An American speaking Italian is like a dancer having two left feet.

One of the most difficult things to learn in a new country is not the language itself, but how to use the language in the right way.

I arrived in Italy 6 years ago, not knowing any Italian at all. I took French grammar rules and collided them with an unruly Italian accent. It went surprisingly well, even though I wasn’t taking any classes, and within a few months I was able to express my thoughts. It was during Year 2 that I first made a joke. No. Sorry. It was in Year 2 that I first made a joke that someone actually laughed at, which (for me) marked a new threshold of mastery of the language. During Year 3 I started to get more adventurous with grammatical structures, including those that are rarely used by Italians themselves in conversation (at least not by Reggiani). And in Year 4, I finally made some girl friends (YES, it took FOUR years to make friends in rural Italy). After that, the scope of my – let’s just say – “casual” vocabulary blossomed. By Year 5, I really started to see that the next step was learning how to dance in conversation.

And it is a dance.

The complex combination of Italian language and culture requires that a conversation has a certain degree of push and pull — a certain degree of suffering balanced by persistence, of beauty balanced by frustration, and of anger balanced by passion.

It doesn’t matter if we are trying to make the same point or reach the same conclusion. Without this tugging back and forth, it’s as if the content of the conversation loses its validity. We have to disagree a bit before we can agree. Hypothetical situations have to be proposed and dismissed. Rhetorical questions have to be asked and mocked. Sensations of both guilt and justification have to be expressed by both sides. We have to dance.

My Two Left Feet

In the beginning, it was as if I had two left feet. I found it particularly difficult to speak with Italian men in a work setting. I was intimidated by the level of what I perceived as aggressiveness, not understanding that they were just taking the lead and expecting a firm response to grab onto. Several times I remember wilting away behind my marito (husband), simply because I thought they were angry with me or annoyed by me. Something about the exclamation “maaa, daaaaiiii!”, felt almost insulting… like I was clearly an idiot for not being able to understand their point. I didn’t yet understand that this was part of the dance. I didn’t yet understand that one must lightly belittle or tease in order to provoke a more sincere and passionate response. My inability to respond with a firm “guarda” or “dunque” to introduce my opinion made me appear to be an amateur. It was as if what I was saying clearly didn’t mean enough to me, so why should they listen?

The aggressive style of conversation is not the only characteristic that was difficult for me to adjust to, however. There are also many Italians who construct their sentences in a way that is beautiful and almost artistic, but very difficult for a non-native speaker to follow — as if they are dancing around you, without ever clearly stating the intention.

I remember one particularly painful conversation where a work contact was talking my ear off for about 20 minutes, very clearly wanting me to leggere tra le righe (read between the lines). The problem was that I had no idea what the righe were, nor how to navigate between them to find what he was trying to get at. After many twirls around the dance floor, it occurred to me that perhaps he was trying to beat around the bush about not paying me my consultation fee. I, in my painfully tacky American way, simply asked him directly, “Are you asking me to waive my fees?” The poor man didn’t know what to do and for the first time in half an hour was speechless. Looking back on this massive brutta figura of mine, I realize that no Italian would have ever asked so directly for such a clarification. There would have been a little dancing in response, a little tugging and pulling, a little injection of guilt, and perhaps an eventual concession, but only after it’s clear to both parties that a negotiation has taken place.

After that, I found that it helps a lot to preface important conversations, especially when someone may not be aware right away that I’m not Italian. I’ll just poke fun at myself before we begin the conversation by saying, “please excuse my tacky American way of speaking; just let me know if I am too direct”. I find that this allows me more leeway in conversation. I can cut to the chase a bit and they return by joking how speedy and efficient we Americans are. Otherwise I end up in a very dangerous position where my partner in conversation may not know why I am speaking the way I am, and they will just take me for too direct and impolite.

So now, in my 6th year in Italy, I find myself beginning to learn how to dance. I’m becoming more aggressive and doling out more guilt. I’m learning the necessary hand motions. I’m trying to sidestep offensively direct questions (that one is difficult). But I’m also trying to hold on to the style of conversation that makes me who I am.

It’s had consequences, I won’t lie. The more I understand how things work, the more I look back on my first years and think, “oooooooh… THAT’s why they think I’m weird.” Then I have to try and mend all the brutta figures I made early on, which is sometimes impossible. Italians hold on to their first impression of you, more often than not.

But the hardest part is the effect I see it having on my mood and demeanour. I’m changing to fit the culture more, as is to be expected. But it’s a little upsetting to feel like you’re losing yourself a bit. I can’t really be the positive, upbeat person I was before. If I don’t complain a bit or express my suffering a bit, my point is considered invalid or I am thought to be lazy and uninterested.

That concept in and of itself is going to need more explanation, but I will save it for my next post entitled “I don’t suffer enough for Italy.” I’ll try to publish it next week, so please come back and visit. I’d be super interested to hear what other expats in Italy think about learning the “dance” – please leave comments at the bottom of the post.

