Many people are afraid of going to foreign countries because they fear the language barrier, and people always ask me if it is possible to get by in Italy without speaking the language. The answer to that is…yes!
When traveling to any foreign country, I think that it is always important to have an open mind. Italy and Italian culture are much different than your own, whether you are American, English, Australian, Russian, etc. The cultural differences are apparent, and it is important to be patient and understanding. Remember, you are a guest in their country. Try to open your mind to a different lifestyle than the one that you are used to or accustomed to in your home country – you will have a better experience for it.
With that being said, it is probably advisable for you to learn some basic phrases. On my first trip to Rome, I knew only a few basic phrases and some words. I spent the entire plane ride studying an Italian language book and listening to the CD that accompanied it. Needless to say, communicating was a struggle when I landed. I decided to take the plunge and jumped on the Metro and got off at the wrong stop. I stopped to get my bearings, pulled out my map, and inadvertently left my luggage in front of the entrance to an apartment building. A man came bounding out and didn’t see my luggage and fell face forward, having tripped over my things. I felt awful. I helped him up to a barrage of Italian curses (which, with several years of language study, I now understand). I apologized in Italian (Mi dispiace, mi dispiace…), and I got the sense that he appreciated my efforts. He gave me some helpful directions and pointed me on my way. Now I could have been equally aggressive and rude and started to get upset, but I didn’t. It was pretty stupid of me to leave my luggage in someone’s doorway. It has been my experience that Italians will appreciate the effort that you make, even if it is only simple things like asking where the restroom is or ordering a coffee and even if you cause them to fall face first. :)
Learning languages isn’t for everyone, but no matter what your aptitude or desire, try to make an effort to read and speak some basic phrases – many guidebooks supply a list of useful phrases. Once you leave the airport or any tourist area, you are not likely to find signs in English.
There are lots of excellent online sites for learning Italian. For the absolute beginner, I recommend Learnitalianpod.com. This site is full of free podcasts with an entire unit devoted to beginners. Many of the beginner level podcasts are geared for the tourist, and the many situations they may encounter. For a few dollars a month, you can receive access to their learning center, which features transcripts and other learning aids to get you on your way to learning some basic Italian!
I recommend a simple approach – using your ears to hear the phrases, repeating them as best you can and your eyes to read the language. That way, when you see it, you’ll know how it is pronouced, and when you hear it, you’ll know what it means.
You can communicate in Italian, but very simply. Ordering a coffee, asking where the restroom is, saying please and thank you and many other simple, easy to remember phrases will get you far on your trip to Rome.