The Daily Telegraph
22 WEDNESDAY, APRIL 12, 2000

If you’re passionate about learning Italian, says Fiona Mountford.

La dolce vita with verbs

HEARD the one about the Englishman, the Irishman and the Scotsman? This time they are joined by, among others, a Finn, a Mexican and a Greek, and they are all perspìring in a baking classroom at a l6th-century palazzo in Bologna. where they are in the middle of an intensive Italian language course.
Two years of weekly evening classes. 11 years of Latin and a reasonable grasp of French had persuaded me that I could survive such a total immersion course. even though I had never held what could reasonably be termed an Italian Conversation. But. as I discovered on the very first day of the three-month course I attended last summer, knowing what the pluperfect of the verb “to have’ is and actually being required to employ it in a dialogue are two very different things. Floundering in a sea of muddled imperfects. I pitied the poor novices around me who had not even arrived at the ‘My name is. . .” stage.
After an initial test to ascertain our knowledge of grammar. we were assigned to our classes.
The average size was eight students but, as I had requested a special “small class”, I was placed with ma, a German girl. We quickly adjusted to our routine of grammar lessons from 9am to 11 am, a much needed cappuccino break and then a one-hour conversation class followed by homework in the afternoon.
When Ina departed — the average stay at the school is a month — I felt unable to face the prospect of inane role-playing in a large class (“create a dialogue using only the future tense”) and opted for individual lessons. That was when the fun and the dramatic improvement really kicked in. In eight weeks with Sabina, my teacher, my “atrocious” improved, I whizzed through the school’s grammar learning schedule and acquired an in-depth knowledge of Italian football terminology.

However, the real beauty of my course was obvious: I was living in Italy: Instead of a snatched few hours in a London further education college. I had 24-hour access to all things Italian and, even better time to appreciate them.
A morning espresso in the bar opposite my apartment turned into a daily round of Call My Bluff as I asked the friendly barista to explain difficult words in La Repubblica. A flop in front of the telly yielded any number of dubious quiz shows with a charm all of their own simple for being in Italian. An informal test set for me by the fanatical Sabina demonstrated how much more of ER in Italian I understood each week. (Yes, I do know how to say. “Three litres of O-Neg on the rapid infuser”, in case you are wondering). Cheesy magazìnes with their problem pages, soppy films — anything and everything could be enjoyed and justified as after-hours practice.
The advantage of Bologna is that it is in the centre of the cheap and effective Italian rail network, and I exploited this to the full each weekend.
Excursions all over northern and central Italy provìded a good counterbalance to school, giving me a feeling of “being on holyday” even while I was still absorbing the language (you can learn a lot of irregular verbs during a long train journey). In 12 weeks, I managed every major city (and beach) within a 200-miie radius, with Florence necessitating a second visit, as Arsenal had kindly arranged an away game there.
My three-month dolce vita would have lacked a certain something, however, had it not been for my landlady, with whom I shared a beautiful. if somewhat dilapidated. city-centre apartment. Fearing a house full of English speakers, I had asked for a room in the home of an Italian in preference to sharing a flat with other students and. despite some sticky moments with broken washing machines (my fault), and a steady stream of boyfriends (alas. hers). it worked out well especially when my Italian was good enough to comprehend her rapid speech. And if I had lived anywhere else I would have missed the once-in-a-Iifetime opportunity to translate the lyrics of the Clash into Italian. .

T H E school’s comprehensive programme of extra-curricular activities enabled students to get to know one another. a particularly rewarding exercise given such a mixture of nationalities. Even the most committed Euro-sceptic would have marvelled at how German chatted with Dane, Swede with Belgian, primarily in Italian but using a host of other languages when necessary.
My Filofax now bulges with addresses and invitations to visit Rome in January, Connecticut in March and Finland in the summer- alI from people for whom the English-language version of BR simply will not suffice any longer.

O Fiona Mountford studied at the Centre Cultura Italiana, Via Castiglione 4, 40124 Bologna; phone
0039051 228003; e-mail, cuIturait@! The most popular course is a daily four hour class for size to 12 people, which costs about £90 a week.. On request, the school will arrange accommodation for £58 a week.