Before coming to Italy, I spent a few days in Paris– partly because I found an unbelievable fare from XLAirways, but mostly because when life offers you the chance to go to Paris, why not? Always go to Paris. And before I begin reflecting upon A Moveable Feast or marveling the joie de vivre of Paris (because I could and would do just that), let’s focus on one of the most critical reasons people decide to study abroad.
Upon arrival, even in my beleaguered post-transatlantic state, I was able to comprehend the language. Luckily my interactions between Charles de Gaulle and the hotel involved very little communication, but I was still able to follow directions, find the hotel’s location, and check myself in. (I’d like to extend a sincere merci beaucoup to all my French teachers from 7th grade up until undergrad for making that unbearable post-transatlantic flight experience as short as possible.) Within the few short days that I was in Paris, I found the language returning to me. Suddenly I could not just ask for coffee, but request cream and sugar. I could watch the news and know to avoid the 7th Arrondissement because of the protests happening there that afternoon. I could explain Wichita’s location when the bartender asked where I was from. The anxiety I experienced prior to this trip regarding the language barrier seemed less opposing as I gained more confidence as a long-dormant Francophone. Furthermore, after working in the predominantly Puerto Rican neighborhood of Kensington, Philadelphia for 5+ years, I had an elementary grasp on Spanish. “How hard could Italian be?” I asked myself. It’s just another Romance language. I’ll pick it up in no time. It won’t be hard at all.
20 minutes after landing in Pisa, I learned precisely how hard Italian could be. My idealism dismantled itself pretty quickly as I struggled to request a passport stamp (a requirement for TU) from the customs office of a small regional airport. I eventually gave up. In my last post, I wrote about Culture Shock– and one of the leading factors for people to become disoriented with their surroundings is the language barrier. You can prepare extensively to live in a non-English speaking country with classes, guidebooks, youtube tutorials, but nothing truly prepares you until you find yourself staring at a door wondering if “solo dipendenti” means bathroom or something else. (FYI: it’s something else.)
I wonder what my mental state would be like if my classes were being instructed in Italian. Luckily for me, my class is offered in English– which means that my use of the Italian language is significantly decreased. My day begins with my class, my afternoon revolves between reading in English and visiting sites that are nearly always welcoming to American tourists or have ample signs in English, and my day ends with watching a show in English over Netflix. Very little of the Italian language factors into my day-to-day routine. With less of a language barrier, I find there is significantly less frustration.
Except, of course, I am frustrated with myself. Earlier this year, I read the amazing Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza by Gloria Anzaldúa and I keep finding myself guilty of what Anzaldúa calls “linguistic terrorism.” In Borderlands, Anzaldúa argues that language is one of the foundations of our identity. In assuming that everyone who can speak English should speak English just because my Italian is pitiful, I am imposing my linguistic identity upon another. By not speaking Italian, I am declaring my language and my culture as superior. And how awful is that?
As study abroad students, we are guests to this country; we have a diplomatic obligation to be active participants of the Italian language, and to a greater extent, Italian culture. Yes, it’s easier to take a passive role and rely on the fact that the majority of Italians, beginning in grade school, are educated in English, but it’s also imperialistic and xenophobic. So even though my class is offered in English, and even though it’s only 4 weeks long, and even though I am discouraged by blank stares or apparent confusion when I try to converse with the people in my neighborhood, I continue to pursue Italian. I carry a little notebook filled with the common words and phrases I pick up throughout my time here, I watch youtube tutorials such as this one, and every couple of days I have “Ora Italiana” where I try to only speak in Italian for an entire hour.
To be transparent, I must admit that 9 out of 10 conversations with Italians shift back to English. What can I say? I tried. I try. Despite this, I encourage anyone who plans to come here, whether through a study abroad program or through your own endeavors, to actively participate in the language. Is it scary at first? Will you make mistakes? Will you confuse yourself and others? Yes. Yes. Probably yes. However, you will find, it becomes significantly less daunting the more you partake in it.