Unpretentiousness, Language Learning, and Headaches

Saturday, September 24, 2011


Warning: This post is really long and there are no pictures. I’m sorry. I’ve been really busy and stressed this week, so I haven’t had much time for artsy things. Next week will be more fun, I promise.

When I started this blog I made a decision, and I promised myself I would stick to it. I wanted to leave Italian out of my blog. On the surface this seems a strange thing for a blog about studying abroad in Italy, but let me explain.

You know when you read those travel articles and books that throw in random words in foreign languages and then translate them for you, the poor uneducated reader? Yes? Well, to me that has always seemed the height of self-indulgence. Why did you need to write that word in French when it translates directly to a word in English? And more often than not, that word will be the most stereotypically French word that anyone past elementary school would know what it means. So what is the point? In my opinion, the point is to build the author up: “Haha, look at me, don’t you wish you were as cultured and travelled as I am? Of course you do.”

So, in an effort to be as unpretentious as one can be while writing a travel blog and to spare you all my horrendous Italian grammar, I vowed that I would not even broach the subject of the language. No, I told myself (with utmost humility and unpretentiousness of course), my posts will be anecdotal and simple. I will not beat the dead Florence with a stick.

I guess I lied. Or reneged on the truth. This is going to sound like the most pretentious problem ever. But hear me out.

At some point this year, I will be declaring a minor in Italian. That very small fact in the stream of my life is the focus of this whole thing. I am here in Italy to learn Italian. It is why I am staying in a homestay. It is why I took two Intensive Italian classes last year. I have eight months here to become as proficient as possible. After that I have a one way ticket back to the US, and absolutely no idea if I will ever have the chance to spend an extended period of time here again.

I suppose I had some naïve idea that once I got here and started living with an Italian family I would become miraculously fluent in Italian. It would just come to me from listening to others speak, and maybe if I had ten years that would be true. But I don’t. And in reality, learning a language is a lot of work. I had fallen into that habit people have of seeing clearly the future they desire, while being blind to work it will take to get there. But now that I am in the midst of the work, I am too often losing sight of the future.

I have a headache. My brain is trying very hard to reconcile two clashing cultures, and two different languages. It is mostly failing. Brains do things automatically: breathing, walking, and thinking. At the moment, I interact in Italian several hours every day: I have three days of Italian class a week, multiple interactions on the street and in restaurants, and the time I spend speaking to my host family. My problem is this: my brain is trying to decide whether translating things to Italian should be automatic.

It seems to have settled on maybe. The result is often this:  when I think of something I want to say to my host family, my brain forgets to translate it. When someone asks me a direct question in Italian, my brain freezes up. However, when thinking of something I need to say to my art teacher (who is American), my brain automatically translates it into Italian. It seems that my brain translates when it does not need to, and refuses to translate or refuses to translate as well as it is capable when it does need to. Even more frustratingly, my brain has taken to translating things that I am thinking to myself.

And through all of this, I can feel the time slipping away from me. And I can’t help worrying that eight months is far too short. And too often I find myself staying silent when I should be talking, too busy second guessing myself to open my mouth. And on those occasions I know I’m giving up precious moments that I can’t afford to waste. Because I’ve wanted this since I was nine. Since I was nine. And what if eight months isn’t enough time?

So I have a headache. I hope it goes away soon.


If you have any questions about Gilman or studying abroad, please leave them in comments, and I will either answer them, or try to point you toward someone who can.

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