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Study Abroad in Italy: Learning Italian from Scratch

March 6, 2019

When I started searching for a semester program abroad more than a year ago, I had one priority: finding a program where I could learn a new language from scratch. As a Classical Languages major, I spend most of my time thinking about grammar, the nuances of meaning in every word, and the frustrations of translation. My studies have taught me that translation is an act of interpretation, as no two languages exist precisely in parallel. Being able to understand something in another language allows you to act as your own interpreter. Because I study ancient languages, I had not yet found the time in college to learn one I could speak to other people. The prospect of studying in a country where I did not know the language was at times frightening, but I know it was the right decision.

Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore Campus
Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore Campus

My desire to learn a new language led me to select the International Curriculum program at Universitá Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan, Italy. Cattolica’s program offers students the opportunity to take a pre-session intensive language course, as well as continue their language studies during the semester. The best part? Their course offerings start at 100, with Absolute Beginner. As someone with no prior knowledge of Italian beyond “buongiorno” (good morning), finding a program that allowed me to start from the basics was perfect.

After a whirlwind of orientation activities, unpacking and sleeping off my jet lag, I soon found myself in class with fifteen other students. We were all in the same boat, having never taken an Italian class before. For two weeks, we met from 9:30 - 11:00 a.m. and learned how to greet people, conjugate verbs, and say where we are from. I knew going in that Italian coffee culture is big, but through my class I learned just how seriously coffee is taken. Our mid-morning break was not just a break, but rather a coffee break. We all dispersed to various cafes or to the ground-floor espresso vending machines (yes, these are real and they are fantastic). One of our lessons was entirely devoted to coffee, culminating in our professor taking us on a field trip to her favorite coffee shop where we practiced ordering.

Espresso Vending Machines
Espresso Vending Machines

Experiences like learning about coffee in Italy are a huge part of why I enrolled in a language course. Learning a new language is about understanding a new culture. Knowing the difference between a macchiato and a cappuccino, along with when it is appropriate to drink each, can be just as important as being able to ask how much each one costs. It’s about learning to emphasize the ends of your words so that the people you interact with can understand you, or learning why you have some things (e.g. I have hunger), but are other (I am happy). It’s about laughing together in class when one of you says something silly, or being able to exchange a few words with the cashier at the grocery store, even if those words are just “parlo un po italiano” (I speak a little Italian). Deciding to learn a new language while in a new country can seem intimidating, but I can definitely say that it is worth taking the leap.

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