For our latest Trainer Spotlight interview, we sat down for a cup of tea and natter at Milano Centrale with our very own Queen from Queens, Jessica Weiss, who was on her way back to Rome after a great TLG conference. It was a scorcher of a day…
Hi Jess! I understand you’re a New York native, right? Yes!
What brought you to Italy, then? Well, there was a boy that I met when I was studying in London (chuckles)… but also my love for language. Basically, when I was in high school, I had a friend who had gone to Chile to study Spanish. I forget how long she was there for, but I do remember that when she came back, she could speak Spanish - or it felt like she could - and I wanted to do just that. I wasn't very studious, but I knew, then, that I wanted to learn a foreign language and it just kind of happened to be Italian.
I also have some Italian roots, so that might have had something to do with it.
How far back do those roots go? Have you looked into your family history? Yeah. My mother's family were from Sicily - from as far back as I know. I also had an Italian American friend in high school and I remember she went to Italy with her grandmother. She told me all about her trip and it sounded so very exciting and attractive. Looking back, I'd always been very into the idea of going to Europe.
So, how did that stage of your life begin? I started out as an Anglophile and went to London to study. That was my first step into Europe.
But it seems like all roads led to Rome, quite literally for you? Hah! Yeah, I’ve lived there for over 20 years, technically. When I first came over, I studied in Rome on a summer programme then stayed on and became an au pair. I then went to the American University of Rome for a while.
And did you graduate in the city? No. I had to finish my bachelor’s degree in the States, because at the time the American University of Rome wasn’t accredited back in New York, and I needed to go on and get my master’s there. I kind of knew that I wanted to become a teacher, so I returned to the States and finished my degree in Liberal Arts, with a focus on Italian language and literature. I ended up doing my master's in teaching Italian.
Can you tell me a little more about that? Sure. It was a special master’s programme in the Italian language department of the university where I was studying. The degree was specifically for teaching Italian language in secondary schools and came with New York State certification. It was a very practical course: there was no master’s thesis, as such; it was all about the actual teaching.
And what was your first job after you graduated? I actually ended up teaching Italian in elementary schools, of all places, even though I had trained to work in secondary schools. It was with an Italian American association that was promoting Italian language and culture in New York. They kind of just stuck me in a couple of different elementary schools and had me teaching Italian to these little kids. I did that for a couple of years, but I always missed Italy and my friends here.
Was it then when you decided to return to your second home? I eventually found a way to move back! It really started off with my mother, too. She was very attached to Italy and wanted to buy a property over here. She was thinking to come to the country and live part of the year here, at least, in retirement. So, I said, “I’ll find a place for us!” and did.
And you found somewhere in Rome? Well, just outside of the city, yes - with the help of family and friends. My mother was thinking she would spend a lot more time in Italy than she ended up doing, though, and I sort of just took over. I said, “I want to live here now!” and that’s what happened. She still came over regularly, for a month at a time, but it ended up being my place. I knew the area really well, as had friends there, and my ex-boyfriend's family also lived nearby. That was around 20 years ago, back in the year 2000.
And you’ve been living in or around Rome ever since? No. Not quite. From 2011 to 2014 I felt like I needed a break. So, even though I knew I’d be back, I returned to the States for three years. But, of course, I returned and have been based in the region ever since.
Did you start teaching English when you first moved over? When I first came it was actually more like a vacation, but I did send my resume to a number of language schools and got loads of positive responses. However, as I needed to actually live in Italy to officially work here, I didn’t start teaching straight away. But even before I moved over permanently, I knew there was a demand for native English-speaking teachers.
When I did first make the move, I didn’t have a job waiting for me and people thought I was courageous. My friends back in New York were saying things like “you’re so brave” or “you’re so crazy” to be leaving, but to me it was like ‘what do you mean?’. It was an adventure! It was just so exciting and awesome that I had the chance to come to Italy. It was something that I wanted to do. But when I moved over, I did so without actually having a job.
When I arrived, I just started looking, went to the closest language school to my new apartment and immediately got hired. So, I started off that way and have been teaching ever since.
Based on your considerable experience, what do you think are the main barriers for Italians who want to master the English language? Probably not having enough opportunities to speak with people who they consider to be ‘good’ native speakers, or just having the chance to regularly practise. Another thing, I’ve found, is that in Italy television shows and movies are normally dubbed into Italian, whereas in other countries I've been to, like Portugal - where they speak fantastic English -, American shows and films are subtitled. I think that makes a real difference. So, I’d say it’s just that: not being able to speak, or listen, regularly to natural English is the main problem Italians need to overcome.
