Sicily Travel: My Language Studies Begin

Language study travel is not at all new to me. Two years ago I went to the University of Havana to study Spanish, and last year I studied Spanish at two different language schools in Cuernavaca, Mexico. I obviously love the Spanish language and the huge variety of Spanish-speaking destinations, but Italy is a gorgeous country in its own right – another perfect place for a language-study trip.

So my initial three and a half days of exploration in and around Taormina had come to an end, and now it was time to get serious: my first day of classes at the Babilonia Language School awaited me. I had never taken any Italian classes before, but in high school I had 6 years of Latin, 4 years of French and my knowledge of Spanish is quite advanced. So in theory I should do okay with Italian. In addition, I had bought an Italian grammar book in Toronto and was reading up on the intricacies of Italian grammar for a few weeks before I embarked on my trip to Sicily. Well prepared I was not, but given the commonalities among Latin languages, at least my verbal comprehension skills were good enough to get by in everyday situations.

I arrived at 8:45 am at the Babilonia Language School. Coffee was served, and a local restaurateur by the name of Ciro, who regularly provides catering services to the language school, was looking after the students with fine Italian coffee and a delicious chocolate cake home-made by his mom. Although the weather wasn’t perfect, the space on Babilonia’s rooftop terrace provided a gorgeous view of Mount Etna and the mountains surrounding Taormina . The rooftop terrace and community/computer room are a perfect place for the school’s social activities.

Alessandro Adorno gives a presentation

About 12 new students were about to start their language studies this Monday, and they came from various different places: England, Germany, Switzerland, Holland, Finland, the United States and Canada. Alessandro Adorno, the founder and director of the Babilonia Language School, gave a brief presentation about the Italian study program and asked the new students to introduce themselves by throwing a small soft ball to the first student who would then pass it on to the next student after their own introduction and so forth. I was third to introduce myself, and followed suit after two advanced students whose linguistic level was considerably above mine. Almost all students had some prior knowledge of Italian with the exception of two students who had never had any exposure to the language.

Taormina’s famous fountain

Alessandro also informed us that there would be a written placement test followed by a brief evaluation of our verbal Italian skills following which we would be placed in the appropriate level. By 11:20 the placement tests were completed and I was informed that I would be put into the “Intermediate” group. This was rather surprising to me since I had never really studied Italian and there were two levels below this level: Beginner and Elementary. So after the break I joined five other students who had all studied Italian before. All of them had already spent a week at the Babilonia Language School, and some were there for three or four weeks already.

A palazzo in Taormina

The class from 11:40 am to 1:30 pm was called “Communications” and different techniques are used to make the students communicate. Today we were going to do role plays: we had to select three scenarios from a possible 13 situations that all related to the topic “How to make and how to respond to a complaint”. The class was split up into groups of two and we each had to practice our three scenarios. My partner and I picked a scenario where a tourist complains about an excessively high bill to a waiter, a tourist complains to the car rental agency when the rental car company breaks down, and a traveller complains because the local tourism office continuously provides incorrect information about museum opening hours.

The Greek Theatre in Taormina, Mount Etna is hiding

Well, when I heard the word “role play” I immediately started having heart palpitations because after our private 2-person practice round we would get to act out all these scenarios in front of the class! I am notoriously bad with role plays, particularly in a language that I don’t know in front of people whom I don’t know. I was admiring the students who went ahead of us who performed admirably well in Italian and were rather comfortable acting out their scenarios in front of the entire group. I am sure my performance was rather clumsy and awkward, but I got through it.

View westwards of Taormina

I was rather intimidated though, so after class I saw my teacher Simona to inquire whether “Intermediate” wasn’t a level too high for me (considering I had no formal Italian learning background). Both Simona and the head teacher Anita concurred that Elementary would be too basic for me so I accepted their opinion of my language skills and trusted them that I indeed belonged to the Intermediate group.

Although I found the role play rather stressful the first time around I concluded that it is a very effective way to get you talking, particularly about scenarios that one might encounter as a tourist in Italy. My first official Italian lesson was over, and I felt gratified that I could make myself understood, if sometimes with hands and feet, and that I managed to get my point across, albeit rather clumsily.

View of Taormina

After the class we had a couple of hours for lunch and we regrouped at 3:30 pm to attend a presentation about the Babilonia Language School. Alessandro gave us an overview of the school and educated us about its teaching methodology. Babilonia’s philosophy believes that language learning is not just about rote learning of grammatical rules, but about expressing emotion, even about learning local gestures. Our daily lessons would consist of two parts: “Language Analyses” (which includes grammatical explanations and exercises), and “Communicative Tasks” which uses all sorts of techniques including games and role plays to induce students to talk. During the Language Analysis portions students are corrected by the teacher while during the Communications portions the teacher refrains from correcting the student in order to encourage them to express themselves as freely as possible. The main goal of Babilonia’s language courses is to teach communication, verbally and in writing.

