Confused, but Learning

In 3. Language, Florence, The Art of Travel by Sam1 Comment

I did try to prepare myself for this semester by using Duolingo, but I can’t say that I got very far. By the end of the summer, my knowledge of Italian was still very limited, restrained to a few present tense verbs and some vocab for food and animals. It’s definitely getting better now that classes have started and I’m taking Italian three times a week, but I’m still far from fluent.

However, in terms of communicating with other people, so far my lack of Italian knowledge hasn’t mattered very much, as many people in Italy (at least in the city area) are pretty fluent in English. Multiple times I have poorly attempted to order food in Italian only to have the waiter or barista respond to me in English. The prevalence of English thus far is probably why I haven’t felt the need to download any language apps onto my phone yet, although I probably should have at least one.

The problem I come across the most in regards to my lack of fluency is actually while grocery shopping. You’d think that would be one of the easier tasks, since most food is pretty recognizable, but I spent 5 full minutes last week with 2 other girls trying to figure out which jars were tomato sauce and which were ketchup, which is a question I never thought I would have (the jars in question happened to actually be neither, but a passata which is used as a base for a sauce and doesn’t really have much flavor on its own. It’s smooth consistency was why it looked like it could be ketchup). It doesn’t help that none of the grocery stores here seem to have phone service, so I either have to remember to look words up later or just buy it and hope it’s what I want. Not that translating apps always help, since I tried using google translate to see if “idratante” meant moisturizer or body wash, bought the bottle because translate said moisturizer, only to find out later that it was actually body wash.

When I am around native Italian speakers, trying to pick out and separate the Italian words so that I can translate them is a struggle. They speak too fast for my limited skills to be able to to understand where one word ends and another begins. I also find pronunciation to be difficult,  my speech slowed down to a stilted crawl as I try to get used to a new set of sounds and inflections. My attempts to speak sound nothing like the musical flow of the native Italian speakers, and while one day I hope I can get the words to roll smoothly off my tongue, that day won’t come for quite some time. In my mind, I can hear the way the words are supposed to sound and fit together, but there is a disconnect between the pronunciation in my mind and my voice that makes me self-conscious when speaking to people who know what they’re doing.

The first time I went to a cafe I walked in right behind an Italian who must’ve been a regular, as she went right up to the bar to talk to the barista. Their friendly conversation was nonsense to my untrained ears, where I was only able to pick up a general idea of the conversation: no, she didn’t want a cappuccino today, and then something about a car. I felt so out of place and a bit lost just standing there, and later realized that I definitely looked just as lost as I felt, seeing as I got the etiquette for ordering backwards–unlike the regular, I was supposed to pay off to the side and then order, rather than order and try to figure out how to pay.

So far, I’ve been lucky enough to only encounter minor, easily fixed misunderstandings regarding language, but I will have to see what happens when I get farther outside the city.


(Image: Italian Cappuccino; Source: Life in Italy)


  1. This post did an amazing job of putting your feelings (and my feelings and I’m sure the feelings of every student abroad) into words. I so often feel lost and overwhelmed when trying out my Italian. By the time you understand the basis of a sentence that was said to you and create a semi-accurate response, the conversation has moved on or the native-speaker just switches to English to make things easy. I really related to your grocery store dilemma. I spent about 10 minutes just trying to figure out what type of bean I had in my basket. The stores also seem to be organized in a strange way here. i’ve often found cereal next to soap and body wash…or, perhaps, moisturizer?
    When I was in Madrid last semester I had a moment where I felt so overwhelmed while trying to get a table at a restaurant that I just walked out. I’m hoping that I can overcome that language stress while here in Florence. It’s impressive to me that you can even pick up topics of a sentence, I’m still struggling to pick out where one words stops and another begins!

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