Two different Italians stopped me on the street today to ask for directions. On the one hand, I was proud because these authentic Italians mistook me as one of their own. I get a strange sense of satisfaction from being able to blend in with other cultures. However, this happiness quickly became became uncomfortable and embarrassing. This is because, wait for it….I can’t speak Italian!
Yes, my name is Emily Bennett, I’ve lived in Florence for three months and I still cannot speak Italian. I am so ashamed. For most people, the biggest worry while traveling abroad is whether they will be able to understand the locals. This, of course, leads to desperate hopes that most people will know English and even conversations stating how much easier and better the world would be if everyone just spoke one language (i.e. English). But what a horrific white-washing of culture that would be! Can you imagine living in a world where no one knows the subtle romantic quality of the French language, or the explosive passion of Italian, or even the mysterious Swahili?
I get it, it’s intimidating and embarrassing to attempt to speak a language that you haven’t mastered, especially to people who have been speaking said language since they were babies. Trust me, that is what got me in this situation in the first place. When I was studying in France, it was a whole different ball game. I had been studying French for six years before I was living on my own there, so I had a sturdy background of the language and was well-informed of the culture as well. This is the first time I have ever studied Italian, and I know what you are thinking, if I live in Italy, I should be learning the language twice as fast, right? No, wrong, completely wrong. Everyone here speaks English! At least the French have the decency to refuse to speak English to you! Obviously, it would have been much harder for me to survive here if people didn’t speak English, but I think I could have done it, and forcing me to attempt even the most broken Italian in every situation would have sped up my learning immensely. However, I am a self-conscious little baby when it comes to Italian. Too quickly will I revert to English, or not say anything at all. I go to the grocery store at least once a week and I think the only things I have ever said to any of the cashiers are “si” “no” and “grazie”.
Now that my time in Italy is coming quickly to a close, I wish I had pushed myself harder to learn the language and speak it. Honestly, it is a really horrible feeling to be in a country and unable to speak the language. It is embarrassing! Not to mention completely disheartening. I don’t mean for this post to be such a downer, but if you can learn anything from my little failure, really take the time to learn the language before traveling. It will make your time there much more rewarding, and the locals will definitely like you more. Also, don’t be afraid to forget about English and instead rely on whatever of the language you do know (miming helps too). It is much more endearing to see someone struggling to speak the language than one who just starts speaking English and assumes whoever they are talking to will understand.