2022 Summer Internships Italy Language Studies Mick Guile Temple Rome

Parli Italiano?: Stumbling over language barriers

I was never the best at languages. I didn’t do well in my compulsory Spanish classes in middle school and continued to be average at best when learning it in high school. I found “my perfect language” when I started learning Japanese in my senior year and continued to study it during my college career. It was challenging, but it was fun, and everything seemed to click for me. I was proud of myself for conquering the hurdle of learning another language, and I pride myself on being able to spot Japanese in the wild and read it with little effort. I’d be fine in Rome, I convinced myself—I have this learning languages thing down pat.

What I failed to consider was the fact that having learned Japanese was as much of a curse as a blessing. I had assumed that the languages being so different would make it easier to separate them in my mind, but that wasn’t the case. 

As part of my internship course, I have to take a six-day “survival Italian” course. I’m about to start day four as of writing this, but there was a huge learning curve for me. Learning the pronunciations was pretty difficult, and almost seemed counterintuitive when paired with my English and Japanese-speaking brain, along with the little bit of Spanish that I’ve picked up. I also have my sociology class right before the survival course, so I really have to pace myself and make sure to stay energized.

A picture of three packets, a notebook, and a pen.
Hard at work studying my packets!

Day one was probably the hardest. Getting accustomed to the quick pace of the course and jumping into learning right away was a tad jarring. I admittedly felt sort of discouraged by the end of the first day since I wasn’t getting everything right away.

Day two was a lot better. We had a homework assignment looking at the pronunciation of words, and as I started working through it, I felt more confident going into the second day. We were learning sentences by then (what’s your name, my name is…, where are you from, etc.) and conversing with the tutors and the other students was super fun!

Day three, we learned about ordering from restaurants and expressing what you wanted from a menu. I was very excited for this one since I would have the opportunity to put it to use rather frequently. The very next day, I went to the gelateria near student housing and ordered a cup of gelato using the phrases we’d learned: io prendo una coppetta con fragola, I’ll have strawberry gelato in a cup.

After that, there was a briefly awkward exchange of hand gestures while he tried to figure out what size I wanted—I hadn’t learned how to say big or small yet! It wasn’t the first experience I’d had where I would nail a few sentences in Italian and then become completely lost, and I’m sure it won’t be the last, but it made me surprisingly happy. The owner of the gelateria was incredibly understanding and kind, and like a lot of other people I’d spoken to in Italian, he seemed happy that I’d even tried.

When I first arrived in Rome, I was pretty frightened by the fact that everywhere I looked, there was a language that I didn’t know. There are a lot of signs and menus in English, and a lot of people here speak it too, but it feels like there’s a fifty-fifty chance at any given place that I’ll have to figure things out on my own. It’s a humbling experience, to say the least; since I’ve never been abroad, I was always used to being surrounded by English. 

It’s fun to laugh at myself now. I’m far from fluent, and I definitely won’t be by the time July rolls around, but I think I’ve come a long way even since the first day I arrived.

An image of a sign that says "uscita - exit" hanging from the roof of a bus interior.
Uscita, exit, one of the first words I learned how to pronounce properly. The “sc” is pronounced like “sh”!

I went from nervously translating “where is the butter” on my phone in the middle of the grocery store to being able to (mostly) order things by myself. When I’m with my friends who aren’t taking the course, I can really tell the difference between our knowledge of the language. We’re only halfway through the course, too—I’m ready to face the challenges of the next three days and learn even more. 

Honestly, I’m thinking I might miss it. Even in such a short timespan, I’ve grown fond of Professor Paolo, the tutors that speak with us, and all of my classmates. It was time well spent! I do wonder if it’d be possible to have the course opened to other students in future summer semesters, and not just those from the internship since sharing my new knowledge of Italian with my friends has just been so fun.

A picture of a small cup of pink gelato, with a spoon sticking out of the side.
A strawberry gelato. It’s the flavor that never fails me!

See how other students are overcoming language barriers abroad.

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