The “who should or should not speak Italian” is an issue that is fundamentally unresolvable. What do I mean by such a seemingly essentialist declaration? Well, it is similar to the “chicken and the egg” debate that, in this case, is slightly modified as to why a plethora of children and grandchildren of Italian immigrants no longer speak the language. The conjecture is multiple, and one can never really arrive at a conclusion satisfactory to the majority, I would contend.
That said, nonetheless, numerous are suppositions that lie at the base of the “whys” and “why-nots.” Here are a few: (1) Society at large made Italians feel shame at their peasant culture; (2) Children of immigrants wanted to assimilate and become “Americans”; (3) Children and grandchildren felt further shame at their Italian-ness after Italy declared war against the United States in December 1941, when the United States then re-applied the 1798 “enemy alien” act; (4) It’s too late once one reaches adult-hood; (5) Italian is an ethnic language; (6) Italian is not a practical language; (7) My family spoke dialect. And the list goes on…
First, le me say that no one who is of Italian descent should be made to feel that they have to speak Italian, even though some of us might prefer the majority of Italian Americans would want to do so. Indeed, in this world of identity politics, where some wish to foist an ethnic identity on others (and knowing the language of that ethnicity might surely be considered an identifying component), we need to be sensitive to the desires of individuals; if they wish not to hyphenate themselves, so be it. Similarly, if they wish not to learn the Italian language, this, too, we should also accept. In this as in other cases, we clearly need to live and let live, regardless of what our own passion and philosophy might be vis-à-vis identity politics. And I say this as one who began teaching the Italian language and its culture in 1972, when I accepted my first full-time teaching position in a Connecticut high school.
Second, one need not necessarily be fluent in a language associated with an ethnic identity if s/he has decided to dedicate a good deal of time and effort to the promotion and promulgation of the culture of that ethnicity. Here, too, however, some of us might want to see minimal knowledge of the language as an accompanying factor. What do I mean? Well. even if one does not speak the language in question, one should have a basic repertoire of some of the catch phrases that have, by now, appeared in all sorts of communiqués and the like. After all, we should be a bit more informed and knowledgeable about such an inventory than our “meddigans”, no?
So, while a majority of the reasons listed above may lie at the base of why many of our peasani do not speak Italian, I would like to address a few. “It’s too late once one reaches adult-hood” is, perhaps, one of the most articulated and, yet, least true reasons with regard to adults learning a language. Is it more difficult, for sure, as we have developed in adulthood an array of conceptual habits that simply allow us to think in one manner (some consider this to be the “affective factors” in language learning). But research in second-language acquisition does not support, in any scientific manner, the hypothesis that second-language acquisition is impossible beyond a certain stage in life. It all relies, basically, on the learning strategies one adopts. One may simply go forward with memory use and the dictionary. Further, one might develop a series of other techniques such as identifying objects and/or actions with words of the target language; in communicating in the target language, one might adopt non-verbal forms of communication to get across one’s message. In addition, as we grow older, we do have a bit of an upper hand in; (1) our understanding about the use of language as a system; (2) our notion of rules as they apply to language; and (3) our greater sensitivities to the processes of subtly.
But it is, I would submit, mostly the processes and effects of the so-called “affective factors” that might play the main role in adults not [
able to] learn[ ing] a second language. The main components here are apprehension, bashfulness, shyness and/or other concerns that deal with reticence due to false insecurities and, what we might consider, “bella figura.” We are much more self-conscious as we grow older, and the possibility of making mistakes at a later age takes on much more valence than it might have for a younger person. By sloughing off our concerns of “fare bella figura,” however, one surely guarantees a smoother and, I would underscore, more rapid acquisition of the target language. That is, we need to lower, as best we can, the anxiety factor; we need to be able to laugh at ourselves as we go forward while making those funny mistakes: e.g., wanting, for example, to buy some figs at the local fruit-vender’s stand, when, instead, we mistakenly refer to a most intimate part of the human body, simply because we substituted one vowel for another; or, asking for “two slices of bread with a slab of ice cream in the middle”—yes, this is the image you convey to the Italian, for example, when you literally translate ice cream sandwich. These are two of the many, and dare I underscore “funny,” faux pas that one makes when learning another language.
“Italian is an ethnic language” is one of those popular non-sensical, false ”truths” bantered about when people are deciding what language to study. Much to my chagrin, I have heard this from many paesani as well, asking me why even I ever decided to teach Italian, as well as telling their children that it does no good for them to study Italian, that they should study another language, Spanish or French, for instance. Well, Italian is indeed much more than that “ethnic” language many want it to be. Let us be clear about this: Italian really acquired the label of “ethnic” only toward the end of the nineteenth century, at the outset of major emigration form Italy to the United States. Furthermore, such myopic labeling on the past of the then WASPs in power was buttressed by the fact that many emigrants from Italy were illiterate. Furthermore, as many of us know, the language they spoke, to a significant degree, was not standard Italian, rather a dialect indigenous to their local area of Italy.
