What does ‘I want to learn Italian’ really mean?

Following on from Tuesday’s article ‘Still interested in learning Italian? Three options for you‘, today I’d like to ask you another question.

You’d probably agree with one of these two statements, right?

“I want to learn Italian”

“I want to improve my Italian.”

Fine. Italian is a great language to learn, and we’re here to help you improve your knowledge and develop your ability to speak and understand it.

But today we’ll be examining a little more closely your dream of learning Italian, with the aim of helping you better understand how to proceed, how long it could take, and what it might cost you.

So what exactly do you mean by ‘learn’ or ‘improve’?

If you try to answer that, you might find it a little harder than you thought to come up with a clear, objective answer.

A typical reply is:

“I’d like to speak Italian as well as I speak (your own mother tongue).”

But if you think about it, that could take a lifetime…

After all, you’ve been working on your ability to speak and understand (your own mother tongue) since you were in the cradle!

‘Perfect knowledge’ is likely to be an unrealistic aim, at least in the short to medium term, though if you stick at it for long enough you might get there in the end.

Having appreciated this, you might redefine your goal as something like:

“Well, I’d like to speak/understand Italian a lot better that I can now!”

Excellent, that’s the spirit!

But remember, you might have other priorities… Perhaps you work, support a family, or spend time on other interests. Maybe you’re studying other languages at the same time, as many college students have to.

So to allocate the right amount of time (and money) to your goal, I’d suggest you narrow down exactly where you want to get to next.

The idea is to set a sort of ‘waypoint’ to aim for, as you might if you were planning a journey:

“Let’s take the ‘autostrada’ to Milan, then stop for a coffee before we come off the interstate. Then, while we’re drinking our espressos, we’ll figure out how to get from the rest stop to the hotel. OK?”

I’d always advise that sort of ‘one step at a time approach’. But it doesn’t have to be unambitious. You can always fix a more demanding goal once you’ve reached the first of your waypoints.

To help with this idea of planning language-learning, universities, schools and language teachers in Europe mostly use a standard set of descriptions for measuring what students can expect to be able to do at the end of their course.

The idea is that if a typical person spends a given number of hours working on their Italian, they should expect to be able to do certain things.

Thinking about it like this helps us choose appropriate materials and activities for each course, as well as providing a way of organizing classes in which participants have similar goals and needs.

The system I’m referring to is called the ‘Common European Framework’.

But it’s NOT a list of grammar points or vocabulary topics such as you might see in the index of an Italian course. Instead, it’s made up of descriptions of what students should be able to DO at each of its six levels.

The ‘framework’ contains two descriptions for those of you just starting out with Italian, two for those of you who are already fairly autonomous in the language, and two for students who have an advanced knowledge but want to keep improving.

The levels are designated A1/A2, B1/B2, and C1/C2.

A good rule of thumb is that it should take you around 80-100 hours of study (four to five weeks of a 20-hour a week course, or roughly an academic year of an evening course) to learn to do the things in each level band.

This stuff isn’t a secret. You can easily use the ‘Common European Framework’ to identify where you are with your Italian right now, where you’d like to get to next, and where you’d ideally like to end up.

Waypoints, like I said.

Working on the basis of 4-5 weeks per level, you’ll have no trouble figuring out how long each stage should take you and deciding what sort of course or courses you’ll need to take.

If you’re with me so far, that’s great! To help you further, I’ve summarized the descriptions for each level here below.

So the next time someone asks you what “I want to learn Italian” really means, you’ll have a ready answer!


A1 – Beginner or Elementary

I want to be able to understand and use familiar everyday expressions and very basic phrases aimed at the satisfaction of my day-to-day needs.

I’d like to introduce myself and others and be able to ask and answer questions about personal details such as where people live, people they know and things they have.

My aim is to interact in a simple way, provided the other person talks slowly and clearly and is prepared to help.

A2 – Pre-Intermediate

I want to understand sentences and frequently-used expressions related to areas that are most immediately relevant to me, such as very basic personal and family information, shopping, local geography and employment.

I’d expect to be successful at simple tasks that require a direct exchange of information on familiar and routine matters, such as describing aspects of my background, immediate environment and matters that relate to my immediate needs.

B1 – Intermediate

My aim is to understand the main points of clear standard speech and written texts on familiar topics that I regularly encounter at work, at school, or in leisure activities.

I’d expect to be able to deal with most situations that are likely to arise while I’m traveling in Italy, and I’d want to be able to write Italian on topics which are familiar or of personal interest.

I’d be capable of describing, in a simple but coherent way, experiences and events, my dreams, hopes and ambitions, and of giving brief reasons and explanations for my opinions and plans.

B2 – Upper-intermediate

I want to be able to understand the main ideas of complex texts on both concrete and abstract topics, including technical discussions in my field of specialization.

I’d expect to be capable of interacting with a degree of fluency and spontaneity, which would make regular interaction with native speakers quite possible without strain for me or for the person I’m speaking or writing to.

At this level I’d need to produce clear, detailed spoken and written texts on a wide range of subjects and explain my viewpoint on topical issues, giving the advantages and disadvantages of various options.

C1 – Advanced

My goal is to understand a wide range of demanding, longer texts, and to be able to recognize implicit meaning. I’d be capable of expressing myself fluently and spontaneously without having to obviously search for the right expressions.

I’d expect to use language flexibly and effectively for social, academic and professional purposes and to produce clear, well-structured, detailed text on complex subjects.

C2 – Proficiency

I’m aiming to easily understand virtually everything I hear or read.

I’d expect to be able to summarize information from different spoken and written sources, and to reconstruct the arguments and accounts of others in a coherent presentation.

I want to be able to express myself spontaneously, fluently and precisely, differentiating finer shades of meaning even in the most complex situations!


Using the above, you should find it simple to identify what your next step needs to be and how long that will take you. But if not, don’t hesitate to ask us for help!

If you choose to study at our school in Bologna, we’ll send you a level test by email when we receive your enrollment. The idea is check your current knowledge of Italian so we’ll have a good idea of which class to place you in on your arrival.

If the test result is misleading, which can happen, we’ll know very soon after you begin your course and so can arrange to move you to a class which will be more suitable and will better help you reach your goal.

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  1. Valerie Sculli says:

    Thank you Daniel for this great article. It has definitely helped me to decide exactly where to aim my main focus and how much time I really need to spend learning so I can achieve each goal.