Io Non Parlo Italiano

by Helen Armstrong on February 18, 2016

The room, filled with the flutter of Italian and English as students converse with one another.

Even in the best of circumstances, it can be difficult to talk to strangers, especially if you’re an introvert like me. I clam up at the hint of conversation with someone I don’t know, allowing my friends to take the lead and only jumping in when there’s a really good opportunity for a pun or if I have an interesting story that would take two minutes or less to tell.

These inhibitions can be binding, especially when it comes to making new friends, and this is one of the reasons I was hesitant to attend Tandem here in Perugia. Tandem is a language exchange program at The Umbra Institute that brings American and Italian students together solely for the purpose of conversing with one another. Students come for language practice, the promise of new friends, and free sangria.

Some of my fellow students here at the Umbra Institute are really good at talking to strangers and speaking Italian. I am not good at either of those things. So when I arrived for my first Tandem experience, I was nervous and fully prepared with an excuse for why I had to leave in approximately 30 minutes.

My friend and I sat down at a small table and waited while the Italian students flooded in, taking seats around the large room that was decorated with all sorts of new-age, Buddhist sculptures and art, setting an atmosphere for calm that I definitely did not feel.

An Italian student came over to us and sat down. She asked how much Italian we knew, and I replied that I knew two weeks’ worth. Fortunately, her English was fairly good, so we were able to communicate with one another. In the spirit of fairness, I stumbled through questions for her in Italian, asking simple things like how old she was, where she was from, if she had any siblings, et cetera. But I was also amazed both by what I did know, and what I did not know two weeks before. When I landed in Italy, I didn’t know anything but ciaoand buongiorno. Now I was able to ask someone what city in Italy was their favorite. Still, I didn’t know how to ask what her hobbies were, if she had any dogs, what her favorite movies were, or anything beyond the basics.

After that first night, I knew I would return for the next Tandem. I’d learned a lot, went out of my comfort zone to talk to a stranger, and made a new friend.

My fears about being laughed at for not knowing much, or the conversation being slow and awkward because we were unable to communicate, turned out to be baseless. She was very nice, as are most of the Italians I’ve met. I actually learned a lot, and in a much more casual setting than my classroom.

While the classroom is important when it comes to learning a language, immersion is truly the best way to ensure that your new skills stick. After that first night, I knew I would return for the next Tandem. I’d learned a lot, went out of my comfort zone to talk to a stranger, and made a new friend.

Study abroad wasn’t created so you could be comfortable all the time. The point is to push yourself to do things that you wouldn’t normally do, and often, you find that you’re much better at it than you ever gave yourself credit for. That’s what my semester in Italy is all about – pushing myself to take opportunities that are given to me, no matter how difficult they are or how uncomfortable I am with them.