Prior to selecting a language school in Italy, I spent a lot of time researching various schools throughout the country. While I found that there were a few review sites available, detailed first hand accounts written by past students were either very difficult to find or didn’t seem to exist. To provide future Italian students with an idea of what to expect, I’ve documented my experiences with two different language schools. You can find my travel diary here, which details my day to day experience attending the schools.
I decided to attend two different schools for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I was having difficulty narrowing down the area I wanted to visit, so visiting two schools allowed me to spread my vacation time over two regions (Northern Tuscany and Umbria). Secondly, out of curiosity, I wanted to see how different the experiences could be between two schools. I also decided to try two very different experiences at the schools. At the Lucca Italian School I attended group classes and stayed with a host family. At the La Lingua La Vita school, I chose private lessons and an independent apartment.
La Lingua La Vita Language School
During the last week of September 2016, I took Italian lessons at the La Lingua La Vita school in Todi, located in the Umbria region, approximately halfway between Rome and Florence. I selected the school after talking with a former student that had taken one week of lessons the previous year and was returning for three weeks this year. Based on his positive experience and seeing the various courses on offer, I was comfortable making Todi my base for my week in Umbria. I was originally considering attending a school Perugia and using it as a base for day trips on my own. However, once I saw that the school in Todi offered a course where the students go on daily excursions to a different Umbrian town each day, I decided Todi was going to be my home for a week. This option suited me well as I wanted to explore a bit of Umbria, and I liked the idea of not needing to organise a car and figuring out the logistics of getting around every day after my lessons.
Todi as a town to learn Italian
As a place to learn Italian, Todi is a great option if you want a small town with lots of opportunities to practice speaking Italian. For a small town of approximately 17,000 people there are quite a few excellent restaurant options, and it has a gelateria with gelato to die for and amazing Umbrian views in all directions. The town’s small size means that after half a day you can ‘get to know it’ and feel comfortable you won’t get lost. The limited number of ‘must see’ attractions, also means you can focus on studying, learning and practicing Italian, without a lot of distractions. The people I met in town were more or less all quite friendly and willing to have a chat in my broken Italian.
I should also reiterate that the surrounding countryside is gorgeous and I didn’t have a single meal that disappointed .
One potential disadvantage (that many people may find a huge advantage) is its isolated location. The town is served by the regional Umbrian train company, not the Trenitalia national network, so train travellers coming north from Rome or south from Florence, will have to make at least one train change in either Terni or Perugia. There are also bus options, though they didn’t seem to be overly convenient and seem to be geared for school students. Once you’re in Todi, if you’re looking to visit neighbouring towns such as Orvieto, Assisi, Spello or Spoleto, realistically you will need a car (which is why I chose to take the course that involves day trips organised by the school). Todi’s train station is located 2.5km outside of town down a steep and windy road with no sidewalks. The train is serviced by a bus, but depending on the time and day of the week, it may run only every hour or hour and a half. Generally speaking, public transport throughout the region does not appear to be convenient or geared towards tourists.
Communication with the school prior to arrival
My first impressions with the school were very positive as questions were answered promptly (usually within 24 hours accounting for the time difference between Italy and Australia). Registration was easy through email exchanges and the submission of a 20% deposit, paid by a bank transfer. While credit card would have been more convenient, I found a money exchange website called Currency Fair that charged only a nominal fee and provided a decent exchange rate. The school received the funds without a couple days and sent a confirmation email. I then received my registration details, with payment details for the remaining amount which was due 30 days prior to my course date. I mistakenly missed this fine detail and thought the payment terms were similar to the school in Lucca (i.e. paid once I arrived). A week prior to my arrival in Todi, I received an email from the school asking me if I’d paid for the course. By this time, it was too late to send a money transfer and seeing as I was already in Italy, I asked if I could pay in cash on arrival. While waiting for a response, I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to attend the school and seeing I was already in Italy at the time, I was starting to think of back up plans. My question regarding my cash payment wasn’t answered but I was provided with the name of the person who was renting me her apartment and was asked for my arrival time in Todi so that she could pick me up. Assuming this all meant my missed payment was ok, I made my way to Todi!
I arrived in Todi via a train ride from Perugia, which I visited over the weekend. Stepping off the train in Todi felt like I was being dropped off in the middle of nowhere. Once you walk past the station (which was closed as it was Sunday), there’s a parking lot, and that’s about it! If you’re arriving in Todi by train, make sure your accommodation provides a collection service, you know the bus times or have a phone and can call for a taxi. You would not want to make the 2.5km walk into town, especially with any amount of luggage. You’ll know what I mean, when you get there! It’s windy, steep and without sidewalks!
The school’s administration office and a couple classrooms are located on the second floor of a building off the main square. This is where I was told to go at 9am on my first day of class. My classes were in a different building, about two minutes walking distance away. The school provides free wifi and I was able to use a small desk before and after class. The classroom where I had my two hour daily private lessons was a bright and airy room in a building next to the San Fortunato church. Walking up the centuries old steps each day to go to class was pretty neat!
Arrival on the first day
After attending group classes the previous two weeks, I chose private lessons for a couple of reasons. Firstly, being a smaller school (there were about a dozen students the week I attended), I was concerned I’d be grouped with people at a much different level than I was. Though the schools I researched said that they will make a ‘class of one’ if you’re not at a similar level to other students, I’m not sure how similar or dissimilar you need to be to be grouped or be without a group. Secondly, after two weeks of group classes, I liked the idea of having two hours one-on-one with a teacher to work on the things I hadn’t quite previously mastered (which I found out was a lot!).
