I have been more and more busy lately, at the language center where I teach Italian. Apologies to my readers. More classes have opened up, providing a welcomed opportunity for more work but also for interesting human encounters and some reflections.
Italian people may not know it, but Italian language learning is growing in popularity. Around the world, people who speak, study or cultivate an interest for Italian are estimated at 200 millions. In the tiny state of Israel there are several centers for studies, with an overall turnover of more than 2500 people (as of 2004). The Italian embassy is “shipping” to Italy flocks of enthusiastic students every year.
Who are these students? What brings them to learn the language of the Belpaese?
It is a common assumption that Italian is a beautiful language. Yet, when it comes to the learning process, I would not put it in the easy category. Italian is a culturally rich, stratified, regionally diverse and not always logic unicum. Students who are eager for rules, might be disappointed: there are as many rules are there are exceptions. In language learning, rules provide the boundaries which help the students to form autonomous sentences. Faced with the several contradictions and exceptions of Italian, some students react with panic. When the logical approach fails to hold, my advice to avoid frustration is very straightforward, and profoundly Italian: have a laugh. Relax. What seems odd and disappointingly chaotic today, will work its way through resistances and will eventually be endorsed by the new speaker with the particular love and proud reserved for difficult adoptions. In other words: sometimes it does not make sense, but we accept it the way it is.
Generally speaking, Israelis love Italy. They visit frequently, also thanks to special discounted flights available all years round. They have business with Italy. They love the overwhelming display of art and good food. They are enchanted by Italy’s shopping opportunities. This does not mean they really understand Italians. Influenced by American culture, Israelis find it hard to cope why Italian mistrust of credit cards (especially for modest sums), or to put their shopping needs on hold because shops have to close between 1 and 3 (or even 4) pm. Students are always surprised to learn that cappuccino after a meal is considered a disgrace, or that Italians loves the caffé corretto – coffee with an extra zest of alcohol, a combination which has never found export value outside of Italy. And why don’t Italian speak English more easily? What is the big fuzz about the ritual strolling up and down commercial alleys in the historical city centers on Saturday afternoon? Why do they call their domestic coffee-maker a Moka, when the same item has been marketed in Israel as a macchinetta?
Cultural and linguistic idiosyncrasy are puzzling the novice. But there are some good news, too: learning a language is a process in which a whole world opens up. Students can gradually pass on subtitles when watching Italian movies, whose language subtlety and humor can be fully appreciated by those who understand Italian alone. They enjoy singing Italian songs, not just the oldies of Sanremo, but also the popular hits of contemporary singers. They are increasingly talking about food, books, the latest discoveries they made on their last trip. Although English can be used to get away with in the touristic situations, and a guide will always be available to help you find your way around (maybe as colorful as the Toto of “Toto’ a Napoli“), nothing can replace a true linguistic encounter with the country and its inhabitants.
In terms of motivations, I have heard very different stories in the classroom. Many people chose to study Italian because of practical reasons – the decision to carry on studies at one of the prestigious Italian universities, or to expand business in Italy (it pays off to know the client’s language). Many have sentimental bounds to Italy: a spouse, a boyfriend met in India, the project of raising bilingual kids. Someone will join classes because of a taste for Italian wines; quite a few because of opera, including singers who want to improve their pronunciation . Many Israelis have Italian grandparents who emigrated to Israel before the war. I remember the case of a student in Haifa whose grandmother had suddenly regressed to the exclusive use of her native Italian, at the cost of Hebrew, which she had learned later as an immigrant. This created the case for a communication breakdown within the family, who never bothered to learn Italian and was now forced to rush to a crash course.
Last but not least, all my respect go to the many retired people who take up Italian just for the fun of it. Learning as a senior student is a much more compelling experience than learning as a younger student. I stand in awe for the patience and devotedness with which scores of mature students hold their chairs, taking notes and diligently doing their homework.
For us, the teachers, dealing with such a patchwork of different age groups, backgrounds, stories and characters, united by the common goal of learning Italian, provides an incredible rich melting-pot, the preciousness of which I only start to fully grasp.
Most people know that Italian language derives from Latin, which remained the official written language for many centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire. Latin was the preferred language for diplomacy and literature, as well as the exclusive language of the Church, until as recent as 1960.
Within the lower strata of population, a spoken form of Latin evolved into what is known by the linguists as vernacular. Vernacular was the language of common people, rich in regional variations. Only in the XIII century, the vernacular grew into a literary language. The beautiful “Cantico delle Creature” (Song of All Creatures) by St. Francis of Assisi is considered the earliest poetic work written in Italy’s lyric vernacular.
The new language grew in importance, until it blossomed in the poetry of Dante Alighieri, who composed the famous “Divina Commedia” (Divine Comedy) in the Florentine vernacular. Dante is therefore referred to as the father of Italian language: he was the first one to give it full dignity and literary credit. The Tuscanian variation of vernacular was homogeneous in use and very similar to Latin, a fact also due to the region being exposed to less barbaric invasions than the rest of Italy. This is why today people find it hard to understand the dialect of Naples or Sardinia, but they won’t be too confused by the dialect spoken in Tuscany, the closest one to “correct” Italian.
In the absence of a national unity, Latin continued to be used along with vernacular for many centuries to come. Writers Petrarca and Boccaccio continued in the steps of Dante, adopting noble vernacular in their writings, only to be derided by the intellectuals. In 1800, with the wide circulation of the published novel “I promessi sposi” by Alessandro Manzoni, the dream of a linguistic unification of Italy became a reality, and paved the way to the political declaration of The Reign of Italy (1861).
There is a famous saying of the period: “Per fare l’Italia bisogna fare gli Italiani” (to create Italy, we have to create Italians). This was true also for the language. By 1861, 80% of the Italian population was illiterate, knowing only the local dialect. Teachers of the new state were purposely sent in a different region than their own, to enforce the use of Italian as opposed to dialect. At this point, Italian was spoken by less than 700.000 people, on a population of 25 millions. Even the first king of Italy, Vittorio Emanuele II, did not know Italian: he knew only French and the Piemontese dialect. Fascism went as far as prohibiting any use of dialects in the school, because it understood that a strong national language was an instrument of political power. Only later, the richness of dialects was revisited and partially codified.
The situation in Italy today includes several different linguistic pouches:
- written Italian, spoken by intellectuals and the mass-media
- regional spoken Italian (influenced by dialect)
- regional dialect
- slang: a mix of dialect, Italian and foreign contamination, including those resulting from the use of new technologies (SMS, chat)
So students: don’t be afraid. When you are unsure of how to say something, remember you are in good company.