Prior to selecting a language school in Italy, I spent a lot of time researching various schools. While I found a few review sites, detailed accounts written by past students were either difficult to find or didn’t seem to exist. To help future Italian students, 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.
Why I split up my time between two 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. 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 two experiences would be.
To make it even more fun, I decided to try two different types of learning experiences. At the Lucca Italian School, I attended group classes and stayed with a host family. At the Italian school in Todi, I chose private lessons and an independent apartment.
La Lingua La Vita Language School
I spent the last week of September 2016 at the Italian school in Todi. It’s located in the Umbria region, approximately halfway between Rome and Florence. I selected the school after talking to a former student that had visited twice for a total of four weeks. Based on his positive experience and seeing the various courses on offer, I was comfortable making Todi my base for a week in Umbria.
I was originally considering attending a school in Perugia. However, once I saw that the school in Todi offered a course with daily excursions to various Umbrian towns, I decided on Todi. This option allowed me to explore a bit of Umbria, without needing to organise a car and drive myself. I also liked the idea of leaving the logistics to someone else!
Todi 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. And for a small town of approximately 17,000 people, there are quite a few excellent restaurant options. It also has a gelateria with gelato to die for. And I have to mention the amazing Umbrian views in all directions.
The town’s small size means that you can ‘get to know it’ after a day. The limited number of ‘must see’ attractions reduces distractions so you can focus on studying, learning and practicing Italian. And that’s why you’re going, right?
The people I met in town were quite friendly and willing to have a chat in my broken Italian. While dining alone, the waiters would stop by my table and have a bit of a chat.
But there has to be some negatives …
One potential disadvantage is its isolated location. The town is served by the regional Umbrian train company, not the Trenitalia national network, so train travellers coming from Rome or Florence will have to make at least one train change in either Terni or Perugia. There are also bus options, though they were mostly inconvenient and seemed to be geared for young school students.
If you want to make day trips without a car, consider the location of Todi’s train station. It’s about 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 1 – 1.5 hours. Generally speaking, public transport throughout the region is not convenient or geared towards tourists.
Communication with the school prior to arrival
My first impressions with the school were very positive. My questions were answered promptly (usually within 24 hours). Registration was easy through email exchanges and payment 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 a nominal fee and provided a decent exchange rate. The school received the funds within a couple days and sent a confirmation email. I then received my registration details, with a payment request for the remaining amount which was due 30 days prior to my course date. I mistakenly missed this fine details and thought the payment terms were similar to the school in Lucca (i.e. paid once I arrived).
One small issue
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 I starting to think of back up plans. My email asking about my cash payment was never answered but I was emailed the name of my host. The apartment owner was asking 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!
Arrival in Todi
I arrived in Todi by train 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 nothing else!
If you’re arriving in Todi by train, either 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 some classrooms are located in the school’s main building near the main square. This is where I was told to go at 9am on my first day. My classes ended up being in a different building, about two minutes 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 lesson 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 school said they’d make a ‘class of one’ if you’re not at a similar level to other students, I wasn’t sure how dissimilar you need to be to have private lessons. 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 wanted to focus on.
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 the full week 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. She also asked me what topics I wanted to cover. The lessons during the week focused on these topics and also others I didn’t know I needed to learn. Can someone say Prepositions!?
Typical class structure
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. I found the mix of teaching methods worked well. The lessons were also fairly entertaining and the two hours flew by.
As for the duration, I found 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 up your energy. A pre-class cappuccino definitely doesn’t hurt! One morning she also really needed a coffee, so we went on a short excursion to a cafe for espressos!
While I chose private lessons, the school provides many other options (see the website for more details). They include 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. 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.
A bit of a mix up that worked out in the end
On my first day, I saw that there were trips planned for Orvieto, Spello and Assisi. 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. Instead, 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. This worked out very well for me, since being a solo traveller, the trips 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. I was able to attend the cooking class on the final day instead, which was one of the most entertaining nights of my trip. It did make for a rough day the following day when I was travelling to Spoleto! I’m quite sure the cooking class host brought out every typeof liquor he owned!
There were only a small number of students at the school while I was there. Since I was taking private lessons, I only met the few students that went on the day trips. 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 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.
Accommodation in Todi
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 was located on street level but off the main road. It was very cute, tidy and had everything I needed. This included a kitchen, two bedrooms, small dining table and a mini washing machine in the bathroom. The only thing it didn’t have was 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, such as 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 group trips each afternoon, it was nice to go home to a quiet apartment.
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 fixed it later in the day. Too easy!
A student who attended for three weeks in September, told me 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, you need to make a deposit with an initial bank transfer and provide a final payment a month before you arrive. The full amount, including payment for the apartment rental, was made directly to the school.
Overall my experience at the school was positive and I would recommend it as a good choice as a place to learn Italian. The town, while beautiful in itself, is great for relaxing and being a stress free environment to learn. The number of returning students gives testament to the quality of the school.
As much as I enjoyed my week, as a solo traveller in my mid-30s, I think I’d go to another school next time. I found that a week 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 🙂