As the English language is being used nowadays by more non-native speakers communicating with each other than actual native speakers, in terms of overall numbers at least, do you think it’s important for students to actually learn the language from ‘natives’? Not necessarily, no. I mean, I don't feel like I could say “well, I'm a native speaker, so I’m better (at teaching) than other people”. It’s more about learning general communication skills. But there is also a need to understand native speakers when they are talking and that can often be a problem, with things like idioms and natural phrases. And since a lot of businesspeople are actually doing business with native speakers, there is a definite advantage for them to learn English with a native speaker, as well.
How did you end up at The Language Grid? I actually first applied when I moved back to Italy in 2014, but didn't get the job, initially. They were looking for someone full-time and I was only looking for part-time work. I remember seeing an advert and calling Zoe (the CEO of TLG) and I was very impressed by her approach. She was so serious and I could tell that she meant business! She also seemed to really care, not only about her students but also about those who worked for her. I had been used to working with local language schools that were far more ‘informal’, shall we say, and who paid their teachers on an hour-by-hour basis. But Zoe was offering a proper contract with benefits. I was like ‘wow!’.
But it wasn’t until 2017 that I recall speaking to Zoe again. There was another ad and I remembered my earlier conversation with her. My situation had changed and I just went for it. I’ve been with the company ever since.
Apart from the employment conditions, what would you say are the biggest differences between working at The Language Grid and the other English language schools or training centres you’ve worked at, from a trainer’s perspective? Most of the time, at the other places where I worked, I was only given afternoon or evening courses which I didn’t like at all. I just was sick of working nights and all that kind of stuff. I wanted to have a normal life, come home at the end of the day and do something. I was also used to only being given one or two hours of lessons, here or there, so I appreciate the fixed schedule and the actual amount of work TLG provides. Having all the sessions during the day has made a major difference to my life.
And are there any major differences from a pedagogical point of view? Yeah! The teaching methodology at TLG is quite different to anything else I’ve experienced before. Having a whole session plan provided is something I really appreciate, as I don’t have to worry about planning each and every lesson, which saves a lot of time. I also love the e:Trainer corrections. I’m a grammar person, so that’s something I really appreciate. Otherwise, there’s the whole TLG system, but I got used to that pretty quickly. It’s a big time-saver!
Do you think the company’s methodology and system actually produces results? I think so, yes. There is usually an improvement if the student’s following everything they’re supposed to do. So yes, I do see positive results. What happens sometimes, when I can really notice the progress someone’s made, is when I go back to a student that I haven't seen in a while. Often, they are much better than I previously remembered. So that's when I notice improvements more, for some reason. I guess if you're seeing someone every week you just kind of get used to them.
Is there any advice you would give to new students of The Language Grid, in terms of how to make the most of their course? Well, what I tell my own students is to just make time for their English learning. Even if it's just five minutes a day, make it a part of your routine.
That’s great! So, going back to you, Jess: where do you see yourself in the long term? Oh, I’m definitely staying in Italy, for as long as I can.
Do you want to retire here? I think so, yeah. I’d like to! I mean, I do miss home, sometimes, but I go there pretty often. So, as long as I can keep going back and forth, flying way too much - and spending too much on flights - as long as I can do that…
What do you miss most about New York? Besides my family and friends there, which is the biggest thing, there’s the excitement of New York city, itself. Now, when I go back, I'm in Long Beach or I'm at my friend’s house in Brooklyn… there’s just the excitement, the cultural diversity… different foods! Then there’s theatre… Everything that a big city like New York has to offer.
A critical question: where can you find the best pizza? New York or Italy? Definitely in Italy… in Naples. Well, I prefer that type of pizza! But the pizza in New York is very good, as well.
Do you have any ambitions that you’ve yet to fulfil? Mostly travel-related stuff, I guess, like visiting other parts of Italy that I haven't seen yet. I’ve never been to Sardinia… and I’d love to visit Turin. Another thing on my bucket list is to visit my grandmother’s hometown in Sicily which, believe it or not - even though I've been to Sicily several times - I've never been to. There’s just so much of this country I’d like to see.
Do you find there’s big differences between the cities out here? Yes! They are all different and unique, and I love that.
One last thing. What are the biggest cultural differences an Italian visiting New York on business should be aware of? If you're not early you're late! They are very into punctuality, from what I remember. New Yorkers also like to go to the bar and have a drink, after work. And they’re probably more direct. But I haven't lived there for so long, I’m not sure if any of that’s changed.
Is there anything else you would like to add? My one final piece of advice for students: don’t be afraid to make mistakes! Don’t do what I did!!! When I first came to Italy, I was actually really afraid of saying the wrong thing, so I remained silent for the first year, most of the time at least. I was studying and learning, and I was understanding, but I was just too afraid to talk. So, I would say don't be afraid to make mistakes. Just communicate.
Awesome! Thanks Jess. Thank you, too!