This post is a COSI (Crazy Observations by Stranieri in Italy) joint publication:

To read some other great ways expats are dealing with learning the Italian language, check these out:


52 thoughts on “An American speaking Italian is like a dancer having two left feet.

  1. Pingback: How speaking Italian for four years has effected my English.

  2. Pingback: Learning Italian in Florence, or that one time a can of Coca-Cola taught me a new language. | The Florence Diaries.

  3. I’ve been dancing in Italian for over 30 years now – problem is, I’m forgetting the steps to my native Scottish reels and I’m getting funny looks from native English speakers now as well as stepping on their toes a lot…

    • yep, I know what you mean… my English is shocking now. It takes like 30 minutes to recall a 3 syllable word. 🙂

  4. A really wonderful post, M, and a great explanation of how language is so much more than vocabulary and grammar. Everything important in an Italian conversation is usually found “tra le righe.” Great insights.

  5. I can sooo relate to this. Especially the losing yourself. I used to be such positive, happy Texan too but I find that after being here 15 yrs I have lost alot of that!!!

    • Does it return to you when you go back to visit? This last visit home, I felt like it was harder to get back to… but it was still there as my default position, ya know?

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  7. Very interesting presentation of your understanding progress. I did relate……… “Scusate il mio Italiano, dopo cinquanta anni si è arrugginato” is my typical preface when I communicate with an Italian for the first time.

  8. Pingback: Italian The Hard Way | Living In Italy.Moving To Italy. Loving In Italy. Laughing In Italy.

  9. Excellent post. I am sure that all new languages have their challenges particularly for an adult learning a second language. Ma. Italians are so passionate which is probably why you must dance Lyn

    • yes they are. yes they are. I never considered myself much of a dancer before, but really you have no option!

  10. I’ve lived in Italy twice, this last since 1999. In the 15 years I’ve been here, it’s never crossed my mind to ever tame my character. I am direct, I will always be direct, and I have no desire to be anything other than direct. I tire of the ultra long explanations that could have been said in less than five sentences. With that said, some things have changed, in their own time, simply by living in a different culture. As an American, I use to ask personal questions which were sometimes met in silence. This is mostly due to living in Genoa which does not welcome such open communication and over time I’ve become like them. I also express anger more often….. but Italian bureaucracy can bring that out in you more often than you like. Learning the Italian language is an on-going process that never ends. Every day conversation comes easily, but I do make errors and I still struggle with the subjunctive tense.

    • That’s comforting to hear you haven’t lost your directness. I don’t think I ever really will… but I find that people’s reactions to it is what’s upsetting. It would be fine if I didn’t give a crap what they think of me. But that’s difficult for me. Working on it… 🙂

      oh, and, subjunctive is the devil.

    • I’m right there with you. I mean, people here already have a preconceived idea about me as a foreigner, and as an American that it wouldn’t matter how hard I try to be like them, I never will be. Honestly I wouldn’t want to. They don’t look all that happy to me. Just sayin. The only way I have found to be accepted and not make myself crazy over being constantly judged is to be myself and be open and honest, and above all, stand up for myself! Then people don’t have much of a choice. They have no choice but to accept that’s just the way I am. I’m different… Everything about me from my direct way of talking to making cashiers visibly uncomfortable with friendly chit chat. I’m from Texas and we are practically polar opposites from Genoani Musoni, but whatever. I have learned to accept my place as an outsider. Now I just own it. I used to take all their stone-faced stares personally, now I know this is the land of “resting bitch face” and it’s all good. It makes it easier for me when I’m in a crappy mood to get around town.

  11. Beautiful post. It’s been an awkward dance for me too, but keep dancing and you’ll get the hang of it. And what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger … ok I’ll stop with the cliché now. Loved your post!

  12. I really loved your insight on italian dancing conversations. As an italian native, I never realized how difficult it was from a foreign perspective Two years ago I was enganged with a german girl and when I had to know the parents (first time in germany), I felt the same anxiety and the sensation to be considered a sort of retarded schoolboy. I was nervous for the serious way my wannabe-father-in-law staked at me but just now I understand that germans are serious by nature and that under the skin of meticulous burocrats there are gentle and friendly hearts.

    • It does feel like they’re staring, you’re right! And yes, you do end up feeling like some charity case that needs help to walk across the street. The worst is that many (at least many Italians, but I suspect any host country towards non-native speakers) will do a couple of other things:
      1. they talk louder. As if your lack of understanding is associated with your ability to hear.
      2. they make fun of you, in front of you. As if you are too dumb to notice that they think you’re nuts just because you can’t express yourself well.
      🙂 Grazie per leggere, mi piace che ci sono italiani chi leggano questo anche!

