Another joy in Italy — for those who speak some Italian — is listening to the remarkable variety of dialects.
Italy was unified into a single country in 1861, but hundreds and hundreds of regional dialects are spoken still. Effectively all Italians, of all social classes, are bilingual and know both their own dialect and the Italian of Dante. When I called a Venetian friend just now, she, wishing to express contentment, said “Bon Bon “. In Milan, an hour away by train, you would never hear that phrase. Nor would a Florentine ever call me a “Villana”, a vernacular word Venetians use freely when, during high waters, people push past them on the stilts that are put up in low lying area.
Which brings me to the point : how satisfying, as you travel, to differentiate between words you know from your basic Italian studies but also to recognize as special and unfamiliar (“Bon Bon”) a word that you realize must be dialect.
For those who have the time for multiple-month studies, we recommend the fully oral approach called Pimsleur. Travelers living in New York are lucky in their proximity to Italiano per Tutti, run by a lovely Roman school friend of mine, Anna Squatriti. For 10 minutes a day of surprisingly excellent beginners’ on-line lessons, we direct travelers to BBC’s web-based 12 week courses. For Insider’s Italy children we suggest Muzzy, which taught Nathan and Isabel their earliest Italian.
In any way you can, please make an effort to prepare your ear and your tongue for the richness and lyricism of Italian. The more you can engage with Italians in their own language, the more profound will be your insights into their culture. And all the more interesting will be your trip.