This past week, professors and administrators from UVa came to observe CET, and when we had dinner all together, we began talking about the cultural differences between Italians and Americans. One of them asked if and/or how we were getting to know Italian individuals, and we had to admit that it is a pretty difficult task.
Unless you have the guts and lack of inhibitions to naturally walk up to a group of Italians on the Campo in the middle of the day, the only opportunity we have had to talk to Italians one-on-one has really been while we are out at bars at night. And there is a limited level of friendship you can garner with a random person at a bar late at night, unless you are looking for more than your average, platonic friendship. If you know what I’m saying.
Thankfully, our program is small and we have the opportunity to live with young Italians who naturally become our friends. Furthermore, as we explained to our university visitors, we have Christina. Christina, our resident director, set up a casual language partner program, where she asked us all to list our top three interests, and she found some Italians from around Siena who wanted to improve their English and matched us up according to our interests. The idea was to have someone new with whom to converse for about an hour a week. After the initial meeting, it was up to us to set up our language lesson appointments, if you could call them that.
My language partner’s name is Angelo, and he is a law student at the University of Siena. I know sometimes it doesn’t work out so well, and some students find that situations such as these can feel a bit awkward or forced, especially if you fundamentally lack things in common, but we get along really well.
On the first day, I felt kind of like Christina had assigned us new friends. In a good way. Whenever I had class group projects in school, I always liked having the groups assigned randomly by the teacher, so that I would be forced to meet and get to know (possibly make friends with) people I might not otherwise have gone out of my way to talk to. I also like assigned reading, because I often find that I really enjoy what I would not have otherwise made the time to read.
I saw this opportunity as the same kind of thing. Christina manipulated the social structure obstructing our entry into Siena social circles and voilà: we had Italian friends.
I think within our group of CET students and our Italian language partners, the sequence of events went in a pretty similar manner. Get coffee together one time, then an aperitif the next, become actual friends, then maybe make dinner at one house or another in a group or something.
In some cases, when the language skills of one partner are better or worse than the other, it might happen that you tend to speak more in one language or another. For example, two of the language partners both study Finance in English as their major in college, so much more English is spoken than Italian.
For my part, as Angelo and I actually just discussed the other day, I can understand him when he speaks at a normal pace in Italian, but he can’t perfectly comprehend my mile-a-minute English. It all evens out, though, because he can speak English far better than I can speak Italian. In the end, we speak a pretty equal amount of Italian and English.
I think one of my favorite parts of the language partnership is that our conversations aren’t based in academics. In an academic setting, there are certain linguistic boundaries that are very difficult to cross, and as, in the end, you’re getting a grade for your verbal performance, there is pressure to speak cleanly with what you know, rather than diving right in and getting dirty. When you are talking with a language partner, the only necessity is communication. Messing up isn’t as threatening, especially when you know that they will just laugh at you, correct you, and then mess up in your own native language a few minutes later, at which point you can return the favor by laughing and correcting their mistake.
The mistakes are sometimes the most amusing part of it all. By messing up and having a good laugh at the silliness of language, you can enjoy the fact that the past participle of “to make out” and the word for “lemonade” are the same. Or that it is very difficult for Italians to pronounce “air” versus “hair” versus “ear” versus “hear.” Or you can have a good chuckle when one of you confuses “pants” and “shoes.” (Please, make yourself comfortable! Take off your pants and stay a while.)