Review of the Lucca Italian School

Review of the Lucca Italian School

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 don’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 two, very different 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.

This post summaries my two weeks at the Lucca Italian School.

Lucca Italian School

My first language school experience was at the Lucca Italian School (LIS) in Lucca, located approximately half way between Pisa and Florence. I originally selected LIS based on the number of positive reviews for the school on Tripadvisor, positive comments in Tripadvisor and Fodor forums and on LIS’ facebook page. LIS also has a very comprehensive website and the initial information provided by the school when I contacted them was very helpful.

Lucca as a town to learn Italian

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Lucca’s walls. Walking around the 4km stretch of pathways, was a great way to start a day of learning!

As a place to learn Italian, Lucca was a perfect fit for me. It is large enough to have a wide range of (very good) restaurants to choose from, it’s located on a train line with easy access to Pisa and Florence and is simply a beautiful town with a lot of history. While a lot of tourists visit Lucca during the day, I found the morning and evenings were much more quiet and depending on the time of night, you could have the streets to yourself. While not exactly ‘off the beaten track’, Lucca is less touristy than some of its neighbouring cities, which makes it a great place to practice speaking Italian outside of class. While there were a couple instances where the person I was speaking to replied in English (despite my efforts to converse in Italian), for the most part, the people I met were very accommodating in letting me practice Italian. This of course was easier when I started the conversation with “I’m a student at the Italian school”! (in Italian of course!).

The town has a lot of attractions, many of which centre around Opera (Puccini was from Lucca), its several churches and its famous Renaissance walls. I found that I ended up being quite busy and after two weeks hadn’t really spent much time in Lucca ‘sightseeing’. I found that the city is a site in itself and I enjoyed spending my time walking the walls, strolling through the streets, people watching over a coffee or drink in a piazza and generally pretending I was a local.

Communication with LIS 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 LIS’ website and did not require an upfront written test to be submitted. A 20% deposit was required, which can be paid with credit card, with the remainder of the cost paid on the last day of class.

About a month prior to arriving at the school, I received an email outlining the details of my homestay and received a follow up email when I was a bit slow in letting my homestay host know my expected arrival time (my excuse – I was travelling at the time and forgot!). I found that the communication prior to my arrival showed the professionalism and organisation of the school.

 School Facilities

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The Lucca Italian School

The school is located in a heritage building in the northwest corner of the old town, just within Lucca’s historic walls. The building has classrooms on both levels, and on the second floor, there is an outdoor terrace, great for studying before or after class or during the mid-period break. The classrooms are bright and airy and a comfortable place to learn. There is also fast WIFI throughout the building (though a stronger signal on the second floor) and bottled water and coffee for sale.

The school’s administration is located on the second level of the school. There always seemed to be someone in the office if you had any questions.

Arrival on the first day

I chose to attend group classes, which typically run from 9:15am to 1pm, with a 20 – 30 minute ‘coffee’ break in the middle. This represents four, 50 minute classes per day.

On the first day of class, I was told to arrive at 8:30am for registration and to have a chat with a teacher to determine which class I would be joining. After filling out a short registration form, I had a five minute chat with one of the teachers. She told me that there were two classes I could be placed in and I asked to be placed in the more advanced class which would be considered a mid-intermediate class. After our chat, I was told to come back to the school at 9:30am. I thought this was a bit strange (I thought class would start at 9am), but it gave me a chance to have a coffee with some of the other new students. To make up for the late start, classes were extended until 1:15pm.

During the second week, since I was a returning student, I was told to come to the school at 10am due to the large number of new students.  The day was extended to 1:30pm and the mid morning break was shortened to make up for the late start.

