For my specific study abroad program in Italy, it's most definitely not required that we speak the native language. And many of the students do not feel the need to try. Because the truth is that you really don't have to know much of anything but English, as it is a base language for the many people of many countries to communicate. Whether it is their first language or not, most foreign language speakers understand the basics of English.
However, since I arrived in Florence, I have realized my desire to be anything BUT American. I want to blend with their culture as much as possible while I have the opportunity to. It took me a few days to get over my embarrassment of incorrect pronunciation, as the locals can tell that you are American awfully fast through this, and will typically respond back with their heavily accented English, despite your efforts to speak Italian. At first I thought this meant that they would rather speak English to me in order to not complicate the situation, but after an enlightening conversation with an artisanal paper store owner, I discovered that they truly appreciate the effort!
I began using the few phrases that I know from listening to Italian lessons over the summer. After incorporating these words more, I instantly saw a change in their response to me. I ordered my morning cappuccino and croissant in Italian; the barista was much more friendly towards me than when I had ordered in complete English in another cafe. The next day, I went to grocery shop at a local market near my apartment. I had been here before to buy bread, and knew that many of the stand owners speak almost fully in Italian. I prepared myself for the confusion and broken sentences that I was about to make these people endure, and began my shopping. This time however, they were able to understand what I wanted to buy quicker, and were friendlier to me. I grew with confidence after each successful produce buy until my excursion was finished, and it was time to take my cloth bag full of goodies home. I was slightly sad to be done with my language experimentation for the time being.
I am hoping that throughout my time here, I am able to further enhance my Italian skills. Me and my roommates will sometimes sit around the dinner table attempting our pronunciations of simple words, such as "grazie", and consequently giggling the next time one of us tries to use it in public. I think that if you truly want to experience a foreign country, you should try to speak their language, shop at their markets, eat their food, etc. I am glad that I learned this lesson early on and was able to conquer my fear of seeming ignorant when trying to assimilate, as I think that the natives of any country appreciate it. Perhaps they could have their perspective on Americans positively swayed.