I had every intention of sharing another Friday favourite list today, but I was called away to Grosseto for an unexpected meeting. Giulio came along and I had a little bit of downtime waiting for him in our provincial capital before I headed back to the office.
I thought, I’ll go and grab a cup of tea and read my Kindle for a while, but I immediately K&O’d the idea. After almost three years living in Italy, I still experience language anxiety. Not sure if that’s a thing, but let’s just say I get really nervous speaking to strangers in Italian. It has nothing to do with language fluency. I speak fluent Italian. I just don’t want anyone to know I’m foreign and therefore think I can’t understand them, so I go out of my way to avoid speaking.
As stupid as it sounds, it’s something a lot of expats suffer from. Since I don’t have all the answers, I asked around and gathered some tips that I’ve promised myself to try and hope you will too!
My own language anxiety comes from a combined fear of being judged an outsider and being considered stupid. I was an articulate and extremely independent woman back in Australia and I find I’m struggling to maintain that here in Italy. I live in a small town, so I only communicate with people I know. When I leave my town, I’m even more anxious about speaking to strangers. I’m also part of an Italian-Australian couple, so I trick myself into thinking it’s okay to let my husband do all the talking, which leads me to my first tip.
DON’T LET YOUR SIGNIFICANT OTHER DO ALL THE TALKING
It’s so easy to fall into the habit of letting your Italian-born partner speak whenever you’re in public. I got to the point where I would drag my husband to the doctor’s with me to explain every ache and pain I was perfectly capable of explaining on my own.
Like I said before, fluency has no bearing on the situation, but work to your skill level. If you’re still learning Italian, keep it simple. Force yourself to order in a restaurant or speak up at the supermarket when the cashier asks you if you want a bag. Think of it as exercise. You don’t want to do it, but it’s for your own good.
Start by practicing in places and situations you feel comfortable. If you live in a small town like me, start by speaking to the pharmacist or the butcher or the post office clerk. I have almost mastered this, but admittedly I still mope for a day when the fishmonger asks me to repeat myself. It can be a real blow to your confidence when people don’t understand you.
If you live in the city, practice in the stores you regularly visit and build up your confidence as you become a regular. It’s a lot easier practising with people you sort of know. Don’t get comfortable though. Push yourself outside of your comfort zone and practise in another town/city/store.
As your language skills improve, test yourself at the doctor’s, the accountant’s, the town planner’s office. Places that require longer sentences and harder vocabulary. It took me months to find the courage to pay the bills at the post office because the clerk would always ask me questions I didn’t know the answer to.
DON’T LET OTHERS DO THINGS FOR YOU
It’s likely you will have a support network of in-laws who just want to make life easier for you, so they’ll offer to pick that medicine up for you at the pharmacist or lodge that residency form for you. Don’t let them. Using other people as a crutch only makes you more dependent.
Force yourself to speak by going out on your own. I would bring my husband along with me everywhere and then chicken out when it came time for me to speak. In lieu of an awkward silence, Giulio would speak for me. Now when I have errands to run, I go on my own. Sometimes it ends badly, but it’s me who has to get myself out of the lost-in-translation situation. Every success is a win for my confidence.
If you’re lucky enough to have an Italian language school nearby then sign yourself up. Getting a job or creating your own employment opportunities (i.e. private tutoring or English lessons) does wonders for your confidence and language skills, but it’s not the be all and end all.
I work full time as a teacher and studied Italian for 12 years and I’m still a total chicken when it comes to speaking in public. I try to go out and test myself in social situations. Join a club, a gym or head to your nearest bar for an aperitivo. If the idea of taking pilates in Italian terrifies you (and it terrifies me) then that’s all the more reason to do it. The method is simple: the more you mix with strangers, the more confident you will become.
You’ve just arrived in Italy and are kicking yourself because you can’t answer the house phone? Relax. I’m still too scared to answer the house phone in case I can’t understand the person on the other side. It takes time to adjust to a new country and it takes time to gain your old independence.
Set yourself goals. In six months, I will go the pharmacist by myself. In nine months, I will call the phone company to complain about a bill. In 12 months, I will explain my car troubles to the mechanic by myself. But always bear in mind that the progress you make depends on you. You reap what you sow.
Do you have any tips for being more linguistically confident? Share in the comments below.