Typical class structure

During my first week, I was in a class with six other students and during the second week, I was placed in a classlast day of LIS of nine other students. I had a different teacher each week, though some students had the same teacher. The teachers seemed to be allocated based on the number of different classes required based on the levels of the group of students each week. I found that seven students was a lot, so in the second week when I was in a class of 10 students, I found it was too many. To try to get people talking as much as possible during discussions, the teachers separated us into smaller groups, allowing for each of us to have more time practicing speaking. Though the large class size meant limited one-on-one time with the teacher, the one advantage of a larger group is a higher chance you’ll find someone you ‘click’ with and want to spend time with outside of class.

I asked about the large number of students and September tends to be a very busy time for the school, with class sizes dropping off from October. If the class size is a concern for you, try to attend during the less busy months since the school is open year round.

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Coffee break at a local cafe

Generally speaking, I found the classes were structure differently to what I was originally expecting (though to be honest, I didn’t really know what to expect!). For almost all schools I researched, the group lessons are split between two classes of grammar and two classes of comprehension. Based on this, I was expecting a strict division of grammar for two classes and conversation for the other two. In contrast, the classes were run much more fluidly. For example, one day we would start with a reading comprehension activity. We would then discuss the text in pairs or small groups using our vocabulary to summarise what we had just read. We would then have a group discussion to go through the words or phrases people didn’t understand. Throughout the morning, a grammar topic might be discussed depending on any issues that arose during the discussions. There was also the use of several games throughout the two weeks and several exercises related to culture and ‘Italian sayings’. Since a lot of grammar (such as verb conjugations) can be introduced in a classroom setting, but in reality, a lot of the learning comes from studying and memorising, I liked that there was a limited amount of time spent strictly on grammar. From my experience, the grammar exercises seemed to be based more on recognising different verb tenses in a text, when to use them, practising them in oral exercises and learning them while building vocabulary and general comprehension activities.

I found there was more structured grammar in the second week, but at no point did it feel like we were strictly studying grammar for an hour. We also didn’t have homework. I see this as a positive and a negative as I thought some homework (even voluntary) would have been nice to reinforce the topics taught throughout the week. On the positive side, outside of class time, you could choose to revise the information yourself, or spend all your time joining in on the school-led activities or soaking up the Italian culture.

The teachers

I had two teachers during the two weeks at LIS. While at first I was disappointed that I had a different teacher in week 2 (because I really liked my teacher in week 1!), it was also good to experience two styles of teaching. Both teachers were fantastic and made the lessons fly by (almost too quickly!). I should also say that the teachers I had, along with the support staff, all gave me a sense that they really enjoy what they do, which resulted in a relaxed and fun way to learn the language.

Course options

While I chose the group classes at an intermediate level, LIS provides many other options (see the LIS website for more details), including classes for absolute beginners and a cooking while learning Italian (among others).  Several of the students in my class chose to take group classes in the morning and a private class in the afternoon. I think that would have been a good mix between the social aspect of the group classes, while working on the topics you need to work on one-on-one with a teacher. With the larger class sizes, and it being impossible to have everyone in the class at the exact same level with the same experience, I found that at times, the topics were either too easy or too difficult. If you attend during a less busy time of the year, with smaller class sizes, the lessons could be more tailored to the experience in the class. Given the variety of the methods and materials used, I still found the majority of the activities to be interesting and engaging.

Cultural activities

Prior to arriving at LIS, I had very little idea what to expect when it came to the cultural activities and how it all ‘worked’.

On the first day of classes, our teacher provided us with a list of the activities scheduled for the week. On the first day (Monday), there was an organised tour of Lucca for the new students led by one of the teachers / assistants. This free tour lasted about two hours and finished with a drink (not included) at a local bar. I was there during the Luminara di Santa Croce, which is a significant holiday in Lucca. The school organised for a teacher to be in one of the main piazzas to organise the students. The teacher’s son led us afterwards to the fireworks show that finished at 11:30pm (for him to stay there with us that late was way more than expected!).  Other activities included an underground tour of one of the churches in Lucca and a cooking class at a farmhouse located in the neighbouring countryside. For more details of the cooking class click here to see my blog post. The cooking class cost 65 euros and included the bus ride to and from the farmhouse, wine and other drinks, the lesson, and a three course meal (an absolute deal and an excellent afternoon / evening!).

