The most surprising thing about Italy was the pervasiveness of the English language. In most restaurants, shops, and the streets of even small cities, the locals speak to tourists in English – some with excitement at the opportunity to practice, and others with grudging distain.
I discovered that as a result, perhaps, Italians are generally excited, impressed, and grateful when an American replies to them in Italian – no matter how poor the pronunciation or syntax.
Perhaps the pervasiveness of English is an aggregate good for commerce, the sharing of ideas, and the creation of a global culture – in which people across the world consume and appreciate the same literature, film, and other media – but sometimes it makes me feel like a downright imposition. The Italians and other Europeans I interacted and conversed with on a daily basis were forced to meet me more than half way when comprehension was lacking on either side.
Most obvious were the embarrassing encounters at stores where the busy clerk, upon seeing that I hadn’t comprehend his blur of Italian slang, laboriously and disdainfully spat: “vould you like a baaag?”
More poignant an example is what transpired when my Italian friend introduced me to his French friend from Erasmus, the European equivalent of study abroad. Eddy (Edoardo) speaks his regional dialect, Italian, passable French, and very good English. Yana speaks her native French, less Italian than I (and that is a meaningful distinction), and English. As a result, most of our conversations – excepting the moments in which Eddy tried to impress and flatter Yana with declarations in French – were in English.
As the native speaker in this scenario, I found myself explaining the idioms, pointing them in the right direction as they searched for the English words to express themselves, and occasionally giving a small grammar lesson. I felt their micro-frustrations when they struggled to get a point across in my vulgar tongue.
I learned that Americans are exceptionally privileged – even compared to the more international British – because their language is spoken globally, yet also sheltered and disconnected. I hope that next time I go to Italy the natives I converse with will only have to meet me a little more than half way linguistically.