From 'ciao' to 'esperta': Language Mixers spark student integration

Author: Carli Williams

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Natalie Pratt ’22 is an architecture student, originally from Niles, Michigan. On campus, she sings in the Notre Dame Folk Choir and is a member of the Italian Club (Circolo Italiano), the Frank Montana Sketching Club, and The American Institute of Architecture Students (AIAS). As a student in the School of Architecture’s Rome Studies Program, Pratt arrived to Rome last fall to study for an entire academic year.

Since childhood, Natalie Pratt dreamed of coming to Europe, particularly Rome. She was determined to make the most of her time in the Italian capital and took two Italian language classes on campus in preparation. In Rome, though she enrolled in Italian classes with Professor Chiara Sbordoni, Pratt discovered that there were many other opportunities to practice and learn the language, including the Language Mixers hosted by the Rome Global Gateway.

Language Mixers, which began at the inception of the Rome Global Gateway in 2014, are a unique collaboration with local Italian institutions, including Libera Università Internazionale degli Studi Sociali (LUISS), Instituto Sant’Orsola, and Università Roma Tre. During regular meetings, Notre Dame students have the opportunity to meet local peers and engage in cultural and linguistic exchanges. Students of all language levels are welcome and encouraged to participate. “It doesn’t really matter how much Italian, if any, students can speak. It has to do with an open mind to meet and mix with Italian students their age, a curiosity about their everyday life, and a willingness to share points of view, ideas, and new ways of living and studying. The key is to open oneself to go a bit beyond one’s comfort zone,” Sbordoni expresses. ​​​

Pratt did just that. Eager to meet local students and improve her language skills, she started attending Language Mixers upon her arrival and continues to participate regularly. Alongside her language skills, Pratt’s confidence has risen. “The first Language Mixer I went to, I started speaking Italian. When we got past the ‘my name is Natalie’ part, I really could not understand them. They had to speak so slowly, so it really made more sense to speak English because they are quite fluent. However, at the most recent Language Mixer, it made more sense to speak Italian than English with the Italian student I was talking to and it made me so happy. I was able to see a concrete change in my level of Italian,” Pratt proudly shares.

“During my time in Rome, I have fallen in love with Italian culture because it is so full of life, especially the Italian language.”

As a result, Pratt feels more comfortable immersing herself in her new international home. “Now I have several friends, not just Italians, who are from around the world and studying in Rome.” Last semester, she met a group of Italian students. Thanks to her outgoing attitude and competence in Italian, Pratt has continued to meet with her new friends. The group converses fully in Italian. Through these relationships and her time in Rome, Pratt has realized the intertwined nature of language and culture. “We rely on Italian to communicate which is rather terrifying because I am still far from fluent, but also such a blessing to have the opportunity to know these people from a culture entirely different from my own and learn it through their language.”

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Language, especially Italian, Pratt has learned, is not only about words. “They are very proud to teach us their gestures because it is such an important part of the way they communicate.” At one of the Language Mixers last semester, Pratt asked one of the Italian students to try to sit on his hands while they talked. The experiment ended in lots of laughter each time her new friend used his hands in conversation. Though she’s still learning, Pratt enjoys picking up new gestures and colloquial sayings.

Her favorite topic of conversation with her Italian friends is, unsurprisingly, food. They share their favorite foods, traditions, and of course, their recommendations for the best gelateria in town. “So much of culture passes through the language.

To have the chance to come to understand them and their lives through their language is really cool.” As she starts a new semester, Pratt looks forward to continuing to improve her Italian skills through her new friendships. She insists that all students with an interest in Italian language and culture should attend the Language Mixers. “It really is fun. It doesn’t feel like class. It feels like friends hanging out even though often times there are new students that we haven’t met before. But, by the end, we feel like we know each other.”

Learn more about co-curricular opportunities available to students studying at the Rome Global Gateway.

Originally published by Carli Williams at on February 18, 2020.