During the Sunday night before the second week, the school organised for returning students to go to Palazzo Pfanner to watch live classical music (7 euros). Activities during the second week included an afternoon trip to Montecatini Alto, a drawing class, a tour of a local palazzo and a trip to a villa in a neighbouring hill town known for its butterflies.

Overall I thought there was a good variety of activities and there was never any pressure to take part if you weren’t interested.

Other students

With the large number of students at the school while I was there, I definitely didn’t meet everyone, but could tell there was a wide range of nationalities represented. During the two weeks, the people I met were mostly from the US and the UK, but also from Denmark, Norway, Brazil, Germany and Spain. The average age was around 50 – 60. Being in my mid-30s, I was one of the youngest people at the school, and I must admit it was nice feeling ‘young’ for a couple of weeks! 🙂

Accommodation

I decided to stay with a local family, which is one of the options arranged by the school. Other options include an independent apartment (also organized by the school) or self-organised accommodation (B&B, airbnb, hotel, etc). My homestay was with a local Italian lady in an apartment in the centre of town, about 10 minutes walking distance from the school. The apartment, located on the fourth floor of the apartment complex (no lift = lots of stairs each day!), was just as I hoped an Italian apartment would be (creaky, hardwood floors, the cutest kitchen I’ve ever seen, clotheslines reached through the window when hanging out clothes,etc).

I had my own bedroom which had a couch-turned-queen bed, desk, dresser and plenty of room to spread out all my things. As part of my lodging, I had access to the kitchen but no meals included. This worked well for me as it meant my evenings were free to spend with other students or cook my own meals. I was initially concerned that I might end up paying for home cooked meals that wouldn’t live up to my “Italian home chef” expectations, as I’d read that sometimes the meals provided can be hit and miss (as a general comment, not specific to a LIS homestay).  Though not first hand experience, a student who chose to have breakfast and dinner included during her first week told me that the food was better than she had expected and was more than plentiful (i.e. several courses each evening and many options at breakfast).

As for sharing a home with a stranger, it may not be for everyone but I’m really glad I did it. It allowed me to chat with the owner before and after class and feel more connected to the town during my stay since it felt like I was a temporary resident and not a tourist. It was also nice to be able to ask for an insider’s view on where to shop, what sites to see, etc! Though we chatted each day, since my homestay host was busy, there was a lot of time when I had the house to myself, which suited me fine.

If you’re considering a homestay option, I would wholeheartedly recommend it, although with one minor hesitation. Since you’re staying in an apartment (or house), the facilities may not be to the standard that you might expect when staying in ‘made-for-tourist’ accommodation such as a B&B, specifically regarding the bathrooms. While the bathroom in my homestay was very large, clean and had everything I  needed, it had an interesting shower set up – a bathtub with no shower screen or shower curtains. This became a topic of conversation for me and the three other students I met who were also staying in a homestay. One student’s shower had a sloping ceiling so he wasn’t able to stand in the shower, another had a handheld showerhead only and had to sit to shower.  The other two were bathtubs with a shower attachment and nothing to keep the water from going everywhere. While more of a fun experience than an inconvenience, if this sort of thing is going to be an issue for you, I suggest requesting photos of the apartment before deciding whether or not to stay or staying in independent accommodation such as a B&B.

Payment

The bill was settled on the last day of school, which included the remaining amount for the course fee and any activities during the two weeks. Payment could be made by credit card, which wasn’t always offered at some of the other schools I researched. Alternatively, some schools require either a bank transfer or for payment to be made in cash. The payment for the homestay was paid directly to the owner in cash.

Overall Experience

My experience at LIS was incredibly positive and one of the best travelling experiences I have ever had. I would without hesitation attend the school again, and the number of returning students I met during my two weeks were a solid testament to this quality of the school.

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 🙂

Ciao!

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