I speak and write fluent Italian and have used it on a daily basis for my whole adult life, while living and working in Milano and then back home in LA. Although our family came from Italy over 100 years ago, I had had no exposure to the language when I started taking it at UCLA. This is typical of Italian-Americans of my generation, where the language has almost completely died out. Before starting Italian, I was prepared by four years of high school French, taught by the Latin teacher, who gave us a very thorough grounding in grammar.
The UCLA Italian department at that time ran a high-intensity version of the Direct Method for first year Italian, under the direction of the late Prof. Mirella Cheeseman and Prof. Marga Cottino-Jones. We also had an excellent conversation teacher, the late Prof. Althea Reynolds, who showed me how to lead students to speak, how to prompt students with idiomatic expressions and how to use theater to teach intonation and pronunciation. Geoffrey Meigs and Elise Magistro were enthusiastic and effective TAs. I had second-year Italian from Pier Massimo Forni, now a professor at Johns Hopkins University. Overall, the lessons I received at UCLA prepared me very well for living in Italy, for speaking the language and also for teaching English to Italians.
Yet, as well organized and useful as those classes were, I really learned to speak Italian by following my cousin around Milano. I spent hours listening to her friends talking and I could understand more and more of what I was hearing. This proved to be the ideal way to train myself to speak, first watching and listening and then gradually speaking.
Today I still speak fluent Italian and I enjoy translating old Italian literature into modern English. Many pages on this site have some examples of my translations of Machiavelli, Boccaccio and others. Look on the pull-down menu under “Italian” to get to those various pages.