Inspired by several visits to major Italian cities, and by buying a children’s book called L’Incredibile Storia di Lavinia (see? You can easily read Italian!), I found that I wanted to speak the language.
Far more difficult than reading or listening, unfortunately. Then a member of Lancaster and Morecambe u3a’s French Conversation group said she did too. Rosemary had done some Italian study and already ran a Spanish Conversation group, having lived and worked in Spain for a number of years.
The u3a groups’ organiser encouraged us and suggested a Welcome session with free tea and coffee to establish levels and expectations. We eventually had a core group of about eight. Our aim was to facilitate rather than teach. Members bought a Collins basic grammar book and we had to have homework. For instance, learning numbers by heart was important: our premise was that we would be visiting Italy and that timetables and prices would figure largely during those trips.
We could thus vary the morning’s activities by reviewing what people had prepared, practising pronunciation and discussing a topic in pairs or threes as it can be daunting to utter in front of a group. That way people could help each other, itself a useful learning experience. Rosemary and I would prepare a dialogue for us to deliver two or three times to introduce useful conversational expressions. On a couple of occasions we sang along to well-known Italian songs, one member even circulating the words to “Santa Lucia.”
On moving back to the Midlands I was lucky enough to find a similar group in Kenilworth. Its organiser, Tony, encouraged me to “move up” to the Conversation group, meeting fortnightly, whose members are reasonably competent speakers but are very tolerant of my hesitancy and sheer lack of vocabulary. When COVID-19 struck, Tony heroically continued by using Zoom.
Again one needs a structure, probably more so than when we simply met in each other’s houses. We have found that choosing a topic and speaking about it for two minutes – quite long enough for me, though others have been known to exceed the limit – is a good way of triggering conversation. We can address current affairs or escape from them.
A recent session was animated by discussion of a painting published in a 1960s Italian newspaper showing future city transport in individual bubble-cars. There is always something to say, so Viva la conversazione!