The internet, libraries, and bookstores are all full of tips for helping you to learn the grammar and vocabulary of the Italian language. What you won't find in any of the books, articles, or posts you see there, though, is that there is another obstacle to language learning (any language, not just Italian) that you would never think about unless you experience it yourself.
Speaking in a Second Language "Amputates" One's Personality
I recently read a post on Reddit that spoke to me more than almost anything I have ever seen on there, and I saw it at the perfect time. It was a Friday, and that weekend I was planning to go to visit some of my husband's friends in another town here in Italy. I had been stressing out about it all week because, as I have been noticing more and more since I officially made the move to Italy a year ago, my interactions with native speakers almost always result in me feeling like a silly kid, and like the words I am trying to say are trapped inside my own head and won't come out my mouth.
My level of Italian is intermediate or higher: I can easily follow most Italian television shows and movies, I can read whole books in Italian (I'm halfway through the Harry Potter series right now), and I can almost always understand people when they speak to me. But it turns out that knowing the grammar and the language rules isn't always enough to help you to communicate with real people in real conversations.
Speaking is completely different than reading or listening, and oftentimes I (and other language learners, like the ones from Reddit) feel like, while I can speak Italian, I can't really, truly express myself the way I want. I can't answer questions I don't expect off the top of my head because I have to think out what I want to say first. It takes me a bit to formulate some sentences, and I often use words that simplify what I'm saying to the extent that it doesn't really convey the meaning I was trying to get across. Worst of all, though, I can't tell jokes. In English I'm fairly smart and funny, if I do say so myself! But in Italian, I don't feel clever or quick or knowledgeable at all.
My personality, as the Reddit user described, is "amputated." I don't feel like "me" when I am speaking Italian. I feel like someone who is playing a game or acting in a play put on by kindergartners, and the frustration that causes leads me to staying "in my head" too much and making things even more frustrating and awkward.
It is a very lonely feeling to think that no one you interact with is actually getting to know you because you can't say the things you want to say in the way you want to say them.
Don't Give Up
The reason I am writing this (long) post is that I want to let other people learning Italian know that they aren't alone if they feel like this. And, actually, that it gets better, believe it or not!
Surprisingly, when I actually went on that trip to visit my husband's friends, my story got a happy ending. Usually when I go to visit people my husband knows, they mostly speak with him, assuming right off the bat that I can't understand them very well (I can understand just fine most of the time, I just can't speak back to them!!) and just asking me surface-level things like "How do you like Italy?" or "Do you have x food or drink in America?" These questions are fine and I appreciate their kindness, but as weird as it might sound, I want more of a challenge. I want to be spoken to like a regular person. I want to answer questions that require something more than a simple "si" or "no!"
First, we had lunch with one set of my husband's friends, and I didn't really find that things were any different than usual. But then something happened I didn't expect: I got separated from my husband.
I had a brief moment of panic when he went to help his friend load something into his car and left me alone with another friend, fearing that without him to help me out if I stumbled over a word, I would just look like an idiot. But, as it turned out, when I was speaking one-on-one, without a safety net (or someone to finish my sentences, as some of my husband's relatives often do for me), I was able to form my thoughts and express them out loud after all. I wasn't perfect by any means, but it was a start.
After that, we went to see another of his friends and his wife, the latter of whom immediately started talking to me, not as if I were a child just learning to speak for the first time, but as an adult woman and, dare I say, a potential friend. She asked me about current clothing trends, about online shopping, about business ideas, about my thoughts on all sorts of different things. And her three children asked me even more great questions like "Do you have pets? Do your cats wear clothes? Do they go to school? What subject was your favorite in school and why? Do they have the same moon in America as they do in Italy?"
Then something even more amazing happened: I told a joke. In Italian.
One of the kids, a seven-year-old boy, asked me if I had any kids, and I replied, "No, do you?" It was a simple joke, but it had rolled right off my tongue, I didn't even have to think about it. And it cracked up both the kid and his mom, not because they were laughing at me, but because they were laughing with me.
It was the first time in a long time that I had actually felt like me when speaking Italian, and it proved to me that things do get better, it just takes time and practice.
Becoming Yourself Again
So my advice, as I continue to work on this same thing myself, is to try not to get discouraged. Confidence will come over time. Slowly, but it will. But it will come faster if you just let yourself enjoy the moment instead of getting stuck in your head feeling frustrated over the words you can't quite find until later when you're thinking it over again and again before you go to sleep at night (this is a real thing: the other day I accidentally told my sister-in-law that we were going to eat "uva" (grape) for dinner instead of "uova" (eggs) and confused her and I still can't stop thinking about it...).
And with confidence will come fluency, and with fluency will come the ability to be yourself in either language. I haven't quite reached that point myself yet, but I know I'll get there one day. And I know you will too!
This was a long post, but the TL;DR message is this: if you feel like you are struggling to express yourself and your personality when you're speaking Italian in your new country, just know you aren't alone. There are a lot of us out here, and we're all doing the best we can so that one day we can be ourselves wherever we are.
Have you ever felt lonely when you speak in your second language? Tell us your story in the comments!