Learn a lingo, link to your roots

From nuclear physicist to student of languages, Chartered client, Charles Piani, revived a passion for his Italian culture … by learning the language nearly fifty years on!

“I grew up in a semi-Italian home.  My father was Italian and I remember how my family used to spend time with the Italian community Charles_Ronel Pianiwhen I was very young.  After being retired for a few years, and urged on by the Learn in the Balance Wheel, I needed to find a new challenge.  Learning Italian seemed to be an answer,” says Charles.

Charles is now almost seventy and has been retired for close on five years.  After completing his doctorate in nuclear sciences, he began a career that would last forty-five years. “I really enjoyed working in many areas of the nuclear sciences industry, including developing the local manufacture of fuel for the Koeberg nuclear power station and managing the SAFARI-1 research reactor at Pelindaba (medical isotopes) and later doing consulting work all over the world,” he explains.

After retiring at sixty-five, Charles was involved as a consultant with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for a few years and is now enjoying a welcome time-out since this year. He happened to meet up again with Kim Potgieter at a Chartered Wealth function and “’Kim’s Bucket Wheel’ got him thinking about his future. “I had time on my hands and needed to do something challenging.  I remembered my Italian childhood and realised that I had always wanted to learn the language.  I found a language training website called Duolingo that turned out to be the perfect solution.  Duolingo is a free on-line service by which a person learns a foreign language one step at a time.  I started last November and have completed the course, gaining the required fifty percent.”

Completing a Duolingo course is not easy.  “There are sixty-six separate modules in the Italian course.  Naturally, they start being relatively easy and become progressively more challenging.  The system does not allow you to progress to the next level until you are successful at your current one,” says Charles.

Learning a language “in theory” is one thing – speaking it is another.  “Italian is a very phonetic language.  You speak it the way you write it.  But Italians speak very fast, which makes conversing difficult for the beginner.”

Fortunately, Duolingo has a facility whereby the student can “speak back” to the programme.  “It’s amazing.  Using the microphone on the computer, you can repeat Italian phrases to the programme, which gives you basic conversational skills,” explains Charles.

Charles and his wife Ronél have other retirement activities that keep them more than busy.  “We are active in our church in Pretoria, and are involved in several outreach activities.”

Does that mean that Charles’ language-learning activities have come to an end?  Not a chance.  “Our church interacts with the local community, who happen to speak mainly Sepedi, the language spoken by the Pedi people who originate mainly from Limpopo and is a native language frequently used in the Pretoria areas.”

You guessed it.  “Now I am trying to learn Sepedi, so I can communicate effectively with the locals.  Our church has appointed a Sepedi teacher – over 16 weeks for 25 students – but it’s much more difficult than Italian,” he laughs.

What’s next for this scientist-turned-multilingual retiree? Greek? Russian? Maybe Mandarin? “After all, our two grandsons in Singapore are mastering it – so why not? In fact why don’t you give it a go? www.Duolingo.com.”

With Charles Piani, anything is possible.  As they say in Rome, “Vi diremo.”

“We will tell you.”


  • I decided that I would do a course in isiZulu this year and enrolled at the Wits Language School and completed the 10 week course successfully. However I also find that when you listen to isiZulu it is often very difficult to hear the words properly. Cyril Ramaphosa is easier to understand because he speaks isiZulu more slowly than the Zulus do. Wits has a six course program so you can take it as far as you wish. At about R5500 per module it is relatively expensive. One thing I had hoped to pick up was to learn about the Zulu culture because I believe in order to speak a language you need to understand the the people who speak the language. I intend to spend some time in learning their culture and hopefully I will find the language easier. Like Italian the language has to sound right.so if the rules don’t work then you change the word.

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