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Stuck stateside needn’t mean you can’t chat with foreign locals — and improve your language skills

By Paul Abercrombie, The Washington Post

Aug 7, 2020

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As a longtime student of Italian, I look forward to near-annual trips to the bel paese for a chance to talk with native speakers. Or, as my wife and teenage son might put it: An opportunity for me to inflict my middling language skills on locals. And inflict I do. Cabbies, waiters, random strangers in the piazza — no one is safe from my enthusiastic, if semi-competent, chatter.
So when we had to cancel a summer visit to Rome because of the pandemic, I figured my mediocre Italian would backslide further.
But a curious thing happened. With more time on my hands, and access via online chat platforms such as Skype, Google Hangouts and Zoom to umpteen native speakers working as tutors, my Italian is probably better than it’s ever been. And I haven’t even left my home in Tampa.
I’ve mastered enough Italian to be too advanced for most language-learning apps, but I’m not fluent enough to join conversations without making loads of mistakes. Ditto for when people talk too fast or have regional accents.

“With more time on my hands, and access via online chat platforms such as Skype, Google Hangouts, and Zoom to umpteen native speakers working as tutors, my Italian is probably better than it’s ever been. And I haven’t even left my home in Tampa.

For many of us passionate so-so speakers of foreign languages who love to travel, being physically grounded needn’t mean a linguistic lockdown. Indeed, as I’ve learned over the past four-plus months, being stuck stateside can be an opportunity to supercharge your foreign language skills with online tutors. Or at least enjoyably kill time.

To be fair, online language learning isn’t new to me. Pre-coronavirus, I typically chatted for an hour once or twice monthly via Skype with Santino Santinelli, a professional teacher I found online a couple years ago. Patient and good-humored, Santino has helped me plenty, including almost curing my near-pathological inability to correctly use the tricky subjunctive mood.

Since early March, I’ve upped the frequency of our sessions to twice weekly. I’ve also sought out new online conversation partners, hoping for exposure to native speakers with a variety of accents. Plus, I worried that if Santino had to constantly correct my misuse of words such as partito and partita (political party and sporting match, respectively), even his superhuman patience might fray.

By late last month, I was chatting almost daily with one of a revolving cast of a dozen-odd Italians of various ages, genders and geographic locations.

While remote tutors are only an Internet search away (after all, it’s how I found Santino), I’ve also become a fan of italki, a social network that connects students of 130-plus languages with more than 10,000 online teachers around the globe.

The cost of virtual lessons varies, with an hour-long session running anywhere from little more than the price of a cappuccino to around $30 or more. For my purposes (to practice yaking), I tended to go with those priced somewhere in the middle on down. I generally found that tutors charging double digits — and who typically teach full-time — are better at explaining intricacies of grammar. Especially useful for those with unpredictable schedules is italki’s ability to connect you with tutors pretty much whenever you’re available.

Though conversations via Zoom and other online platforms can have all the ambiance of a hostage video, the format seems to help me focus. No pesky architectural masterpieces or elegantly dressed passersby to distract me. Or so I tell myself. What’s more, the intimacy of chatting with someone from his or her living room makes for a more relaxed setting than a classroom. And if during your lesson a tutor’s neighbor knocks on the door to borrow coffee or a husband happens to stroll through the room — as have happened to me — you may luck into impromptu conversations with them, too.

If a teacher turns out to be a dud, simply don’t schedule another lesson.

Speaking with Italians who possess different regional accents and backgrounds has refined my conversation skills. I’m starting to correct my more tenacious mistakes. And I’m getting more comfortable forming hypothetical phrases and causative verbs aloud. My vocabulary is bigger, albeit with a fair number of pandemic-centric terms such as focolaio del virus (virus hotbed), didattica a distanza (distance learning) and una persona che fa le consegne a domicilio (home delivery person).

I’d like to think the learning hasn’t all been one-way. Thanks to me, several Italians now are familiar with the Florida man meme.

I, like fellow Americans, can’t travel now to this or many other cities in Europe and elsewhere. But for an hour every couple of weeks, I’m able to join Anna as we verbally stroll through her hometown’s narrow canal-side walkways, now quiet and devoid of tourists. I’m also able to explore the Venetian food scene, comparing notes on the best places to score various cicchetti, or Venetian bar snacks. One particular restaurant famous for its local seafood I’ve long wanted to try, she assures me, lives up to its lauded reputation.

My online lessons also have taken me digitally from a stone’s throw from Italy’s border with Switzerland, to the foot of Sicily’s Mount Etna, and places between.

Of course, virtual visits can never replace the real thing. We’re still planning to travel next year to Naples, to (among other things) hunt for the best pizza in the dish’s birthplace. And we’ve long promised to show our son the otherworldly-pretty Amalfi Coast.

I’d also like someday to visit Ascoli Piceno, the town in east-central Italy where Santino lives with his partner and infant son. Meanwhile, it’s enough to experience his neighborhood vicariously and commiserate about living through a pandemic and talk of the joys and challenges of being a parent.

At the end of a session, I remind myself that by the time it’s safe to travel overseas again, I’ll have saved enough to get back to Italy and, I hope, speak the language a little better.

Abercrombie is a writer based in Tampa. His website is Find him on Twitter: @paulabercrombie.

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