On my first day, I was asked to go to the school a bit earlier than 9am to fill in some paper work (and to pay I suppose!). You can read about my first day in more detail here.
My teacher originally thought I was a beginner, but once she found out I was at an intermediate level, she quickly changed her plan for the day without a second’s hesitation. She also asked me what topics I wanted to cover. The lessons during the week focused on these and also other topics I didn’t know I needed to learn, but definitely did (can someone say Prepositions!?).
Typical class structure
Since I was taking private lessons, the lesson focused on topics that I needed to work on. Though I was given an exercise book when I first arrived, she used a mixture of texts, exercises from a couple different sources and general conversation to teach the various topics. I found the classes used a good mix of teaching methods, she was very good at explaining the content, we kept each other entertained and the classes flew by. I definitely felt like two hours was a good amount of time for private lessons. Since it’s just you and the teacher, there’s no ‘break’ so it can be a bit tough to keep your energy up. A pre-class cappuccino definitely doesn’t hurt. One morning she also really needed a coffee, so we went on a short (two minute) excursion to a cafe for espressos!
While I chose private lessons, the school provides many other options (see the website for more details), including classes for absolute beginners, group classes for various levels and a painting while learning Italian class (amongst others). The school provides a free tour of Todi on the first day, which I attended by myself (either all other students were carrying over from the previous week, or didn’t want to attend). Since I was in private lessons, I didn’t actually meet any other students until the afternoon of my second day when I went on a trip to Orvieto.
My original course was supposed to include day trips to neighbouring towns including the tour of Todi, Orvieto, Spello, Assisi and Gubbio. This course was rather expensive but worked out to the equivalent of renting a car, insurance, petrol and the time and effort factor of figuring out how to get around. The trips also included an Italian speaking guide, which I thought was a good way to get a better feel for the towns visited. When I arrived on my first day, I saw that there were trips planned for Orvieto, Spello and Assisi and that students could pay to join them. I saw the price offered to the other students was considerably less than what I had paid. It turned out there was an administrative error and my course was supposed to be private afternoon trips to the towns listed, whereas the trips had been made available for anyone to join. Once I spoke to them about it, they apologised profusely and refunded me the difference between the prices the other students were paying (35 euros per trip) and what I had paid. In the end, it worked out very well for me, since being a solo traveller, I think the trips alone with a guide would have been less entertaining than they were with other students. If you were attending with another person, or really want the one-on-one attention of the guide, this option could work out very well. For more details on this specific course, click here. The only negative for me was that I missed out on visiting Gubbio, but I was able to attend the cooking class on the final day instead, which was one of the most entertaining nights of my trip.
With a small number of students at the school while I was there, and since I was taking private lessons, I only met the few students that went on the day trips and the cooking class. The students I met included two ladies from Israel, a teenager and older lady from Japan (not travelling together), a couple from Holland and a lady from South Africa. Both the ladies from Israel and the lady from South Africa had both attended the school previously, with the latter there for her fourth or fifth time. While my experience was limited, the returning students provide a testament to their positive experiences with the school.
I decided to rent my own apartment, which is one of the options arranged by the school. Other options included a homestay with a local family (also organized by the school) or self-organised accommodation (B&B, airbnb, hotel, etc). My apartment was located within the walls, about 10 minutes walking distance (uphill!) from the school. The apartment, located on street level but off the main road, was very cute, tidy and had everything I needed (kitchen, two bedrooms, small dining table and a mini washing machine in the bathroom), but no internet.
The owner’s son picked me up at the train station and dropped me off at the apartment. The owner and her husband came by that evening to show me various things (locking the door, using the washing machine, turning on the gas for the stove, etc). They were very friendly and made me wish I was doing a homestay again! Though in the end, after the day trips each afternoon, it was nice to go home to a quiet apartment at the end of the day.
The only minor issue I had was when I used the shower the first time, as there was little to no water pressure. The next day I spoke to someone at the school, they contacted the owners and they were there later that day to fix it. Too easy!
Speaking with a student who attended for three weeks in September, his apartment was a ‘palazzo‘, complete with two bedrooms and a balcony. I think the standards of the apartments can vary quite a bit depending on how lucky you get!
As noted above, payment is made with a bank transfer, with a deposit upfront and then final payment a month before arrival. The full amount, including payment for the apartment rental, was made directly to the school.
Overall my experience at the school was positive. As a place to learn Italian, the quality of the teaching and for the beautiful surrounding countryside, I would recommend Todi as a good choice. The town itself is great for relaxing, taking in the Italian lifestyle and being a stressfree environment to learn the beautiful language of Italian. The number of returning students gives testament to the quality of the school.
While I enjoyed my week a lot, as a solo traveller in my mid-30s, I don’t know if I would go back there in the near term as the town was not quite big and busy enough for me to warrant another trip. I found that a week long stay was a good amount of time for me, since there were enough restaurants to try and the day trips to neighbouring towns kept me busy during the day.
If you have any questions about my school experience or studying Italian in Italy in general, leave me a comment below and I’ll do my best to answer 🙂