Guido Brunetti.
  • My nephew is keenly interested in seeing the excavations of Pompeii, so this action-packed historical fiction work by Robert Harris was my pick for him. It tells the dramatic story of some of Pompeii’s citizens in the days leading up to the fateful eruption.
  • Finally, a non-fiction pick: Italian Ways: On and Off the Rails from Milan to Palermo by Tim Parks. As a transplanted Brit, Parks has a unique perspective on how Italian train travel reflects the character of his adopted homeland.

It’s a good list so far, but let me know if you have any other Italian lit picks.

Ciao for now,

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