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The Challenge of Language Barriers

February 11, 2019
by Megan Reid

When I decided to go to Italy, I of course understood that they spoke Italian -- but what I didn’t really think about was that there would be actual language barriers that could prevent an understanding between myself and a Roman. When I first went to Rome two summers ago, I didn’t experience any language difficulties that hindered my understanding.  

My roommates and I walked to the Giardino degli Aranci, which translates to the Orange Garden. Trying to find our way there was difficult, so we had to try and ask around for directions, which luckily worked out.  

When I first got to Rome to start my semester, I tried ordering a sandwich from a little shop near school. I greeted the older man by saying “Ciao!” and then after that I was at a loss for what to say and how to ask what anything was. I ended up pointing at one of the sandwiches and then he proceeded to speak in Italian. I think I had a deer-in-the-headlights look on my face, because the other barista came over and started speaking English asking if I wanted it to go. I felt bad that I didn’t know Italian, but I was glad she was there to help so I could get my sandwich. 

Ordering can always be tricky since you never know if the barista can speak English.  

As my time in Rome continues, I can proudly say that I’ve picked up on a bit of Italian from just being surrounded by it, but also because I have Italian class four days a week. It's my favorite class of the day, not only because my professor is the coolest man to walk this earth, but also because I’m learning things that I can step right outside and practice. 


Some restaurants don't have English menus, so often it's a gamble on what you're ordering.  

We had just been learning about the words for different foods and how to order something in Italian when I encountered yet another language barrier -- this time much more difficult than the first. I went to the local market to pick up some groceries and I like to get salami from the deli because it’s so cheap. The woman behind the counter asked what I wanted, and I forgot to say anything in Italian so I proceeded to ask in English. She had a deer-in-the-headlight look on her face and just shook her head. In that moment I knew she didn’t speak a lick of English. I pulled together the little Italian I know to order things and ordered some salami. It worked out and I was able to get what I needed but there was a moment of panic when I realized she didn’t speak any English at all. I understand that I am in Italy and it should not be expected that Italians speak English, so this was a valuable lesson in facing language barriers while studying abroad. 

Even the smallest things, like trying to figure out random ruins you've stumbled upon, can be tricky. I found this temple and had to screenshot my map location in order to find out what it was.  

Language barriers serve as really eye-opening moments during your time abroad. The only advice I have is to enjoy your time wherever you are, and take it in stride -- otherwise, it’s frustrating for every party involved. 

Megan Reid is the Spring 2019 CEA MOJO Blogger in Rome, Italy, and is currently studying at University of Alabama.
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