Before I came to St Andrews, I was confident in my English skills. I had watched Stranger Things without subtitles, studied Shakespeare at school, and among my various admission requirements was an advanced English certificate. Where was the problem? I did not realise how much it would destabilise me to leave an environment where Italian was the only language spoken — in my family, at school, at work — and move into a new one where it suddenly seemed useless.
After all, language is the most important instrument humans have to express themselves, communicate, and build relationships. Having to ‘exchange’ the language that I had mastered all my life, for one I was not yet totally comfortable with, produced some unexpected struggles, especially in the social sphere.
Once, on a night out at The Rule, my friend, a non-native speaker, admitted that she felt like she had lost part of her personality. In her country, she had always been a funny and witty person, but now her jokes and puns no longer made sense and humour, which had always come so easily to her, had become a major effort. I understood her. In Italy, I had a bold and outspoken personality. I was not afraid to express my opinion and I was confident in my ability to convey ideas effectively. But once in Scotland, I suddenly fell prey to many insecurities that I never had before. Sometimes I stuttered because the words I needed slipped off my tongue, other times I froze mid-sentence because I was unsure of how to use the grammar.
It is still very frustrating when, during a serious discussion, my voice becomes unsteady because of these doubts, and I involuntarily resort to an apologetic smile, no matter how important the topic is to me. There are moments when I cannot help but wonder how people perceive me, and if I am the same person I was before.
No, I do not deny that this experience is one of the most challenging of my life, but it is teaching me some invaluable lessons, and those which I will pass on to my fellow international students.
Don’t get discouraged and never back down from a challenge. Remember that constantly using your second language can be a huge opportunity for growth and developing qualities such as adaptability and creativity. In my case, I am learning to draw from the cultural heritage of these two beautiful languages to become a better writer, for example, combining the poeticism of Italian with the clearness and conciseness of English.
Never feel inadequate in applying for a position of authority within the university or societies; your cultural heritage enriches you and gives you a unique perspective. Although it can be scary to expose yourself when you have certain insecurities, working in the field is the fastest and most effective way to learn the specific language of a position, as well as building confidence in your communication skills. As the phrase goes, practice makes perfect.
Perhaps the most important lesson I have learned is not to be ashamed to ask for help when you need it. In St Andrews, I have found some of the most understanding and intelligent people I have ever met, people who will not only always be willing to help you without judgment, but also, will want to learn your language and culture themselves. It is not uncommon nowadays to hear my friends use Italian idioms or pop culture quotes, creating inside jokes that make me feel at home.
Despite all of this, I am aware that while St Andrews is multicultural, it is also a highly privileged environment that is not really representative of reality. Consequently, my thoughts go to all the people who change countries, for choice or need, and have to face the challenges of language barriers in an often prejudiced and unsympathetic society. It is easy to judge others’ mistakes; it is difficult to reflect on what lies behind them.
Illustration by Shalina Prakash