Immersion language schools seem to work, though the first few days are a killer...

There was a time when my flat fluttered with Post It notes like bunting at a street party. Each scrap was scrawled on with the Italian word for the item it was attached to – tavolo, sedia, insalata and so on.

I was hopelessly in love of course, and believed that learning their mother tongue would seal the romance – even though I’d flunked all attempts to learn a foreign language before. They however, spoke perfect English; wrote poetry, went to Morrissey concerts and used the word maudlin, witheringly. It was like I was dating a racing driver and obsessively playing Scalextric – although at least Scalextric would have been fun.

The school: Scuola Italia is a small unfussy language school, which occupies the first floor of a 19th century townhouse in the intriguing La Marche town of Urbania. The style is relaxed and informal and morning and afternoon lessons add up to about 4-5 hours a day.

I chose it because Urbania looked an interesting little town away from the main tourist trail. In the group of 16 was a giant pony-tailed student baritone from the Carlsruhe conservatory, a Swiss couple, a Dutch classics teacher, some Danes and Germans, a Turkish girl wanting to be a Bollywood star and an older Singaporean lady who’s garrulousness was breathtaking.

The course: On the first morning I was somewhat phased to have all the teachers speaking Italian at me straight away. They seemed nice people: warm, friendly and enthusiastic, but I couldn't understand what they were saying. My smile slipped into an absent grin.

Next we headed off with our teacher Carina for a brief tour of the town – in Italian. I understand from Carina pointing that River must be Fiume and church must be Chiese, but that’s about it.

We filed shyly into the trattoria, where Doddo the owner says 'Caio'; to the butchers for a 'Come stai' from Frederico, to the Internet café, the wine shop, the pottery, and even have a roadside brush with old Massimo the undertaker.

It’s lovely how genuinely friendly everyone was, and how nobody seemed to speak English, but only hearing Italian made me feel disorientated and downhearted. It’s as though it was wartime and we were evacuee children being introduced to our new home.

I sloped off at lunch and chewed on a ciabatta. Maybe the afternoon will be better?

It wasn't. We watched 'Pane e Tilipane' with no subtitles. It was something about a housewife on holiday with her family who goes AWOL and hitchhikes to Venice. I understood little of what was going on, even though Barbara, another teacher, was sitting behind us and serenely interjected simplifications of the plot and explanations of dialect words – but she does this only in Italian.

I was feeling very frustrated and started to wonder how long it might take me to hitchhike to Venice.

Day 2 – in the morning we were split into three groups – myself Sonia, Lucas and Laurice were lumped together as the least able. In the morning Greta took us through grammar. She’s explaining the conjugation of the verb to teach, when my frustration boils over. Coldly, and in English of course, I explain that I don’t speak Italian and therefore don’t understand what is going on. It verges on a tantrum.

Greta smiles sweetly and the précis my points back to me and the other students, in Italian!

Day 3 - our planned excursion to Gubbio fell apart when Barbara explained that the man who was taking us had injured himself by falling off the back of a donkey. She then suggested that as an alternative she would take us to Urbino for a tour of the famous Ducal Palace. Lucas kindly translated this into English for me, or else I may have hit someone.

We piled out of the cars and walked up to the base of the unusual double towered palace. Barbara used to be a tour guide here and like all of the teachers spoke slowly and very clearly, but only in effing Italian still!

Apparently, the 'FC' inscribed on the lower balcony refers to Frederico’s period as Count, while above the large 'FD' meant the this part of the building dated from after 1474, when he became Duke. He wasn’t a handsome man, accentuated by his not having a bridge to his nose – apparently either chipped away during a duel, or so the story goes, self inflicted to enable him to see approaching assassins whilst lying in bed.

Hang on. Barbara has bee talking now for at least 10 minutes and I understand everything. I’ve no idea how, but I do. I’m now nodding like a madman and Barbara, catching my eye and expression, winks at me.

Day 4-6: like the sun coming out at Allan Sherman's 'Camp Granada', the epiphanic comprehension changes everything, and I spent the next two days soaking up more vocab and grammar. Unlike before though, I was now totally engaged and am enjoying every minute.

By the end of the week, I felt confident enough to approach anyone and blurt out my newly learned words. It was rough and awkward sounding I’m sure, and strewn with dreadful guffaws no doubt, but it’s a long way from a few days ago, when a ‘how are you?’ was all I could manage.

After school I drove through the exquisite countryside and visited nearby hilltop villages, like Peglio and Sassocorvaro; each with a fortress, winding lanes and laid back atmosphere. The dry grasses in the fields glowed peach-coloured in the sunsets and I returned to Urbania to eat.

In one restaurant I was humorously, yet strongly prevailed upon to change my order for a beer, the waitress explaining with a smile that I must have meant wine. The next night a waiter sat at the table and we drank into the night while talking about the European Union, the Middle East, and kids driving too fast over the cobbles outside. Of course my phrasing and pronunciation would have been hilarious to overhear, but I didn't really care, as it was fun, and it was all in Italian, with healthy doses of alcohol-fuelled mime and mimicry.

The verdict: this was the no nonsense school in a genuine Italian town was what I was looking for. Urbania’s lack of tourists, and the it's relatively few English speakers is a huge plus it turns out. The teacher’s sunny dispositions and spectacular patience win out in the end, just as they knew would happen. Another week would have been even better.


The splendid isolation of the Parco Ducale, yet just a ten minute walk to Urbino. Photo Parco Ducale

The details: Scuola Italia in Urbania offers a one week course and arranges stays with local families, or in apartments. The best hotel option is Parco Ducale. It’s a new hotel in a converted 19th century building next to a beautiful imposing Renaissance hunting lodge. The property is surrounded by fields and is a 15 min walk to the school, and there’s a pool.

Getting there: Rimini is the closest airport - 70 kilometres away - but it has very few year round flights. Ancona is 100 kilometres away and has flights with Ryanair to Stansted, Alitalia to Rome, and Lufthansa to Munich. 

Others language schools worth a look at are the Babilonia language school in Taormina, Sicily, which is a very slick small language school with a roof terrace overlooking Mount Etna. Or try the LINGUA IT Institute of Language and Culture in Verona.