Words by Patrick Scally, a CAPA International Education alum who studied abroad in Florence during Spring semester 2013.
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Studying in Florence, Italy, everyone’s first concern is, “Oh my god, do I need to know Italian?” The short answer is no. The long answer is, no, but it’s going to make your trip a lot more fun if you try to learn.
Before arriving in Florence, I had taken three semesters in Italian and planned on taking my fourth while abroad. However, I found that I was an exception to the rule. The majority of CAPA students had only taken at most one semester, if not less. In fact, my three roommates were all in Italian 1. It is not impossible to get around Florence if you’re not fluent in Italian. The city has a huge tourist draw and is an epicenter for study abroad students both living and traveling to the city. Therefore, most shopkeepers and waiters know some English. Many signs will be in English and most menus have English, among other translations. If you refuse to speak a word of Italian in Florence you will still be able to get around, but you will be cheating yourself of so many extra cultural benefits of living in Italy.
I would recommend any student living in Florence to take a language class. The reason for this is even if your Italian is awful, Italians will appreciate your effort and will open up to you so much more. Think back to your first experience with someone of another culture. If you were their waiter and they just babbled at you in their own language, how would you feel? Frustrating, huh? Now imagine going into an Italian shop and just talking to the salesperson in English. Now you know how they feel. Even if all you know is how to ask how someone’s day is or how much the steak costs people will appreciate you trying. It will also make the locals more willing to get to know you. Especially if you are living in an apartment, your neighbors will most likely be friendlier if you try to speak to them in Italian. You will also get to know some really interesting people.
On the ground floor of our apartment building an old woman lived alone with her dog. She did not speak much English, however, we tried to speak as much Italian with her as possible. The dog, whose name we thought was Piccolo, would guard the entrance to the building and we would see him daily. We also would see him running around the city in the most random places. He would always let us pet him and then run away. Over the months, we got to know the woman and Piccolo. We would help her mop the stairs and carry buckets, or keep the door open so she would be able to get in. Even in our broken Italian we were able to bond with this lady who we lived so close to. The night of our farewell dinner, my roommates and I were running a little late however, this woman stopped us and got a bottle of wine to toast our trip. She asked us about how much we had liked Italy, where we had traveled, and she let us know she would miss us. We found out Piccolo's name was actually Mike, but it was very heartwarming to have this Italian woman tell us how good of neighbors we had been and how much she liked us.
The best advice to anyone trying to learn a language is practice makes perfect! Go out into the city and use your Italian any chance you get. There’s no better way to learn Italian than by interacting with Italians. You may only be in Italy once, so take all the opportunities you’re given!