October 4, 2022
Ithaca, NY | 55°F


Linguistics pose serious problem

For the first time in my life, I am speechless. In the U.S., I’m a talker, writer and gesticulator. Yet living in Italy, something’s missing. I’ve reverted back to kindergarten, and I learn by playing games.

I saw the challenge the language barrier would be early on, in stores and cafés, but I understood it more when I couldn’t strike up small talk with strangers.

One night I went to a crowded pub with my drunk, dancing friends. I stood awkwardly alone, with no one to speak to. Luckily, I noticed a tall, lanky guy by the cash register who didn’t have a drink. Since he seemed normal, and sober, I went over and asked him why he wasn’t drinking.

He looked down at me with the soft expression of a child who didn’t know why his mother was raising her voice at him. He smiled, pointing at his ear, and said, “I don’t understand.”

“Non bevi,” I pantomimed while drinking. “Perché?”

He understood, and this started our partnership in what I call “the language game.”

Lucas is Brazilian, and he speaks Portuguese, Italian and beginner English. I speak English, intermediate Spanish and beginner Italian. This, it turns out, is the perfect combination for friendship, openness and learning.

We are like toddlers with 21 years of knowledge and thoughts in our heads, but no ability to share them. Our conversations are stripped down to purity — the goal is simply to get our point across with our limited vocabulary. Sometimes it’s naturally poetic, the right words said at the right time. Paradoxically, mistakes sound flawless and charming, adding character to our phrases. And somehow, I feel more satisfied with Lucas’ understanding of me than with many of my English-speaking friends at home.

Like any sport, the language game takes practice, patience and skills. I’ve had to learn to study his face, expressions and tone. I look Lucas in the eyes whenever we talk, and I watch him get frustrated or confused. I mull over words he uses incorrectly and sort out misplaced accents. My senses are exhausted by the time we say goodbye to each other.

One afternoon, a 3-year-old Italian boy approached me while I was reading on the ground in our small courtyard. He widened his eyes and said, “Perché?,” wondering why I would ever sit on the dirty ground.

I just smiled at him and giggled. I couldn’t think of a good answer, even if I did speak his level of Italian. Besides, some things we do just don’t have a good reason, in any language. And sometimes, the only people who understand are the ones willing to play along.

Liz Taddonio is a junior culture and communication major. E-mail her at