Growing up as an Italian-American, I had always wanted to learn how to speak Italian. My great-grandparents immigrated from Southern Italy to Chicago in the 1890s, and after only a few generations, the Italian language and dialects no longer existed within my family. Unfortunately, Italian was not taught as a class in my school district, so my only exposure to the language was through apps on my iPod touch and “Drive Time Italian,” a collection of CDs that was supposed to teach you Italian as you drove. I learned how to say phrases such as “c’è una macchina piccola” (“there is a small car,”) but that was the extent of my Italian knowledge until I arrived at Wellesley.
In my first year at Wellesley, I finally had the opportunity to begin learning Italian. I studied it in both my first and second years of college, and while I learned so much, immersion is essential to really learn a language. I am currently a junior, and this past fall, I studied abroad in Bologna, Italy with the Italian Department’s Eastern Collegium Consortium (ECCO) program.
Before leaving, I had spoken with other students who had lived abroad to learn other languages. People were always telling me things like, “You will learn Italian so quickly” or “After a couple of weeks, it will become so much easier” or “You will know it’s starting to click when you start dreaming in Italian.” I had heard a lot of optimistic stories, but no one had ever really told me how difficult and tiring it can be.
I arrived in Italy enthusiastic to speak Italian, but soon, every day became filled with one little embarrassing thing after another. For example, the first month of our program was spent in a beautiful city called Lecce, Puglia in the “heel of the boot.” I was confident enough to engage in basic conversation, like ordering food at restaurants or asking in stores where a certain items were, but at that point, I was still having a difficult time understanding people’s responses. When I had no idea what the person said, my go-to response was always “si” (“yes”). Sometimes it worked out, but it was probably not always the wisest response. For example, there was one time in a café when I just wanted a single shot of espresso and ended up with a sundae-like gelato for breakfast. Another time, at a bookstore, I ended up paying an extra 10 euro to donate books to children—at least, I think that’s what the 10 euro was for. Anyways, it was still only the first month, so I just laughed these situations off and did not let them bother me.
I figured that once I arrived in Bologna at the beginning of September, everything would “click.” However, even after I started living with three Italian roommates and hearing Italian 24/7, this was still not the case. For example, during my first week in Bologna I was eating dinner with a group of Italians and confused the words sposare and spostare. One means to move and the other means to marry. There was not much room at the dinner table, and while I had meant to offer to move over, I had accidentally proposed instead.
With every story like this, I felt more and more embarrassed, and I realized that I was starting to avoid speaking Italian, especially to strangers. One time when I was alone in my apartment, the phone rang. I was nervous to answer it, so I quickly hopped in the shower to use that as my excuse for why I couldn’t come to the phone. In my class at the Università that had nearly 70 students, I was the only American. At one point, the professor was speaking about an American metaphor and asked where the “American student” was so that she could verify it. She kept asking over and over again, “Where is my American?” and, as I was terrified of speaking in front of so many people, I sat slouched in my chair. She began walking around trying to find me, but, fortunately, because of my Italian-American heritage, I must have blended right in because she passed me up and “the American” remained a mystery for the rest of the class.
I had wanted to study abroad in Italy so I could improve my Italian, but if I avoided speaking opportunities, I would not improve. This was a revelation for me, and around November, I started making more efforts to step outside of my comfort zone. Instead of staying in my room, I tried to speak to my roommates’ friends and families, and I made sure to always make small talk with baristas or the people who worked in print shops, the grocery stores and tabaccherie (convenience stores). I am especially grateful to have had such wonderful friends like Elena, the former teaching language assistant for the Italian department, and my three roommates, Sefora, Carla and Sarah, who were always supportive, encouraging and willing to speak to me in Italian.
Just as people told me before I went abroad, Italian did start to “click.” I no longer accidentally ordered gelato for breakfast or proposed to others. Instead, I could successfully have conversations over the phone in Italian and was prepared to answer the next time my professor asked, “Where is my American?”
My Italian is still not perfect, so I wish it would “click” even more, but when I think about how much it improved over the course of a semester, I am very satisfied. While it felt like I would be in Italy for a while, five months is really not a long time, so to those of you who told me my Italian was going to improve quickly, you were right as well.
Since returning to Wellesley, a few friends have asked me what I learned the most during my time in Bologna. This question has been hard to answer, but I think one of the most valuable things I learned was to stay motivated even when it is difficult. To anyone studying abroad in the future, learning a new language will definitely test your patience. As a word of advice, if you stay motivated and make sure to laugh about all the embarrassing moments that may come your way rather than let them get to you, eventually your new language will begin to “click.”