How long before I can hold a normal conversation in Italian?

So you’ve decided to learn Italian. (Why Learn Italian, anyway?)

Naturally, you want some idea of how long it’ll be before you can actually manage to communicate in the language.

You obviously don’t expect to immediately reach the same level of proficency that you have with your mother tongue.

But to be able to hold a normal conversation seems like a reasonable objective, doesn’t it?

So how long, you ask, will it take me to get to the point when I can join in conversations, make myself understood, and figure out what people are trying to tell me?

Good question.

In part the answer will depend on what you define as a ‘normal conversation’.

There’s a world of difference between a brief exchange about the weather while waiting for the bus, and a heated political discussion in a pub.

But mostly what you’ll be able to say and understand in Italian depends on how much time you allow yourself, and how much practice you get.

So, let’s suppose you’re taking a 20-hour per week Italian course at a language school here in Bologna, and that you’ll be starting right from the beginning with ‘Ciao!’ and ‘uno, due, tre’.

By the Friday of the first week, you’ll have covered some of the basics and might be beginning to find your way around Bologna, but basically you’ll still be pretty lost!

The second week (hours 21-40) will see you settling better into the routine of learning, and so gradually becoming more able to follow classes taught only in Italian.

You’ll have started Week 2 with a lot more Italian than you had on the Monday of Week 1, and will finish it with a more in-depth knowledge of Italian grammar and vocabulary than you had seven days earlier.

Progress then, but no miracles.

Your third week (hours 41-60) is where the difference really starts to show.

You’ll have made some friends by then, and hopefully will be communicating with them in basic Italian.

Ordering a coffee or a meal in Italian will have become routine, and you’ll be a lot more confident working out what the teacher is saying and knowing how to respond.

Grammar-wise, you’ll be studying the second half of the A1 (beginner) syllabus. Perhaps you’ll have already encountered a past tense, which inevitably opens a lot of conversational doors!

Week four (hours 61-80) will see you approaching the end of the A1/Beginner’s syllabus.

You’ll feel more confident with the basic grammar that is essential to speaking and understanding Italian, and you’ll have covered a lot of new words (which, after 80 hours of practice, you should now be able to remember!)

By this point, most students will recognise themselves in the A1 level description:

Can understand and use familiar everyday expressions and very basic phrases aimed at the satisfaction of needs of a concrete type. Can introduce him/herself and others and can ask and answer questions about personal details such as where he/she lives, people he/she knows and things he/she has. Can interact in a simple way provided the other person talks slowly and clearly and is prepared to help.

Disappointingly, even after four weeks of studying each morning, you’ll still be quite limited in what you can say and understand…

On the positive side, you’ll be way, way better than when you began!

But what if you decide to progress further?

The A2/Pre-Intermediate descriptor (another four weeks/80 hours) will give you an idea of what you can achieve with more time:

Can understand sentences and frequently used expressions related to areas of most immediate relevance (e.g. very basic personal and family information, shopping, local geography, employment). Can communicate in simple and routine tasks requiring a simple and direct exchange of information on familiar and routine matters. Can describe in simple terms aspects of his/her background, immediate environment and matters in areas of immediate need.

That still doesn’t seeem quite what most people would define as ‘holding a normal conversation’, though…

So, if you have the time and energy, a good target to aim for would be a B1/Intermediate level.

For most people, a B1/Intermediate level is reachable in a total of 12 weeks / 240 hours of study:

Can understand the main points of clear standard input on familiar matters regularly encountered in work, school, leisure, etc. Can deal with most situations likely to arise whilst travelling in an area where the language is spoken. Can produce simple connected text on topics which are familiar or of personal interest. Can describe experiences and events, dreams, hopes & ambitions and briefly give reasons and explanations for opinions and plans.

Now THAT sounds more like it, doesn’t it?

Imagine being able to ‘understand the main points’, ‘deal with most situations’, ‘describe hopes and ambitions’ and ‘give reasons and explanations’ – in Italian!

That would indeed be a normal conversation, and then some!

It’s achievable in around 12 weeks of study.

An extended summer holiday, for example.

Or a sabbatical period…

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