Differing Relationships with Language

In my last week of class, a new Swiss person joined. This was now the third Swiss person in the class, and all three really struck me as being very very good with Italian. Additionally, one of them once spoke to me in nearly flawless English at one point. I have heard that the Swiss as a whole are good with foreign languages; these three were certainly a testament to that. Although they may somewhat be outliers with respect to other cultures, this very different relationship with foreign language is not unique to just the Swiss. I’ve mentioned it in my earlier blog posts, but it bears repeating. Being a native English speaker is really a unique position to be in. Since it is such a common and essential second language in so many places, we native English speakers are in a privileged situation in which we aren’t forced to pick up foreign languages to get by linguistically with foreigners. I witnessed this fact to a great extent during my time abroad. I lived with one British person and three people who were not native English speakers, and yet everyone always spoke in English to each other. When the school would have its 15-minute halfway break, the students would all go outside and speak to each other in English, even though few of them spoke English as a first language. It seems to me that for many cultures, learning a second language is simply an occurrence in life; a difficult task, yes, but something that happens nonetheless. In some ways, I think we clearly lack something in our attitudes towards other languages and cultures; they become less accessible to us as we are so anchored to English. In my time abroad, I tried to take advantage of the ability to change this attitude. Letting go of English made my experience that much more fruitful.

Language, Food

Something that I’ve always found pretty interesting about places that attract a lot of foreign visitors (e.g. Florence) is the culinary dynamic. Regardless of what language you speak, you still have to eat. English is indeed the lingua franca for most visitors, so I’ve witnessed a lot of ordering and waiting on conducted in English by non-native English speakers. Nonetheless, there are some who don’t speak any English (or Italian) and, obviously, still have to eat. The other day at dinner I witnessed a Spanish couple at the restaurant who didn’t speak English or Italian. They still ate well with no problem because we all speak the language of food. This is one of those things that I just didn’t consider before actually witnessing it.

Seeing that dining is the type of activity that can and must be done no matter how good my Italian is, I have found this setting to be one of the best for improving my real world speaking skills. Ultimately, the waiter will figure out which dish I’m ordering, so I might as well put the language to use while it happens. As my time has gone on here, I’ve found that the waiters have stopped responding to me in just English and have begun speaking back to me in Italian. Whether this is to humor me or because they think I speak well enough to do so is not clear to me, but either way I am glad. These interactions allow for relatively simple yet real exchanges, which have been great practice for me. Each time I say something that is understood by an Italian, it’s as if I’ve cracked a little code. It is small but satisfying. And in the end, I get some great food. Of course, I have photos of said food.

Art History: A New Way of Encountering the Language

During my first couple weeks at my language school, I also registered for an art history class. This seemed like a no-brainer since I’m taking my classes in Florence, the heart of the Renaissance. The art history lessons concluded this past week. In all we did three visits to historic spots around Florence: Capella Brancacci, Galleria dell’Accademia, and Basilica di San Lorenzo. My intention in signing up was two-fold. I wanted to get myself out into the important sights of Florence such that they would be put into context, and I wanted extra, specific exposure to the language, as the course was all in Italian. The course met both goals.

Paying attention for multiple hours to our Italian instructor Monica was quite exhausting at times. It was difficult to understand all the information seamlessly – I was able to get considerable chunks of it, but the gaps really hindered my overall understanding. Despite this, I was able to appreciate the art that we witnessed, and our instructor put it into context better than a visit by myself ever would have. By the third and final lesson at the Basilica di San Lorenzo, I was able to understand almost all of what Monica said. In fact, at one point an American man overheard Monica giving us the tour and asked her a question. She had trouble formulating her thoughts into English, and I was able to answer him. I felt like a translator briefly, as she added another point in Italian which I quickly told him in English.

Even with the lack of totality of my understanding at times, I felt that I was able to experience the artwork more intimately by virtue of receiving the information in Italian. It seemed a truer, purer way to experience it. I’m extremely glad I registered for the art history class. It gave me an important experience with the rich culture in Florence and a very real encounter with the language. Attached are some photos of my favorite parts of our lessons.


I mentioned in my last post the surprising level of anglicization I’ve encountered in Florence. It is too bad because often when I speak in Italian to employees at stores or restaurants, they often reply to me right away in English. I don’t know if this is because it’s obvious to them that I’m American or if they’re just so conditioned to defaulting to the more tourist-friendly English. After all, many of these towns in Italy are pretty dependent on tourism. In any case, hearing the English responses is discouraging to me when I’m trying to work on my Italian.

This past weekend, I took a trip to meet my brother in Padova, a smaller university town pretty close to Florence. It was a very nice, clean, peaceful little town that I had never been to. My favorite part was how little English I encountered as compared to in Florence. At restaurants my brother and I were able to use Italian. We went to a botanical garden and I was able to use my Italian to ask the cost of entry. I felt a bit more capable in terms of the language while in Padova because the city was so much less anglicized and we were able to get by fine by speaking our Italian.

We were in Padova on Sunday so we attended mass at the Basilica di Sant’Antonio. This was my second mass of my stay and I was able to follow more of it than the previous week, and I understood the general message of the homily. This was encouraging to me. Some pictures of the trip to Padova are attached.

The language lessons at my school continue to help me. They force me to be very careful with my pronunciation – as the only American in the class, I’m rather conscious of the others’ preconceptions of Americans and in particular of our lazy speech and pronunciation. I want to convince them otherwise, so I try to be very deliberate when I speak and read in the class. My ability to comprehend others in real time is improving as well.

