Overcoming Language Barriers

My notes from people watching

Language barriers are not as ominous as I previously thought. At least that’s what I realized from the people-watching exercise. For five minutes at 6 pm on a cool, partly-cloudy Friday, I sat on the stair of the cathedral and specifically focused on Via Maestà delle Volte, the road leading up to Umbra Institute. Unlike the other side of the fountain that seems to be what Whyte would consider a “real” street corner with blobs of people and tour groups congregating, this side was considerably less crowded. Most people traveled in pairs or by themselves; that people were continuously moving characterized this section of the piazza as a functional flow space where people focus on completing their itineraries rather than a place space where people feel connected to one another. 

Watching these pedestrians made me realize how well we can understand people just from noticing their actions. I could easily distinguish the confident navigators from a confused meandering tourist by their brisk pace and linear paths. Watching the people as if I was a third person-omniscient narrator observing a novel unfold, I felt connected to them by our shared humanity, even though I know that most of the characters themselves notice the people they pass. 

This observation strategy would have come in handy for an incident that happened when I visited the Church of San Domenico. Its massive arches reminded me of the Renaissance architect Brunelleschi who used a series of ideal proportions to construct space that reflects the place’s sacred purpose. While wandering through the aisles, admittedly looking like the confused tourist I had previously observed, I was approached by an elderly woman who said something to me in Italian–I didn’t understand past “Chiesa.” Then another man started pointing me toward the door, and I vaguely understood that I was supposed to leave because the church was closing. Oops. 

Spaces can facilitate interconnectivity between people through architecture that guides their movement through a church or piazza, but most important is providing ways for people to know how to experience the place to its fullest potential, while also respecting its norms. This shared knowledge of the place can be facilitated through meaningful human interaction with the place. Otherwise, people may just walk quickly through or accidentally try to stay past closing time.

We can think about helping people ways of connecting people when placemaking at the park by asking questions: Are we creating visible signs that clearly state the rules in a language understood by those who use the park? What are the implicit means of communication? For example, as David noted, are we considering the park’s morphology? How do people recognize they are part of a community place even if they don’t speak the language or are visitors who don’t live specifically in the Corso Garibaldi neighborhood? 

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