- Parkin Fellows
There are 7.7 billion on people and 6,500 languages spoken in the world. In a world filled with beautiful diversity, today as much as ever, we need to recognize that our differences shouldn’t build up barriers, but they should help bridge the gap between us. This idea first spurred when I had the chance to experience bicultural living as a child, but I had never felt such an impact as I am feeling during my time in Sant’Agata Feltria, Italy. I don’t speak Italian and yet I asked to travel here. Language is universal. It shouldn’t limit our interactions. It should connect us.
July 8 was the first official day of my experience abroad. It was filled with excitement, nerves, energy and inevitably some jet lag. Sant’Agata is even more beautiful in the morning than at night. From our room window, the dark green mountains and the pre-Roman small village hidden within can be seen in the background, almost as if it is a painting. This is what the trip has been so far. Like a new window has been opened up and the complete world that is beyond it finally revealed.
For the first week of my Parkin Fellowship, I would spent all day interacting with young Italian children ranging from ages 11-16 whose goal was to learn English through full immersion and cultural interaction.
As we finished orientation the night before the students came, I noticed all the materials that were available. To me, they all seemed familiar but soon I realized that the students had not been exposed to that before. In Italy, about 80 percent of all schools are public, and unlike public schools in America, they don’t always have everything the students need. When teachers volunteer from abroad they are surprised at the lack of material at their disposal. For many students, this week would not only be about being exposed to a new language, but also about being exposed to a new way of learning.
The first day most of the kids were too shy to talk. Yes, anybody can say "hello" in a different language, but when it comes down to having a real conversation the challenge arises. At first, it mostly consisted of hand motions and very short phrases. A girl from France tried to use French to help her, and the twins from Ukraine mostly listened and tried to repeat.
However, as we bonded over activities and mistakes they made in English and I in broken Italian, the barrier started to vanish. They were more willing to try to speak even if they knew they messed up and I started to learn the ways they learned best and what helped. But this experience was about a lot more than just the language. It was a chance for friendships to be made, to step out of comfort zones whether it was presenting in front of sixty people, or hiking through Italy’s hills.
Most of the kids that I worked with had never been out of the country. They had never had the chance to travel to the U.S., and often they asked if everything was just ‘like in the movies.’ For them this was their one chance to learn English and experience a different culture and the scale of importance of them is greater than can be expressed in words.
In a globalizing world, English is the one tool many cannot succeed without. When I was little, my dad told me, “If you learn English, you will be able to communicate with the world.” At five years old I took this in the literal sense and pondered how everybody but me could speak the same language. Thankfully, twelve years later that assumption has been cleared up, but the idea remains true. This week, what many could consider as simply being a language learning time, to me and to the children I worked with will be forever memorable. It could very well be the experience that opens up doors for them in the future and encourages us all to come together regardless of where we are from.