Progress and Surprises

I’m now a bit over a week into my lessons. To put my situation into context, the school I’m at teaches Italian as a foreign language to various levels – from people who have never studied Italian to people like me who already have a pretty solid grasp on the language but certainly have more to go. Importantly, the students at the school are not all native English speakers. (I have learned that English is almost ubiquitously a second language to those who speak other languages. Further, most of the people I have encountered speak English proficiently and it is interesting seeing it used as the common tongue between two people who come from different places. For example, I have a Dutch roommate and a Turkish roommate and they speak to each other in English. This is very interesting to me but is a story for another time and place.) Since the students in my class speak various different languages as their first language, the class is obviously not taught in the way that I am accustomed to. That is, in my two years of studying Italian at Notre Dame, it’s been taught to an English-speaking class. As we advance we try to speak more in just Italian, certainly, but our classes are nonetheless grounded in our native tongue. Here in Italy, I am instead learning the language from a more or less linguistically neutral perspective. There is no translating back and forth in the class; all is in Italian. This type of learning has had its positives and negatives. At first it was very hard to follow the discussions of the class. I could get most of it, but it took a lot of focus to follow every single thing. I was for the most part translating the Italian I heard into English in my head. But after the constant exposure to this for several classes, I’ve become more habituated and can now follow conversations more easily. There is definitely still a lot of internal translation going on, but it is less than at the beginning. In this respect, I think this form of learning the language has helped me. The main negative I have noticed so far is the difficulty in explaining particular words and phrases that no one in the class knows. I often find myself checking my translator because I didn’t understand the teacher’s explanation of something. Considering that one of my biggest weaknesses is a lack of vocabulary, I wish this type of learning were better in this regard. Overall, I do think this format is helping me improve my comprehension skills. I am still timid in real interactions, however, because I know that if I attempt to speak to an Italian in Italian and he either 1) notices I am American right away or 2) realizes I have trouble understanding his response, he will just start speaking to me in English. This is a downside of coming to such an Anglicized city as Florence – you can definitely have English as a crutch. I was not extremely aware of this fact beforehand, but I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. I’ve felt somewhat spoiled having English as my first language. As English speakers, we’ve never really needed to be truly proficient in a second language, which is (I suppose) a privilege, but maybe also a bit of a shame.


Despite the large English presence here, recently I went to a pizzeria and, for the first time, successfully got the server to speak to me only in Italian. These were small exchanges, but nonetheless I was satisfied. To commemorate, I had to take a photo of the pizza – I’ve had better. I’m also quite enjoying the city. It’s very beautiful and has so much to offer in terms of art and history. The most beautiful view of the city is found up at the Piazzale Michelangelo. It’s a bit of a hike to get up there, but I’ve done it three times and it’s worth it. Some photos from there are also included.

Arrival and First Encounters

I have now been here in Florence for a few days. Soon after my arrival, I documented my travel experience, which in all took about 20 hours, and my very initial encounters in Florence:

“Saturday, May 12: I landed in Milan at about 8 am local time. On the plane the flight attendants spoke both perfect English and perfect Italian. In fact, I couldn’t tell which was the native tongue. There were (I believe) more Italians on the plane than Americans. I found the baggage claim and was confused that I didn’t have to do anything after picking up my bag – I can count the number of times I’ve flown on one hand so I’m not accustomed to the protocol. Then I needed to find my train, the Malpensa Express, so I asked a woman behind a desk, “Dove vado per la Malpensa Express? Where do I go for the Malpensa Express?” She answered in Italian, and, somewhat shell-shocked, I didn’t pick up much of it and she could tell. “English is better?” she asked me. “Forse, sì. Maybe, yes.” I was a bit embarrassed. I still had trouble finding the train but bought a ticket for the 9:13 one (at 9:08…). I wasn’t sure where I needed to go so I asked the man who sold me the ticket, “Da dove parte? Where does it leave from?” He smugly answered, “Dai binari. From the tracks.” I found the right spot and got on the train. After some time on the train I realized I did not validate my ticket as one must do on certain trains in Italy – it was not clear to me that I needed to and I now wonder if the man who sold it to me purposely did not tell me to – and became very worried about my incoming fine. Luckily they never came to check and I made it out alive. I got to Milano Centrale at about 10:10, where my next train was to leave at 11:35. I was also very confused at Milano Centrale. At first I could not find the information for my train, Italo 9923. Was it canceled? Initially I just stayed on the platform, planning to wait until my train arrived. But then I started getting worried so I went out into the main area of the station where I saw my train number up on the screen, but no other information about it. Soon I picked up that the board adds the info later on as the arrival time approaches. Keep in mind this is the first time I’ve traveled alone at all, not just in Europe. Finally I get on the Italo train and arrive in Florence, where my transfer is. Without saying more than 5 words to me, he recklessly drives me (as Italians do) to the apartment, takes out my bags, points to which door is mine, and immediately leaves. I’m unsure exactly what to do but eventually find my way up and meet my roommates, who are all nice.”

So my first couple attempts with the language and the culture were not picture perfect, but it would be silly to expect it to be so. Even with all my preparation in the classroom and my exposure to Italian music and film, the actual, living, real-time language came as a shock to me. These initial experiences really give a sense of just how useful it is to be able to come here to Italy. That is, I wouldn’t truly be able to improve my Italian unless faced with these types of situations and with the real spoken language. And as for the discomforts I experienced while traveling, they, too, are extremely important for my adaptation to a different culture – I now know to be sure to validate my ticket before boarding the train – and also for my personal maturation in being able to handle real-word, confusing situations.