In September 2016, I spent two weeks studying Italian at Lucca Italian School. Prior to selecting a language school, I spent a lot of time trying to research schools throughout the country. While there are a few review sites available, detailed first hand accounts written by past students are difficult to find. 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 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. I decided two schools would allow 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.
2019 Update: I enjoyed my first experience so much, I revisited LIS in May 2019. I’m happy to say, my class placement was at a much higher level compared to my first visit (go me!). And I can say the experience was no different the second time around. Except this time some of the teachers recognised me from three years prior! Most of the teachers are still there which tells me a lot about the administrative side of the school. This time I rented my own apartment since I was travelling with my parents. Not travelling solo meant meant less interactions with students outside of class. Even so, we still managed to have a lovely dinner together on our last night. I would still highly recommend this school.
Ok now back to the original review with a lot more detail.
Review of the Lucca Italian School
My first language school experience was at the Lucca Italian School (LIS) in Lucca. This beautiful Tuscan town is located approximately half way between Pisa and Florence. I originally selected LIS because it was one of the only schools that had reviews on Tripadvisor. I also saw it mentioned in Fodor forums and has numerous recommendation on its Facebook page. LIS also has a very comprehensive website that answers a lot of questions. The school provided me with initial information when I contacted them, which was very helpful.
Lucca as a town to learn Italian
As a place to learn Italian or to simply visit, 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 it’s 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. Depending on the time of night, you could even have the streets to yourself. While not exactly ‘off the beaten path’, Lucca is less touristy than some of its neighbouring cities. This helps to make it a great place to practice speaking Italian outside of class.
In saying that, there were a couple instances where the person I was speaking to replied in English. For the most part though, 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). It also has several churches and of course its famous Renaissance walls. Despite being a relatively small city, I had plenty to do. After two weeks I realised I hadn’t spent much time in Lucca ‘sightseeing’. For me, the city is a sight in itself. I enjoyed spending my time walking the walls, strolling through the streets, people watching over a coffee 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 promptly answered via email. Most questions were answered 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.
About a month prior to arriving at the school, I received an email outlining the details of my homestay. I also received a follow up email when I forgot to let 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.
The school is located in a heritage building in the northwest corner of the old town, next to Lucca’s historic walls. The building has classrooms on both levels. On the second floor, there is an outdoor terrace, which is great for studying during the breaks or outside of class time. The classrooms are bright and airy and a comfortable place to learn. There is also fast WIFI throughout the building 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. They have a 20 – 30 minute ‘coffee’ break in the middle. This represents four, 50 minute classes per day.
I was told to arrive at 8:30am for my first day. The earlier start included registration and 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. This put me in a mid-intermediate class. After our chat, she told me to come back to the school at 9:30am. This gave us 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.
Since I was a returning student during my second week, I was told to come to the school at 10am. This even later start was 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.
Number of students per class
During my first week, I was in a class with six other students. During the second week, I was in a class 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. This in turn was based on the levels of the group of students each week. I don’t know how they do it, but it seemed to work out well for most.
During the first 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, the teachers separated us into smaller groups for break-out sessions. This allowed each of us to have more time practicing speaking. The large class size meant limited one-on-one time with the teacher. But on the positive side, a larger group means you have a higher chance of meeting people you ‘click’ with. This is exactly what happened to me. During the second week, there was a mini group of us that spent a lot of time together outside of class.
I asked about the large number of students and was told September tends to be a very busy time for the school. Class sizes tend to drop from October. If the class size is a concern for you, try to attend during the less busy months. The school is open year round.
Typical class structure
Generally speaking, I found the classes were structure differently to what I was originally expecting. Though to be completely honest, I didn’t really know what to expect! It seems pretty standard that Italian Schools split lessons in some way between classes of grammar and 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.
The teachers also used several games throughout the two weeks and exercises related to culture and ‘Italian sayings’. A lot of grammar (such as verb conjugations) can be introduced in a classroom setting, but you need to spend time studying and memorising them. Since this isn’t the best use of time with a teacher, 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. We would then go through when to use the verbs and practise using them in oral exercises. This was all while building vocabulary and general comprehension.
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.
If you wanted to learn more, you could choose to revise the information yourself. Or spend all your time joining in on the school-led activities or simply soaking up the Italian culture. There’s also the option to have private classes in the afternoon. I met a few people who took up this option. Personally, the 4 hours of learning plus communicating with fellow students outside of class in Italian was pretty exhausting! I don’t know if I could have fit in an extra hour of classes in the afternoon.
I had two teachers during the two weeks at LIS. While at first I was disappointed to have 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!).
As a general comment, the teachers along with the support staff, gave me a sense they really enjoy what they do. This helped in creating a relaxed and fun way to learn the language.
While I chose the group classes at an intermediate level, LIS provides many other options. These include classes for absolute beginners, cooking while learning Italian and walking while learning Italian (amongst others). Several of the students chose to take group classes in the morning and a private class in the afternoon. The LIS website provides a lot of details on the options.
If you’re really keen on learning as much as possible, the private lessons mixed with group classes would be ideal. With large class sizes, and it being impossible to have everyone in the class at the exact same Italian ability, I found at times the topics were either too easy or too difficult. If you attend during a less busy time of the year, the lessons may be more tailored to the experience in the class. Given the variety of the methods and materials used, I still found the majority of activities to be interesting and engaging.
Prior to arriving at LIS, I had very little idea what to expect. It wasn’t clear to me when it came to the cultural activities 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 a church 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 was 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 pressure to take part if you weren’t interested.
What about the other students?
During my first 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. I must admit it was nice feeling ‘young’ for a couple of weeks! 🙂
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 organised 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. It had creaky, hardwood floors, the cutest kitchen I’ve ever seen, a clothesline reached through the window when hanging out clothes, etc).
I had my own bedroom which had a couch-turned-queen bed, a desk, a 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. I’d read that sometimes the meals provided can be hit and miss (as a general comment, not specific to a LIS homestay). 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. I felt more like 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 sights to see, etc. Though we chatted each day, since my host was busy, there was a lot of time when I had the house to myself. This suited me just fine.
Should you stay in a homestay?
If you’re considering a homestay option, I would wholeheartedly recommend it, although with one minor hesitation. Since you’re staying in someone’s 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.
The bathroom in my homestay was very large, clean and had everything I needed. But 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 who were also staying in homestays. One student’s shower had a sloping ceiling so he wasn’t able to stand in the shower. Another had a handheld shower head 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 is going to concern you, I suggest requesting photos of the apartment before deciding whether or not to stay. Or stay in independent accommodation such as a B&B. This is what I did on my return trip in 2019.
The bill was settled on the last day of school. It 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.
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 (which I did in 2019!). The number of returning students I met during my two weeks were a solid testament to the 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 🙂
Here are some links to some other helpful posts