I started studying Italian 10 years ago. It's what helped me fall in love with this country. Now, that doesn't mean I spent 10 years studying it every week, or even every month. But I do pretty well here speaking Italian. But alas, I tend to focus on what I don't understand rather than giving myself kudos for how well I do.
So the question is: if you want to move to Calabria, or even visit here, do you need to speak Italian?
I won't say you need to, but life will be a lot easier if you do.
There's Less English Off the Beaten Path
Visit Milan, Rome, or Florence, and you'll hear English spoken throughout the city, both by Italians and foreigners. Calabria, I will remind you, is another country, so to speak. There are far fewer Americans and English-speaking visitors, so most Calabrians don't speak English. Or else they don't admit it! Many a time I've had a local tell me they don't speak English...and then come up with a few phrases to prove the contrary.
The issue is that many are insecure to practice the rudimentary English they learned in school. With such a rare opportunity to use it, they feel rusty and unconfident with their language skills.
On the other hand, I've met groups of Calabrese who are fluent in English and excited to practice it with me. These people tend to have traveled abroad or gone to school up north, and so have had more exposure to other cultures and languages.
Not Gonna Lie, Bureaucracy is Harder
It's stressful enough to figure out where to go to get your carta d'identità (the anagrafe office, FYI), let alone explain to the woman that you'll be on vacation next week, so if they're planning to mail it, you won't be available to receive it. In Italian.
Not only does speaking Italian in Calabria help you navigate this process, but it can also ingratiate you with the locals. Just like federal employees in the U.S. have a (sometimes proven) stereotype of being disgruntled, I've met a few people in these different agencies and bureaus who aren't exactly thrilled to have their mornings of inactivity interrupted by a bumbling American.
So my default is, "scusi, sono Americana. Non parlo bene l'italiano."
Sorry, I'm American. I don't speak good Italian.
This immediately disarms them because they're expecting me to be a local. They at this point aren't really sure what to do with me as I continue to say, "non ho capito" (I don't understand) over and over and over again.
At the end of the exchange, I put on my very best manners and say, "Grazie mille! È molto gentile!" (Thank you so much! You are so kind!"). If they're super helpful, like the lady at the anagrafe office and the veterinarian who gave a home visit to my cat, I'll bring them a plant as a thank you later. We are then friends for life!
My point here is: if you're going to live here, it's in your best interest to speak Italian in Calabria. You'll have an easier time slogging through the red tape.
Want to Be a Part of the Culture? Learn the Language
Another reason I recommend knowing at least a little Italian before you arrive is if you'd prefer to not be home alone forever or surround yourself with English-speaking expats. One of my goals is to find my community, my peeps, and that means I need to be able to speak to them!
I recently was invited to a large gathering in a nearby park. Many people did speak English, but because I understood Italian, I was able to chat and understand conversations. That went a long way to feeling accepted.
Tips for Learning to Speak Italian in Calabria
It's probably worth me writing an entirely separate post on learning Italian, but let me leave you with a few tips.
First and foremost, don't be afraid or shy. You are NOT Italian, and you likely will never speak as fluently and perfectly as one, so let it go. Make mistakes. Apologize for being a bumbling American. They'll lie and tell you your Italian is good anyway. Keep failing, and I promise, you'll get better.
Commit to it. My friend Lynn recently committed to really focusing on her Italian skills. She has the television going in Italian while she cooks. She takes online yoga classes in Italian. She has a friend who calls her weekly for her Italian conversation lesson.
As for me, I watch movies and shows on Netflix with Italian subtitles. I take online classes. Read magazines. It's important to read, speak, and hear in Italian because those all hit a different part of the brain in the language-learning process.
Speaking Italian in Calabria will take time for me, and I can be patient. I can already feel how much more fluent I've become in four months, and how much more I understand!