From beginner to proficient in Italian: one client’s journey through 12 evening courses

After 12 language courses with Cactus, Mark Holden tells Sarah Watkins about his rather unplanned but highly satisfying journey from complete beginner to proficient in Italian.

As a language lover myself, it is always exciting to find a student who has taken not just a couple but an impressive TWELVE courses with us. To see that someone has progressed from basic to advanced knowledge over the course of a few years is the perfect story, and I couldn’t wait to chat to Mark to find out more about his language learning experience.

The beginning of the journey…

For Mark, there are several reasons for learning Italian, and it all started some four years ago at work. As a chartered engineer working for the European company Airbus, there were a number of Italians working in Mark’s office. What started as a few friendly exchanges of language tips – Mark lending some help with English and learning a few Italian phrases in return – led to dinner at an Italian colleague’s house and the opportunity to discover more about the language.

This, combined with the motivation of an upcoming trip to Ponza, a general love of art, culture and ancient history, and useful prior knowledge of Latin, sowed the seed for Mark and his wife Carren, who also works for Airbus, to take a local evening course in Italian with Cactus in Bristol. For them, learning Italian is pure recreation – just two hours each week to do something for themselves and a fun challenge at the 50-something mark.

Of course, what started out as a beginners’ Italian course ‘for fun’ back in 2010 has taken Mark and Carren much further than they ever expected. Seeing that they were making progress and enjoying the feeling of the language starting to make sense, they moved from one course to the next, taking the odd break here and there, but successfully moving up the levels until now, in 2014, they have 12 courses behind them and have reached the linguistic high of understanding and being understood. Mark is quick to say that he’s not ‘proficient’, as his course title might suggest, but that he no longer has to think about what to say in Italian. He tells me he still has a long way to go and we agree the great thing about learning a language is that it’s an ongoing process and one that can easily become a life-long passion.

Using his Italian in real life

Mark’s courses have been punctuated by a series of trips to Italy and further afield – a real chance to put his Italian to the test. He recalls a trip to Sardinia early on as something of a breakthrough, as it marked the moment when he realised he could actually go somewhere and speak Italian, feeling confident enough to travel around and chat to the locals. Another trip to the Sicilian town of Taormina last summer, where he and Carren took an Italian immersion course, proved just how far they had come with their Italian: they had the satisfaction of chatting to and becoming familiar with the locals, getting recommendations for where to visit, where to eat or what local produce to try and above all feeling like they were part of the community rather than just tourists.

I was particularly impressed to hear how Mark and Carren had managed to combine their passion for Italian with their love of scuba diving on a diving trip to the Maldives. By specifically choosing an Italian-based company, rather than one of the many English-speaking ones, they were guaranteed a good number of Italian guides and guests on board with whom to practise their ever-improving Italian. It goes to show that learning a language can be incorporated into daily life in all different kinds of ways, and it is no doubt this regular exposure to the language both inside and outside the classroom that has fuelled the couple’s progression and enthusiasm over the years.

Mark’s evening course & learning tips

You don’t always have to travel far to make a difference, however. If there is a secret to any of this, Mark tells me, for him it was committing himself to the homework outside class. He found that a 2-hour stint of homework in addition to a 2-hour class each week made the world of difference, being the perfect opportunity to gain a better grounding in grammar. It gave him the time to consolidate what he’d learnt and make sure that he had properly understood, enabling him to go back to class the following week ready to move on to the next topic.

It goes without saying that the success of any course is also down to the teacher, and Mark is quick to pay tribute to his teacher, Valentina, who he and Carren were lucky to have for all but a couple of their twelve courses. He has only positive things to say about Valentina, who he describes as extremely creative, enthusiastic and interesting, tailoring the classes to the students’ interests (even though these were quite varied) and maintaining a fun, relaxed environment. She has certainly been a significant factor in the group ‘gelling’ and in the overall enjoyment of the courses. Although the number of students has naturally fallen as they have progressed through the levels – going from 10 at beginners’ level to 4 at proficient – it is testament to Valentina to have kept such a strong group going.

As for what lies ahead, he feels that two hours each week is no longer sufficient for someone of his level, as he’s reached a natural plateau: he and Carren are hoping to spend more time in Italy to immerse themselves in the language and of course reap the benefit of all their hard work.

They might not have had any grand plan to begin with, but I think if there was ever proof that an evening course can change your life – even if unintentionally – here you have it.

Many thanks to Mark for taking the time to talk to me, and I wish him and Carren all the best for wherever their Italian might take them in the future.

Mark has been learning Italian in Bristol with Cactus. Cactus offers Italian courses in other locations across the UK as well as in Italy.

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