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Arts and Culture / Talking Italy

A Borderless Language

Giovanni Castellaneta * (June 1, 2008)
Photo by Fulvio Minichini (Biblioteca Nazionale, Naples, Italy)


Traditionally, for many students in this Country, learning Italian has been an attempt to “rediscover” and reconnect with their roots.

Language is a marker of identity. It is a political and social instrument that serves as the “glue” that binds groups and communities together. There are communities in the United States that are visibly bonded by language much more than others. The examples that most quickly come to mind are the Hispanic and Asian communities. Language is central to their cohesion and they have in many respects superimposed it on American English, to the point that some law makers wanted to introduce legislation specifying English as the official language of the United States. This generation of Italian Americans must ensure that the coming generation, the 4th generation, has Italian as an equally strong cohesive force for their communities. Language is not only a form of communicating culture, it is the strongest element in preserving culture. I am thinking now of the Native American cultures, which, in losing their language, are in danger of losing their identities.

But the preservation of culture is not the only reason that makes learning a foreign language vital; equally important ones are the expansion of knowledge, understanding, and quality of life.
Learning a foreign language is a limitless tool of discovery and exploration of a different culture because language and culture are an inseparable whole: study of the former motivates and increases understanding of the latter in a virtuous circle.

It gives access to history, literature, music, customs, tradition, systems of beliefs and values and their development from the past to present times. Therefore, knowing another language is the way to develop understanding, open-mindedness and tolerance in the global world.
In addition, students may also be prompted to learn a foreign language by the prospective advantages and benefits to their future professional lives. Material borders are in some cases being overcome by virtual travel, but once across the border, communication becomes necessary.

The decision to study Italian is acknowledged to meet all these motivations and expectations, and we can see it in the following figures.
After Spanish, French and German, Italian is the fourth most popular language in the United States, from kindergarten all the way through university, and its popularity is growing every year. From 1998 to 2006 there has been a 60 per cent increase in students registered for university classes in Italian. Recent surveys have revealed that in 2007 Italian was the foreign language most students wanted to learn. In 2008 it was in second place. This year, over 2,000 students have already registered with the College Board for the AP Italian exam, a net increase over previous years. These figures are complemented by the fact that Italy is second only to Great Britain as the major destination for study abroad programs.


*Ambassador of Italy to the U.S.

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