View of Taormina

As far as the schedule is concerned, private lessons are available from 8:30 to 9:25 am and from 2:30 until 5:25 pm. The Language Analysis class is taught from 9:30 until 11:20 am and the Communications Class is taught from 11:40 am until 1:30 pm. Alessandro also explained that there is a coffee break every day from 11:20 to 11:40 am during which students can order a lunch that will be provided by Ciro, a local caterer and restaurant owner of an establishment called “Bistro”. Lunch can be ordered using a preprinted order form and will then be conveniently ready by 1:30 pm and delivered to the student just after the class. This is certainly a convenient service, and I noticed that the prices were very reasonable, particularly in comparison with Taormina’s rather high restaurant prices.

Taormina’s Porta di Catania

Alessandro also explained that Babilonia offers a variety of excursions and social activities which include out-of-town bus trips to interesting locations, local walks and hikes as well as cultural and historical presentations to shed further light on Sicily’s culture and history. I had already had the pleasure to participate in two of Babilonia’s excursions last week: a hike to Castelmola and a driving tour to the historic city of Siracusa. At 4:30 pm we got another chance to see Babilonia’s activity program first hand since Peppe Celano, Babilonia’s social activities coordinator and one of the language teachers, met us in front of the school to take us on a walking tour of Taormina.

Peppe takes us on an excursion to Taormina’s Greek Theatre

Taormina is one of Sicily’s main tourist destinations, and the principal draw in this town is the beautiful Greco-Roman Theatre which dates back to the third century B.C. and was almost completely rebuilt by the Romans in the second century AD. The theatre is built as a semi-circle into the side of a mountain with a perfect view of the Ionian Sea and (on a clear day) of Mount Etna. The ancient Greeks were renowned for choosing stunning settings for their theatres, and the natural surroundings of the theatre always played an important role in the selection of the location. The Greek Theatre in Taormina holds more than 5000 spectators and is still in use today for theatre productions as well as a major international concert venue that has welcomed stars like Elton John, Diana Krall, Michael Bublé and

View of the Greek Theatre

We continued our stroll through Taormina past the Gate of Messina towards the Municipal Market which every morning provides a great shopping opportunity for fresh vegetables, fruits, fish and meat. Along the way Peppe pointed out various restaurants and gathering places that might be of interest to us. Part of our walk took us along Corso Umberto, Taormina’s main thoroughfare and a fully pedestrianized area that just swirls with people. The main square of Taormina, called Piazza IX Aprile, features a panoramic terrace with a great southwards view (which on a clear day would have featured Mount Etna, but not today…) which is surrounded by the historic Torre dell’ Orologio (“clock tower”) and two churches. Right next to the clock tower is the famous “Wünderbar”, a rather expensive and upscale bar that was once frequented by Liz Taylor and Richard Burton.

A group of happy Babilonia students

For more practical purposes Peppe also pointed out the local supermarket on the western edge of town and the only coin laundry in all of Taormina. Now appropriately equipped with local knowledge, a crowd of Babilonia students gathered in the evening at 7:30 pm at “Bistro”, the bar owned by Babilonia’s caterer Ciro. Babilonia regularly organizes dinners and culinary explorations for its students, and today we got a sampling of four different types of Sicilian pizza. I had a chance to sit beside a lady from Holland, a computer programmer, who had done a trip around the world in 1995 and had many interesting stories to tell. One of the most interesting tid-bits was that she ran into the same French couple by accident four different times in different locations during her trip around the world in places like Fiji and New Zealand. What an almost inconceivable series of coincidences: to bump into the same couple four times in different places on a trip around the world! She took this as a sign and is still friends with this French couple to this day.

Ciro and his sister prepare our pizzas

Together with two ladies from the US we also discussed topics like 911, and the War in Iraq and it was amazing to see that four women from three different countries could share such a similar philosophy. We even touched on the situation of Muslims in Holland since the murder of Theo Van Gogh by the radical Mohammed Boyeri. It was fascinating to be able to discuss these international events with citizens from the respective countries who shared their own personal insights. As world travelers, we all concurred that today the world is a much different place today.

An authentic Sicilian pizza

I could tell that an interest in travel, foreign cultures and foreign languages united us all, and it was wonderful to conclude this eventful day in the company of like-minded people. The party was still going strong when I left to catch a good rest for my driving tour of Mount Etna tomorrow.

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