The Benefits of Speaking Bad Italian
It has now been over a year since my first journey abroad ended. When I left for that trip, I was just a kid from the suburbs of Utah who wanted to see the world. This year, I have returned to my former home in Italy with a few more miles on my soul and one of the most useful tools of all: language proficiency.
Last summer, I never took the time to study Italian before I arrived in Florence. I had been told that I could get by because most Italians also spoke English; additionally, I was intimidated by the task of learning the language and a little bit in denial that I was going to a foreign country. I had never been outside of the US before then, so the concept of a language barrier had never really been applicable to my life. It was true that I was able to get by without speaking Italian, but I always felt like I was missing out on having a truly authentic international experience.
Thousands of tourists come to Florence each day with no knowledge of local culture just to take selfies with the David and eat their fettuccine Alfredo—to them, the language barrier is nothing more than a group of waiters with exotic accents. Few people really endeavor to dig deeper and find out what it really means to be a Florentine. I grew resentful of the casual Instagram traveler, and even a little bit of myself. Without language, I had no voice, and this deficiency is still my biggest regret about my study abroad experience.
When I learned there was a possibility I could come back to Florence through the on-site ambassador program, I immediately started studying Italian. Every morning as I walked to class, I would listen to Italian lesson recordings that I checked out from the library and loaded on my iPod. Just 20 minutes each morning made the workload seem more manageable, but over the course of three months it amounted to many hours of studying. I was by no means fluent, but I knew how to order food, how to ask for directions, and how to put a sentence together. By the time I got on the plane, I felt much more confident in my abilities, and I was eager to test my new skills in a real world setting.
Even the small amount of language I know now has made an incredible difference in my second experience in Italy. There is a certain kind of connection that happens with others when I address them in their native tongue, a dimension of understanding that was completely absent from the previous summer. I love every opportunity that I get to speak Italian—it may be shaky, mispronounced and incorrect at times, but it is still Italian. By attempting to speak time and time again, I have eventually honed my skills and opened up the door to learn even more Italian. I hope that by the time I return to the United States, I will have learned enough to start in the classroom in the fall and continue acquiring the language.
Ethan B. is a CEA alumnus from the Spring 2016 semester in Florence, Italy and from University of Utah. He is currently the CEA On-Site Ambassador in Florence, Italy.