The barrier between strangers and friends is heightened by a difference in language – at times more pronounced than at others. Simultaneously however, “friendships” that transcend this linguistic divide are particularly meaningful. Making local friends in Italy has been difficult because of the language barrier, as well as the fact that most young people in Florence live in the suburbs or go to universities outside of the city centre. As a result, my daily interactions are mostly with NYU affiliated people or English speakers, and so when it comes to spending time with the few Italians that I do know, it is that much more special.
One of my friends who I intern with, Ilenia, is an Italian student at the University of Florence. It is sometimes my responsibility to edit her articles alongside her. As a non-native English speaker, she often asks questions about English corrections that I put on her work or word choice changes that I might suggest. Her curiosity about English, language, and writing has not only kept me on my toes as a copy editor, but also as a writer, by thinking more deeply about how I communicate and my choice of diction. Stepping outside of the sphere of assumption that everyone automatically reverts to English is an important way to check my privilege and consider how what I say or write might be read by those with a different understanding of the language. Likewise, French is my second language, and I find myself using my past experiences in French class to extrapolate as to Ilenia’s point of view communicating in English on her own. I am interested in the skills and memories that we often call upon to relate to others whose experience is different from our own.
At NYU, Ilenia has to work twice as hard to communicate in English, but outside of the bubble of the campus, it is us students who have to compensate for our lack of understanding. I cannot imagine holding a fluent conversation with a local Florentine yet – let alone writing articles about politics and social codes like she does in English. While I help Ilenia with her English articles at our on-campus workplace, she helps us all out off campus; for example, taking the bus to the city centre, she is often on hand to translate instructions from the driver about delays or route changes, and better yet, overheard gossip from locals complaining about students!
We each take turns being the “expert” or “teacher” and ultimately this give and take is the basis for a comfortable, trusting friendship. When you are vulnerable enough to ask for and accept help from someone who knows more than you, you establish trust and mutual respect.
Speaking of which, it has been a background goal of mine to get the cashiers at my local grocery story to like me – or at least be friendly to me – as they tend not to be very impressed by the American students bustling in with their slow credit cards, overstuffed shopping bags, and English. Last week, after fishing out exact change for my purchase, I was rewarded with a smile, a cheer, and clapping by the clerk who cashed me out – mission accomplished! Case in point – when you help someone – even a stranger – or show kindness, trust and respect are born and you don’t need to share a language for that.