There’s a meme in the language learning community that goes:
“When you speak two languages, but start losing vocabulary in both of them.
Let’s face it, language learning is a roller coaster. No matter how skilled you think you may be, there is always going to be something that is missing. As a Puerto Rican, I was raised in a bilingual environment and while my first language is Spanish there are times that my thoughts and feelings are in English. Through the years, this has developed in a conflicting situation where I mostly function in Spanglish. And for many Puerto Rican millennials, this is the norm. We speak Spanish but sprinkle English words here and there or even start/end phrases in both languages. It’s an unconscious act that is only noticed when you have to forcefully use only one language.
When I first started learning Italian in 2013, I noticed that using two languages to communicate at the same time could have detrimental effects in the long run. One: you can only effectively communicate with people who use the same language patterns. Two: while it may start as a helpful way to learn a new language, it can turn into a lazy habit. From 2013 to 2015, I tried to separate my Italian language learning to just that. If I didn’t know a word, I wasn’t going to replace it with one in English or Spanish, I actively found the word I needed to use and memorized it. At the same time, I also listened to Italian music, watched movies, and even gave it a go at reading contemporary Italian novels. All of these actions, prepared me extremely well to function in a classroom environment, but not so in the real world.
The first time that I set foot in Italy was the summer of 2015. Even though I felt proud because I knew the song of the summer beforehand (#fuori c’è il sole by Lorenzo Fragola), I struggled in everyday interactions. In my mind, I would prepare everything I would say and do, but when it got to talking I would get frustrated because they weren’t following my script. However, this didn’t stop me. Since I was living in Siena, a small town in the Tuscan region, it was relatively easy to mingle with local students and to develop a routine. By the end of the summer, the barista at the local caffé would give my order on credit, because of the rapport we had developed. That’s when I knew that my classroom skills had finally flourished in the real world.
As a result of that Tuscan summer, I thought that studying abroad in Milan for six months would be an easy ride. Even if I hadn’t studied Italian since 2015. Three months in and I can attest that it has been a struggle, but not impossible. The hardest and funniest language problem that I had would have to be the first day that I was in Milan. Filled with an energy that only comes with jet lag and no data on my phone, I set out to explore the city. I remember entering a pizza shop and wanting a pizza margherita and not being able to remember the words in Italian, only in German. Mind you, I’ve only taken a few German courses, but the only thing that ran through my mind was “Käse pizza, käse pizza”. I was literally translating what I wanted, forgetting the cultural connotations, but in the wrong language. Thankfully the lady at the counter understood what I wanted when all that was left for me to do was resort to point and hope it would translate.
Since then, I’ve gotten a lot more practice by following the academic curriculum (Italian courses) at Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore and going out to international aperitivos (social event where people gather to eat, drink, and talk). While there may be times that I feel like “I’m smarter in Spanish/English” or “I know I studied this back home, but can’t translate the answer now”, I just have to remember to take a deep breath, relax, and not be afraid to ask for help. I’ve also learned that connecting with other internationals whose first language is not English is a great way to practice. Because it forces you to communicate in a common ground where both can equally learn.