Valeria Soave

Learning Italian

When you study Italian as a foreign language you come into contact with a different culture in which there are important common features, but also great differences in a small piece of land. When two Italians meet for the first time, the first question that provides the most information is usually “Di dove sei?” (Where are you from?).  In my case, the answer is: from a village near La Spezia, in Liguria, that is to say, on the northwest coast, between Genoa and Pisa. This province is known for Cinque Terre, five very pretty little villages between hills and sea. I wish I was from Rome, that would make it easier to answer this question outside Italy, which I left in 2002, at the tender age of 25, but we still see each other often.

The stronger the motivation, the more effective the learning will be: a trip to Italy, falling in love with Italian culture or an Italian person, obtaining citizenship, a life project in this country, practising one’s profession in Italy and having access to like-minded people, having commercial or business relations with this country, giving a lecture or doing a year at university, as a student or a professor, recovering the language of one’s parents and grandparents as a descendant, keeping your mind active through learning another language and getting to use it to recount your memories, deepening and putting into practice what one is learning in another Italian course or school, or in many cases, the pleasure of learning a language and ‘playing’ it as if it were a musical instrument, are just examples of possible factors that can produce this interest.

My background

Since the 1990s, given the growing number of migrants in Italy, a lot of material has been produced on the learning process of Italian as a second language, both at the academic level and in the practice of  teaching to foreigners. More and more innovative and interdisciplinary teachings have offered a truly effective alternative to the obsolete, inefficient and often frustrating ‘traditional’ ones that, unfortunately, have not yet disappeared. In this sense, it has been a pleasure and an honor for me to be able to participate in this exciting and rigorous process, contributing both studies and research as well as fieldwork with migrant students in public schools.

The knowledge I acquired in the two years of Communication Sciences with Umberto Eco, the studies in the Faculty of Foreign Languages and Literature in Bologna, together with the linguistic intervention on migrants implemented in this city, led me to work as a teacher of Italian as a Second Language when I was still undergraduate in 1999. That was the year when I had the chance to meet professor and friend Gabriele Pallotti, who had been the first to trace and cross this great bridge I was looking for, by bringing the studies of Communication Sciences to the study of Italian as a second language and straight to the fieldwork with migrant students in public schools.

Shortly after, in 2002, my own migrations began and I moved first to the Netherlands, then to the Canary Islands and, after that, to Andalusia, where I worked as a language teacher and where I keep on living the lifelong learning of “not being from here”.

Since 2019, I have been working exclusively as an online teacher of Italian – my students live in various countries around the world, including Italy – leaning on online platforms like Italki and relying on the languages I speak (English, Spanish, Brazilian Portuguese) and the ones I am learning (French and Moroccan Arabic).

Besides the great advantages that online teaching offers in terms of learning, such as saving time, visualization and organization of materials, lecturing in slippers and, the most important, the creation of a safe comfort zone for the learner, it is also true that this modality allows me to travel and continue learning in a sort of digital nomadism, with a base in Cadiz, the Atlantic city of southern Spain, that almost borders Africa.

How do we learn a foreign language?

Cognitive science, neurolinguistics and language didactics have made glorious contributions, detailed explanations, materials, techniques and technologies that are fundamental to understanding and realizing the process of learning a foreign language. However, there will always be some mystery in how this process takes place. There are many illiterate adults who speak four languages and learned them through listening, observing and memorizing, and through the desire and need to communicate.

Books, video courses, language learning apps, exercises, YouTube channels, tv shows, videos and podcasts are very important tools for accessing another language and assimilating it. But what is really essential is to be in an authentic communication situation, possibly with a skilled teacher. The protected situation of the online lesson is the space needed to experiment without being afraid of making mistakes, since mistakes are to be considered gateways to knowledge. To correct them, at the right time, the most important thing is to analyze the information they carry.


My lessons are highly structured and consciously improvised. They are handled through a wide range of both authentic and didactic material taken from different generations of Italian language books, youtube channels, how-to videos, articles, interviews, ads and jokes according to the students’ interests and the day they’re having. Rules and vocabulary will be derived and practiced from any kind of material and ‘random’ conversation. The levels of real communication and linguistic analysis usually vary to different degrees, customized to the student’s learning style and needs.

Grammar categories (e.g., article, adverb, conditional, pronoun, future in the past tense, consecutive sentence , etc.) are part of the learning project, but they are not supposed to be known in advance, and will be only mentioned to enable students to look up linguistic material on their own, if they have time for self-learning. They are always associated with a real or likely communicative situation, since if it is true that “Il gatto ha bevuto l’acqua” (the cat drank water) is a correct and possible sentence that is very useful for structure learning on an abstract level, it is also true that it is highly unlikely that anyone would say that in a concrete conversation. From my point of view, on both basic or advanced levels, after the global comprehension of an audio, text or video, it is important to recognize and isolate a structure by analyzing it, practicing it and finally reusing it in conversation with me or other interactive activities. Grammar is like the scaffolding that you take off once you have built the house; in my lessons, those who do not know it learn it almost without being aware, those who give grammar too much importance learn how to forget it.


Learning a foreign language is like walking along a path between the hills and the sea, with its ups and downs, curves and straight lines, smooth or bumpy and detours to explore, trees, gardens, stones and potholes to watch out for, it is advisable to adapt your pace to each stretch and always contemplate stopping and looking around.

It is an experience of wonder and self-control, a continuous discovery with the aim of understanding and being understood, expressing and reinventing oneself, broadening one’s abilities, horizons and possibilities.

Rather than sounding like a native speaker, the objective is communicating effectively on different levels: the process of approximation in this sense is much more productive than the ambition for perfection.