Sitting at a table covered in a gentle blue tablecloth and laden with food, I eat quietly while my host family gesticulates, laughs, and makes witty jokes. I can follow the conversation, more or less, and am sometimes quick enough to add a relevant comment. Mostly, though, I sit and watch as the conversation flies by, any sort of Italian response in my head coming too late for it to be said. And by the time I’ve thought of this response, I’ve missed half of the next topic. 

I still think mostly in English, which means it takes time to translate what I want to say before it comes out. Thus, with the conversational speed of my second language, most of my thoughts are resigned to never leaving my head. 

In a way, an experience like this humbles my thoughts and opinions. If I have to work hard to express what I’m thinking, I only express what is essential – which, it turns out, most of my thoughts are not.

In English conversations, I am fairly intelligent, sometimes funny, and able to quickly and accurately recount my daily experiences. In Italian conversations, I am lucky if I’m one of these things. But without a way to fully express myself, my actions must speak for the personality I can’t describe in words.

Am I a polite guest? Then I have to wait for everyone to be seated at the table before eating. Am I clean? Then I have to put away my things every morning. Am I responsible, considerate, or kind? I try to be, but I can’t hide behind my own verbosity here – I must express my personality through actions, not words.

What am I really like? That shouldn’t depend on the language I’m speaking, but the parts of me that usually come through so effortlessly are stuck in a linguistic quagmire.

All I can do is take that old piece of writing advice to heart:

Show, don’t tell. 

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Elena Neuzil is a native of St. Paul and is a junior at the University of St. Thomas. She studies journalism, Italian and justice and peace studies and is currently abroad in Siena, Italy.