  13. When our daughter was studying Italian language in Italy she was having a very hard time with her extremely old school professor. We came for a visit and met with him, brought him a gift, talked a bit about her difficulty. His reply was “she must suffer to learn”. Yeah, well she was suffering all right but at least he gave her a passing grade!!

    • haha, YES! love it. Correct. She must suffer to learn. My next post will be dedicated to that subject. Stay tuned.

  14. Very interesting post, M.: the difference in the way conversation runs has been the cause of many misunderstandings between me [native Italian] and my British wife, at least at the beginning…but I have lived outside Italy for a few years now, and I have changed as well… 😉

    PS: we will be moving to Reggio in a couple of months: we may see each other, at some point…

    • oh yay! neeeeeiiiiighboooooors!!! Contact me when you get settled and we’ll go eat gnocco fritto with Lambrusco! 🙂 Benvenuti

  15. This was so interesting. I never thought about how living there (one day) could change me in this manner. I understand the dance now, I am just not sure how I will do. Very, very interesting (I’m a positive person too).

    Also, I have been made fun of quite a few times- by my close friends (they are like family), I gave them lots of leeway…..but, I was trying so hard to speak Italian. It was exhausting. By the end of the day, I would be exhausted from so much concentration. So, when they would make fun of me (in front of me)- I would usually just revert back into English (that-will-teach them!!!!).

    PS- I can make fun of myself, laugh at myself, I even think I’m silly, but this was a different animal somehow.

    Anyway, whatever- still gonna try, still gonna make mistakes, I guess I will be the weird direct Americana. We will see. 🙂
    At least I understand it now. Very educational piece. Thank you.

    • I’m glad it gave you food for thought! I know what you mean about the teasing… it’s hard to explain. And it’s hard for them to understand that it takes A LOT of brainpower to function in a different language all day, at least at the beginning. It IS exhausting. Then you start messing up phrases, getting things confused, reverting to English when you can’t force your brain to search any more for the correct word… and they tease you throughout this! Like you should be able to take the suffering, so man up.
      🙂 yeah… sigh… it’s tough. But if we weren’t challenged, we’d probably get bored… at least I would.

      • It’s good for our brains and (hopefully HA!HA!)- if they didnt like us, they would not bother teasing. Si?!!!
        So, they like/love us!

  16. I have lived in Italy for the past 7 years, I still prefer to point, mime and talk loudly whilst adding a vowel onto the end of an English word. I don’t think I will ever get to the stage of a beautiful dance of words, not unless I have had a glass or two of grappa.

  17. I can relate so well to this article for so many reasons, it took a while for me too (and ‘dunque’ always gets me when I’m having a bad day, and rolling my ‘r’s oh mamma mia!)

    • yes! my R’s get lazy in direct proportion with the time of day… by the time evening rolls around, my tongue is like, “time for bed. ciao.”

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  19. Thank you so much for this post! It explains so much. I’m only a part-time resident, with no Italian spouse to translate for me (either literally or culturally), so I despair of ever getting to cracking a joke, much less dancing. But, at least I have a clue as to why I make a brutta figura sometimes. So what’s up with “dunque”? I thought it was mostly a space filler (like “well” in English). Have I been completely tone deaf? And I can’t wait to read up on suffering! I think that one passed right over my head, too. Thanks again for your enlightening post.

    • You’re most welcome, dear Traveler! “Dunque”, as was explained to me by an Italian girlfriend, is a choice weapon to keep in your reserves… especially as a woman in Italy. When a woman enters the room and starts the sentence with “Dunque”, you might as well take cover. It’s basically like: “Alright ya’ll, shut the Hell up and listen. This is how it’s gonna be.” Men can use it as well. But when a chick uses it, it’s a show stopper. It’s particularly useful in all-male situations, when you need to show your palles.

      I should do a post about Dunque.

  20. This is such an interesting discussion as there are so many of us studying and trying to speak Italian either when we visit or while living in Italia. It is funny how extremely polite Italians are in most situations, and how they will help you with your language by correcting you (I have had many mini lessons while in a shop) but they can’t seem to help themselves laughing out loud at you when you blow it. I remember once on the train asking for zucchero arancia instead of sugo arancia.The gal with the snack cart laughed so hard as she was correcting me. I think you have to develop a really thick skin or you will never want to try speaking. I don’t care anymore now as I am determined to become as fluent as possible. and yes, please do a post on dunque and if you could also explain the difference for scusa/scusate/scusi that would be lovely also! This stuff isn’t found in the grammar books!! 🙂

    • Oh yeah, you’re totally right. They will prende you in giro all week long for a simple gender mistake!

      Great suggestion on the scusa one, that got me all confused at first too. The Dunque one is being scheduled as we speak! I’ll add a link here later!

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  25. Despite five years of living here and good Italian I really feel something cristalized today whilst reading your article. I think I’m salsaing in informal contexts but still treading on people’s toes at work. I must bring out the guarda and the dunque.

  26. Pingback: How to make a frozen margarita in Italy. | Married to Italy

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