I had the privilege of traveling to Italy during January 2020. I spent the majority of my time in Rome and made some stops in places like Pompeii and Gaeta before returning to the United States. Once I was settled back into the New Hampshire lifestyle after having been immersed in Italian culture for almost two weeks, I had a chance to reflect on this life-changing experience.
Before this trip, I had never been abroad. My vacations growing up were spent at Disney World, so I did not consider myself cultured in the slightest. But, going into this abroad experience, I did have one skill that truly enhanced my time in Italy that many of my traveling companions did not: the ability to speak Italian.
I’m not 100% fluent, but I’m almost finished with the intermediate level of Italian language courses through UNH’s Italian Department. That being said, the Italian Department deserves a major shout out, because the faculty that comprises it teaches in such a way that I fell in love with the language.
I chose Italian for my language requirement because I knew it was similar to Spanish, which I had a background in already. And quite honestly, it just sounded cool. Most kids go into their language requirement just wanting to get it over with, but after the required classes were completed, I felt a sense of disappointment. I then found out I could pursue a minor in Italian. Choosing to further my knowledge in Italian was one of the best decisions I ever made. The intermediate classes were so much different than the beginner classes in the sense that everyone actually wanted to learn. It was an intimate learning environment where a blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl who pretty much never left the East coast could feel like she had been enriched with knowledge about an incredible new culture.
My trip to Italy couldn’t come soon enough. The fall semester dragged on for what felt like years. I regularly checked the countdown app on my phone to see how many days were left until I went abroad, or as I labeled it on my phone, “Roma!” Eventually, finals ended, the holidays whizzed by and I woke up one cold day in January with zero days left on my countdown app. I’ll skip all the details about the traveling simply because I don’t want to put you through what I had to endure: a nine-hour night-time plane ride with 30 minutes of sleep and a six-hour time difference once we arrived at our final destination. But it was so worth it.
My travel companion and I groggily loaded into a taxi and were catapulted into Italian culture. Our taxi driver barely spoke English. “Dove?” he said to us, and we kind of just looked at each other like, “Wow, we’re actually here—thankfully, we’re both Italian students.”
We managed to overcome our first language barrier obstacle after that 30-minute taxi ride. I just kept thinking to myself how much more intimidated I would have been if I didn’t know that “Dove” means “Where?” Also, might I add that Italians drive incredibly fast—especially Italian taxi drivers.
Our familiarity with the Italian language served us well in so many ways, and it became clearer to me every day. At first, I just felt cool because I could understand the waiter while most of my friends couldn’t, but I quickly realized it meant so much more than that; seeing a native’s facial expression change when they hear their language come out of your mouth is so satisfying. And what’s more, they tend to elongate their conversation with you if they can speak their native tongue, rather than the super complicated language that is English.
The thing is, Italians pretty much all know some English, so that leaves many tourists with no incentive to try and learn Italian. That would be a giant waste of time if they already know English, right? Not at all.
Imagine if you were working somewhere centrally located in America where you interact with many different people. Imagine how exhausting it would be to speak a second language for hours on end. Even if those people happened to be interested in your culture, you might not think so, due to their seeming lack of effort to relate with you. It could even be pretty offensive to you. That’s how I imagine Italians feel when Americans travel to their country solely with the knowledge that Italy has wine, pizza, pasta and beautiful geography. The big takeaway I got is that the experience would’ve felt so much less enriching if I didn’t learn the language before visiting Italy. And I’m not saying people need to go on Duolingo and take a course before traveling to a non-English speaking country (although I’m not discouraging that); I’m saying you should Google a list of phrases you should know before visiting a country whose primary language isn’t English, like “Where is...?” or “Hello!” or “Thank you!” for starters. My ability to communicate with natives made me feel like I could connect to Italy on a much deeper level, and it made my time there that much more memorable and meaningful.
Communication is such a deep and primitive form of human connection. Imagine the people you’ll touch if you speak to them in their native tongue—I can say firsthand that there’s no feeling like it.