A scambio is the ideal way to learn Italian – but be careful how you say it

A scambio is the ideal way to learn Italian – but be careful how you say it
Language swaps can be a great way to practice outside the classroom. Wine optional. Photo: Depositpho"

If you want to learn Italian but textbooks don't do it for you, finding a language exchange partner could be the answer. American writer John Henderson, who moved to Rome as a beginner, celebrates the joys – and occasional embarrassments – of language swaps.


The sun had long since set in Rome and that dark, crisp period right before dinnertime settled into the most romantic city on earth. It’s the time when Romans sit in cozy enoteche, known in North America as wine bars, and warm themselves with good wine and conversation.

I was sitting with a gorgeous Italian woman who could’ve passed for Sophia Loren in her early 30s. Long, curly, coal-black hair, olive complexion and eyes right off a newborn doe. We were sitting in Del Frate, a dim enoteca near the Vatican so romantic you could fall in love with a mannequin.

We were talking Italian and she was asking me about my former job as a sportswriter. She asked me if I played sports when I was younger. I tried to say, in Italian, “I was a lousy athlete”. But I screwed up the noun and the tense and instead of saying, “I was a lousy athlete”, I said...

“I’m lousy in bed.”

Fortunately, this wasn’t a date. It’s why I didn’t take offence to her – and every other woman within earshot of our table – laughing so hard. I kind of wondered how Italian women knew I hit only .236 my senior year in high school, but I wondered more how I messed up the sentence. Athlete in Italian is “atleta”. Bed is “letto”. Atleta. Letto. It’s an easy mistake to make, I lied to myself. (Oh, and to answer your next inevitable question, I did not get a chance to prove to her otherwise.)

I was having a scambio. It’s a great way to learn a language. It’s educational, fun and free.

Scambio is Italian for “exchange”. I meet an Italian who wants to learn English. We talk Italian for an hour and then English for an hour and correct each other along the way.

However, one of my first language lessons in Rome was how to ask for said language lesson. Technically, scambio in Italian vernacular usually refers to a sexual swap. I tried calling it a scambio di lingua but while lingua means “language”, it also means “tongue”. That became problematic – and a bit dangerous – when asking Italian women. While I still had my front teeth, I was told the accurate term is scambio linguistico.

READ ALSO: Twelve signs you've cracked the Italian language

Photo: Pietro Zanarini/Flickr

When you move to a foreign country, you best learn a language three ways: you live with a family, you work for a local business or you get a girlfriend or boyfriend. You either live it, work it or sleep it. However, when I moved to Rome in January 2014, I did none of those things. I was a retired, unattached journalist whose lone baggage was a roller bag and a backpack.

Language classes? Ha! When I first lived in Rome from 2001-3, I followed the crowd and enrolled in language school. I liked Biology of Blood Clots more. I took two intensive one-month courses. It was awful. It was frustrating. It was humiliating. Navy SEALS training would’ve been less challenging.

I was 45 years old taking my first foreign language lesson with 20-something Scandinavians and Latins working on their fourth or fifth language. They became fluent in, oh, about 90 minutes. After two months I still struggled conjugating “to have”. I remember once walking out of class so upset, so hopeless, I ordered a pizza that night in English. I order in the local language even in rural China.

But someone tipped me off to a fantastic website called ConversationExchange. It lists languages from French to Hmong. You list your native language, put in what language you want your partner to speak and fill out a brief bio. You peruse the list of potential partners and send them a message on the website.

My bio receives about a dozen requests a week. It helps that I am an American journalist with an alleged solid command of English grammar. It also helps that the Italian economy is in its biggest recession on record and Italians see learning English as a ticket off this sinking peninsula.

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Photo: ikostudio/Depositphotos

The bio is important. But folks, this is not a dating sight. ConversationExchange doesn’t even include photos. I made it clear that I am not looking for a relationship other than one for conversation.

Many female scambio partners tell me they meet men for a scambio and the men steer the conversation from conjugations of past conditional to sexual fantasies in St Peter’s Square. Or the men end the first scambio with, “Let’s do this again. How about my place? Say, midnight?”

One Italian man left a note on our language school bulletin board requesting scambio partners. He ended it with, “Women only”. I don’t go there. Learning Italian is hard enough not to add a big dose of sexual tension.

In the process, I’ve made numerous friends. In two stints in Rome covering about three years, I have had probably 50 scambio partners. An actor. An economics professor. A cell phone executive. A movie producer. A journalist. An English teacher. A cafe owner. A tour guide. Old. Young. Male. Female. It doesn’t matter. As long as they have a desire to learn English and I have the time, I meet them.

The level isn’t important. I’ve had Italians who can’t put an English sentence together. With them, I’m very basic and speak slowly. I’ve had Italians who are so fluent I wonder why then need help. They say they’re working on pronunciation, slang and finer grammar points.

My Italian is probably intermediate. My comprehension is awful but I can speak it, read it and write it OK, with the expected number of mistakes. And some of the mistakes are legendary.

Besides the one above, which I enjoy repeating to expats who are embarrassed by their Italian, there was also the time a partner and I discussed Rome’s current economic crisis. She said she was really stressed and miserable over trying to make ends meet. I tried to say, “Ma sembri molto molto felice” (“But you seem very, very happy”). Instead, I said, “Ma sembri molto molto facile”. Facile means “easy”. Fortunately, she laughed. I did not.

READ ALSO: Ten language mistakes you should avoid if you want to fit in in Italy

Photo: Roberto T/Flickr

It may seem redundant to do scambi when I’m already living in Italy and surrounded by the Italian language in a city where English is pretty much confined to the larcenously priced International New York Times. It isn’t. Scambi force me out of my apartment and into conversations with people from different backgrounds, accents and interests.

People from Tuscany speak a more pure form of Italian than Romans. Sicilians, when they speak Italian instead of Sicilian, are essentially speaking a second language and are easier to understand. Some Romans teach me romanaccio, the cruder side of the Roman dialect. I have scored points from waiters and restaurant owners all over Rome for declaring after a meal, “Ammazza che bono!” That’s romano for “Very good”.

Scambi also get me to neighbourhoods and places I would never see otherwise. Sicilian diners. Cozy enoteche. Outdoor cafés. Dive bars. I do what we call in the American sports world a “home and home”: we do one scambio in their neighbourhood, then another at Linari, the local café in my neighbourhood of Testaccio.

Learning a foreign language is like growing a tree. It takes a long time. It’s real slow. It’s hard to see growth. However, if you’re patient and keep watering your interest, you can eventually branch out to the rest of your adopted country. Scambi are a good tool, but remember one thing.

It isn’t facile.

Five ways to find an Italian language exchange partner anywhere in the world, in person or online

  • Use a website such as ConversationExchange, Speaky or MyLanguageExchange to arrange to meet or correspond online.
  • Use an app like Tandem or HelloTalk to chat with other language learners instantly.
  • Join a Facebook group: try searching "italiani a [your city]" to find Italian speakers near you.
  • If you live in Italy, ask if you can put a notice up at your nearest English language school.
  • Join MeetUp or Polyglot Club if you'd prefer to practice in a group.

And remember: always choose a public place when meeting someone for the first time, and let a friend know where you'll be. 

John Henderson is a writer and expat living in Rome. This is an edited version of an article that was originally published on his blog, Dog-Eared Passport. Find more of his stories here.

Want to write a guest blog for The Local Italy? Get in touch at [email protected].



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