I have never been great with languages. I always showed a great interest in them, and I even took an intensive Linguistics course one summer. The only information I seemed to have retained is that there is no correct way to say “tomato” and that people from all over the world will say “let’s go to the city,” but “the city” is totally dependent on location. In the past, I have completely struggled with learning languages, particularly after a year of Spanish in high school with a teacher that consistently put me on blast for my unwavering American accent. I almost dreaded learning Italian here in Italy, another language my accent will not suit. Here in Florence, I can completely get away with not speaking a word of Italian, tons of employees and people speak English. There are tons of expats, tons of tourists, and of course, tons of Americans that all speak English. There is almost no incentive to go beyond my Elementary Italian I classroom.
I started using Duolingo this summer, in an attempt to prep my monolingual self beforehand. A week before my flight to Italy, I completed half of an Italian workbook on a car ride back from Montreal. I came here retaining maybe one word … You guessed it: Ciao. I have used and abused “ciao,” fully integrating it into my hellos and goodbyes, into texts to parents, texts to friends who only speak English like me, and even responding with an inquisitive tone to rapid Italian. At first, I thought “ciao” would assert my Italian when interacting with service employees, as opposed to my usual “hey, how are you doing?,” but every tourist, from every country, seems to lean on that word just like me.
There is also something about “ciao” that I find wonderful, and I know I will continue saying as long as it’s not weird and pretentious back in New York. Ciao is circular, someone can begin and end an interaction with it. It is hello, goodbye, see you later, welcome. There is no equivalent in English, instead English sustains a very clear-cut beginning and end to every conversation. But here, and in many other places and languages, it’s not as dramatic. Social interactions are soft, seen as getting what you want and then kindly carrying on, as though every conversation is ending with “see ya!” and starting with “hey!” I feel as though, in general, the culture here sustains a more social comfort where locals aren’t shy about engaging with service employees or strangers. Coffee is had at the bar, standing, where it may take a minute or two of watching the barista or talking to the person next to you, as opposed to staring at your iPhone until you run to class and chug your latte.
Generally, ordering that coffee can be a stressful experience. I mean, it’s honestly a bit stressful in English, I can be indecisive and soft-spoken. And don’t forget about that awkward moment at a restaurant when everyone at the table stares at each other, trying to decide who will jump in with their order first. Here, that only seems to be added to deciding whose Italian is best and will explain to the waiter that gluten is real scary. With that said, ordering is possibly the best time to use the language outside of the classroom. It doesn’t hurt to be in Italy, with all its glorious food.
I believe a lot of learning happens when lending pride to the wind and just attempting to imitate. There’s a guard to be let down there, trying is progress, speaking English and “ciao” is almost a crutch. The woman at Perche No, my favorite gelato shop in Florence might just have to bear my stubborn American and difficulties with “gli” and “gratzie,” but hey: That’s what Italian tutoring is for. We’ll get there.