If you exempt the few frustrations in communication that occur in the first days (or even months), there are many fun things about learning a new language through living abroad. I specify living abroad, because while studying in your home country is rewarding, the focus is largely on tourist needs and grammar rather than general conversation and expressions. Teachers generally leave out the profanities and colloquialisms, since much like when we study our first language, they want their students to write and speak “properly”. The problem is that I have yet to meet an Italian who consistently speaks “properly”, just as I have spent twenty-two years in England without finding a correct speaker of English.
I also strongly believe that language and culture are tied closely together, with knowledge of one feeding into the other. Living abroad means you can take advantage of this intertwining: you are surrounded by culture, giving you a greater understanding of the language, and vice versa.
The stereotype of Italians being extremely passionate, for example, can be seen to extend to their use of language: I often find myself in situations where I am unsure if the people yelling at each other in profanities are about to start a fight or are simply having a friendly catch-up. But it is their passionate use of language which makes it so much fun to learn and speak. Whilst, thankfully, it is not so bound up in idioms and phrasal verbs as English (after attempting to teach English here, I now realise my language often makes no grammatical sense), Italian does have many oddities and expressions that would leave you very confused after a direct Google translation. I’ve included a few of my favourite examples:
Cavolo. Swearing in another language always holds a greater rush than in your own, and when done reflexively makes you feel rather in tune with the culture. Yet this particular vulgarity is actually quite innocent. In the same way we might say “fudge” or “sugar”, “cavolo” – literally translating as “cabbage” – is used in the place of more harmful vulgarities. Generally, it is said in cases of shock rather than anger. It is extremely fun to use, especially when you remember you are basically yelling “cabbage”, but do remember to pronounce the “o” properly – otherwise you could be saying “cavalo” i.e. “horse”, and wouldn’t that seem odd (does sarcasm work in writing?).
In booca al lupo. This is one of those expressions that probably held some reasoning when it was first created, but now makes little sense, remaining as an idiom. Its literal translation is “In mouth of the wolf”, and it generally requires the response “Crepi il lupo” i.e. “shoot the wolf”. I’d ask you to guess what it means, but without context it’s completely impossible. The closest expression in English would be “break a leg”: used before exams, important meetings, etc, it’s a way of wishing good luck. Not something you could guess from shooting a wolf, right?
Uccello. Let’s give some context on this one: a little girl points to the bird in the sky and says uccello – for which she is correct. But then we switch to another situation: some men are fighting and one calls the other an “uccello”, kicking things off even further. Why would someone be angry at being called a bird, you might be asking? Because, in English terms, he was just called the c word (the male one). Italians love double meanings. I would advise against using this one if you aren’t talking about the flying animal since – as with its English equivalent – it’s rather vulgar.
Piselli. Here’s some advice: if you’re with a group of friends, don’t say “mi piacciono piselli”. You could be perfectly innocently saying you like pease – they are a nutritious vegetable, after all. But since Italians apparently love doubling random words for male genitalia, you could be saying something else entirely. Rather than being a vulgarity, however, “pisello” (ending in “o” for singular, “i” for plural) is a colloquial term used by children. As with “uccello”, it’s all about the context. As my host mother put it, if whilst having dinner Nonna asks me “ti piacciono piselli?” (“do you like peas / penises), it should be assumed she means the former translation.
Sei una zuppa. Another idiom, however this one has some sense. Literally it is “you are a soup”, with the meaning that the directed person is heavy personality wise – much in the way of a soup’s thickness. Okay, so there’s the obvious contradiction that some soups are thing, but there’s at least more logic than the mouth of the wolf one.