Published in: Amazon.com Reference Column
Date: April 1998
When in Rome, Speak as the Romans Do
by Stephanie Gold

When in Rome, it’s good to know your ristretto (extra concentrated espresso) from your latte macchiato (hot milk with a smidgen of coffee), and sublime to suavely inform the bartender “prendo una sambuca.” In short, it helps to speak the mother tongue.

People know this, or course, and have the best of intentions to dust off their high school Italian (or French or Spanish or whatever) before their summer holidays find them tongue-tied in Tuscany. The greatest plans, however, tend to get lost in the daily grind, and summer may find you gesticulating futilely to some European shop clerk, wishing you’d boned up on the vocabulary of indigestion.

There are a number of good options for learning, or relearning, a language. Conversation classes are great, but good home-learning kits are also available and might fit your schedule better. Berlitz, famous for its language courses, puts out good tapes and CDs. The most extensive course is the Basic Italian. It comes with three 60-minute tapes and a 192-page study guide containing 24 “scenas” plus grammar notes, exercises, and a glossary. If you leave yourself enough time (hint: start soon) you can follow their method and get acquainted with each scene at your leisure, learning to recognize the words and respond spontaneously before you integrate the grammar and move on to the next scene. Play a scene over again as you drive to work and let the language seep in. One of the great advantages to this system is that you teach your ear as well as your brain, so when that inevitable moment comes and you ask a signora “Dov’è la piazza,” you can actually understand her response.

But let’s say you’re leaving soon. The Berlitz Italian CD Pack might be more appropriate. The 75-minute compact disk present Italian dialogues on more than 30 topics with 350 expressions. Listening and parroting them back will pay off when you get to Rome and can ask for a room, a menu, and a bill without throwing your tongue out. And it comes with a travel-sized phrase book and dictionary, so you can bring along everything you’ve learned and refresh your memory as necessary.

And for you (and you know who you are) who are leaving next week and have yet to learn how to ask for the toilet—do not despair. Lonely Planet’s Italian Phrasebook by Maurice Riveso is your salvation. It’s small and lightweight, includes a two-way dictionary, and was made to be immediately useful to travelers like you. The easily understood chapters on pronunciation and grammar tell just what you need to know, and the rest is arranged by topic, with chapters on meeting and chatting with locals, finding your way around, getting a room, and discussing politics. There’s a wonderfully detailed section on food, a potentially handy chapter on romance (from pick-up lines and “get-lost” phrases to safe sex), and most reassuring of all, a chapter on health, with all the vocabulary you’ll need to attend to la vescica (blister), la scottatura (sunburn), and of course la diarrhea. In fact, so well done is this phrasebook, you could get it in advance and use it as your main study guide.

Do not delay. Start preparing now. If you think April is the cruelest month, see how July feels when you can’t remember how to say “the air conditioning doesn’t work.”