The digital-first, student-run magazine of the University of Massachusetts Amherst Journalism Department

What my Italian language crisis taught me about happiness

November 21, 2014

“Are you Italian?” my friends would ask.

“Not that I know of, but my dad was adopted so I might be.”

“You could be, you’re kind of tan so you look Italian.”

My spirit would fly a bit higher every time I heard someone would suggest I was Italian. Maybe this is why when I decided to enroll in my very first college language course, Intensive Elementary Italian– I thought my genes would learn the language for me. Even though I had never thoroughly studied a language before I thought I would be able to easily pick up my native tongue.

A nine-day Education First Tour trip across Italy during my senior year of high school planted the idea in my head. In those nine days I saw the most beautiful places and people in the world. I wanted nothing more than to be a part of it, but I kept getting in my own way. An awkward American, shuffling the cobblestone streets of Florence with a camera pressed to my nose, I wanted to disappear. Even the embarrassment of ordering a sandwich and forcing a cashier to speak in English was enough to make me go without food for the afternoon.

I decided I could never return to Italy as a tourist again. If I wanted to be part of Italy’s beautiful culture I would have to do it on Italy’s terms. Who cares if I couldn’t roll my R? What did it matter that I can barely remember the names of my classmates, much less an entirely new set of vocabulary? I was determined to learn Italian, study abroad in Italy, and retire on a beachfront villa with my beautiful Italian husband.

This dream floated on with me to my freshman orientation at the University of Massachusetts Amherst where I picked my classes and decided to enroll in my first of two double-credit Italian classes.

Italian became not only the world’s most beautiful language, but also caused me to suffer from anxiety and an emotional-breakdown. I dreaded class each day, but at the time I convinced myself that my struggle to learn was normal.

With three weeks left of my freshman year I was near meltdown. My boyfriend woke me up early one morning telling me I had been thrashing and talking in my sleep. I was muttering about the amount of Italian work I had to do and how I would not pass the class if I didn’t  finish it that minute. It was a Saturday night.

Eventually I dropped Intensive Intermediate Italian for the sake of my GPA, and frankly my mental health. I met with an advisor to drop the class and she marveled at how I didn’t quit sooner. I told her I wanted to be fluent in Italian. She said that it was nearly impossible to do without immersion learning. Her eyes said she was sorry for me.

Dropping a language gave me time to pursue my other interests and so far I am a lot happier and stress-free. My ideals of learning Italian  was only an idea hatched by a begrudging tourist. I ask myself now, what was so wrong with being a tourist? Why did I have to work so hard to change who I was? I could have spent more time making myself happy with who I was, not changing who I was.

My lesson in Italian has made a roundabout trip through a sea of clichés. Be yourself. Do what makes you happy. Don’t take double-credit language courses in a language you have never studied.

It took me a number of years and two academic semesters but I finally learned that my happiness should always comes first, and so far that’s the most important thing I have learned in college.

Sarah Robertson can be reached at [email protected]

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