Language Immersion for Someone Notoriously Bad at Learning Languages

Written by Zoe Pringle, (Brandeis University) Student Correspondent CET Florence, Fall 2018

When given the opportunity to study abroad, I knew I wanted a language barrier. I wanted a completely new experience – to be culture shocked – and I figured that having to learn a new language would suffice. However, given my history with learning language, it is a miracle that I was stress free about the decision to immerse myself in a country with a language I knew nothing of.

Historical artwork seen at night

Having taken French for twelve years and being laughably non-fluent, I knew learning languages was not my strong suit. My lack of French knowledge became painfully noticeable when I traveled to France with my parents and was unable to speak coherently with the locals. If twelve years of French only granted me basic vocabulary and grammar, how was I going to fare with just four short months of Italian where it was more important than ever to understand the language?

Upon arriving to Italy, I quickly found out I was saying one of the five words I knew incorrectly. “Grazie,” which is thank you in Italian, is not in fact pronounced “grat-zi” as many Americans say. Rather it is spoken with the “e” pronounced: “grazi-ay.” While the “ay” is not emphasized, rather included as more of an afterthought, it is much more present than in the American version.

Sharing a bench in Florence

I take a beginners Italian class twice a week with a teacher who attempts to speak exclusively Italian with us. This proves impossible at times, for example when she gives us instructions in Italian and is only met with blank stares. Through this class, I have learned how to conduct basic conversations, describe myself, and use simple verbs, adjectives, and prepositions. In class I can feel myself understanding more and more Italian, although the extent of it is still very limited. However, even with this knew knowledge, it can be hard to remember what was learned in class when in the real world. Between getting flustered with the speed at which many locals speak, or finding myself naturally pointing to what I would like at a store instead of speaking, I don’t always speak Italian as much as I should.

Despite the challenges of speaking Italian in public, I have learned some beneficial words and phrases from simply interacting with locals, soaking up dialogue, and attempting to speak. Learning the names of food has been the easiest type of learning the Italian language, as menus are basically dictionaries in disguise. Some phrases have been learned by just going to stores and prove to be helpful, such as “Quanto cosa?”, meaning “How much?”

Night view on a river in Rome while on a CET trip

Another example of learning from the locals is when the handyman came to fix our washing machine and needed the mop. He tried to mime what he needed, but not understanding what he wanted, I whipped out google translate on my phone as I usually do when other forms of communication just aren’t working. He brushed it away, and then gestured for me to follow him while he searched for the mystery object. “Mocio!” he kept saying, which obviously meant nothing to me. He turned the corner of our small hallway and triumphantly held up the mop, Mocio! He pointed to me and said, Mocio? “Mop!” I excitedly exclaimed! I don’t think I’ll ever forget how to say “mop” in Italian. Real life interactions like this can be the best way to learn a new language.

I definitely won’t be leaving Italy with a new language completely under my belt, but I think I will have succeeded in learning enough conversational Italian to be useful in the future. Immersion has been rewarding, albeit challenging at times, but it has resulted in exactly the cultural experience I sought out when I decided to study abroad in Italy: an understanding of a new culture only furthered by the practice of their language.

Jack and Anya walking in Rome on a CET trip