We need to re-consider Italian as a truly cultural language as it is both centuries old and has been the incubator for some of the most popular literary forms, many we still enjoy today, as well as the conveyor of some of the more profound philosophical thoughts registered throughout Western Civilization. Such a reconsideration is the responsibility, first and foremost, of anyone who has taken on the role of promoter, promulgator, and, yes even, defender of Italian language and culture in its multifarious forms in the United States. The Sicilian School of Poetry (no, they were not all Sicilians), for example, gave us the sonnet; Francesco Petrarca developed it further; and, as we all know, William Shakespeare made it famous beyond Italy in yet another language. Even today, within a North American context, the sonnet figures as a most popular literary form. All this, let us not forget, has its origins in medieval Italian literary culture. Second, we should not discount the Renaissance as an “artistic” movement only. Yes, we need to shout it from the roof-tops the grandeur of Botticielli, Michelangelo, Leonardo, Tiziano, Bernini, and the like.
In addition, I would submit, we need to recognize some of the aesthetic and philosophical thought processes that subtend some of their art. Indeed, for what we consider today as “modernity,” we can surely see roots of the above-mentioned artists and the seeds for this modern epoch as early as the 1400s in Leon Battista Alberti’s De Pictura andDe re aedificatoria, which revolutionized the processes of painting and architecture for today’s world, as well as his Libri della famiglia, and, equally important, in Giovanni Pico della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man. In such a re-consideration of Italian and all that it portends pre-mass emigration, I would conclude this paragraph with an ever so brief reference to two Englishtenment thinkers, Giambattista Vico (Principi di Scienza Nuova d'intorno alla Comune Natura delle Nazioni ) and Cesare Beccaria (Dei delitti e delle pene ).
That one then spouts to his/her children that Italian is not a “practical” language is, simply, pardon the simplistic pun, impractical. It is practical in the social sense in that in a number of metropolitan areas in the United States, Italian is still the lingua franca for a generation or two of our paesani. I point to NYC’s Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who in July 2008, signed the City’s first Language Access Executive Order (EO 120), according to which “city agencies that have direct interaction with New Yorkers must now translate essential public documents into the six most commonly spoken languages, Spanish, Chinese, Russian, Korean, Italian and French Creole, and use telephonic, written and oral services to provide interpretation for the City's three million immigrant residents” (my emphasis). But Italian is practical in other ways. Like with any other language, Italian also gains us direct and unmitigated access to the culture of the land. It affords us the possibility to deal directly with those written texts, oral deliveries, and TV broadcasts and webcasts that we would otherwise have delivered to us through a mitigated channel that is translation. At the very least, subtlety is lost. Practical also because the more people who wish to learn and actually do speak Italian in this country, be they our peasani or not, help promote and promulgate a more positive—and at this juncture I would also add complete—representation of all things Italian and thus become part of a more constructive network with regard to a general image of Italy and those things Italian within the United States.
“So what!”—you might be mumbling at this juncture, though I would like it to be instead “E allora?” “I’ve done great without knowing it!”—you retort. Sure, but don’t order off of that menu riddled with mistakes in your self-learned pronunciation if you are in the company of those Italians with whom you need to broker a deal, be that deal cultural or financial. You will, to put it literally, leave an impression. Instead, give it a shot! Take that lesson when offered, especially if it is free. (I made such an offer to many of the self-proclaimed leaders when they bemoaned not knowing Italian, for all the reasons listed above. Reaction? Silence.)
In any event, so what do you do if you do not have the facility with Italian that you would like to possess, yet do not have the time to acquire such facility, and, further still, wish to access the culture in some manner of sorts that is more direct than simple translation? Well, you can do as some do: read through the daily Italian newspaper with the aid of a dictionary; the online dictionaries are getting better and better. You can also scan those pieces you deem more significant and run them through one of the translating machines on the web; they may not be as good as some might want, but they get you the information you need. Finally, if your facility with Italian is in fact at this level, be sure to consult with a friend when closing some of your correspondence with an Italian phrase.
I have surely tried your patience with the length of what I have articulated above. That said, I shall now close with a simple, non partisan phrase.
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Italian catch Phrases
N.B.: the addition of this brief glossary is really for those who are not fluent in Italian and thus might benefit from its presence here.
“A presto” can be used to sign off an informal missive of sorts, wanting to say, “See/talk to you soon.”
“Abbastanza” means “enough” in the sense that there is enough quantity of something. To say “Enough!” as in “Stop already,” or something of the sort, then one uses the 3rd person singular of the verb “bastare,” as in “Basta!” People get this right more than half the time it is used.
“Alla riscossa” is part of a refrain from the song “Bandiera rossa” (The Red Flag), which was the slogan for the partisans fighting Fascism as well as the battle song of the Italian Communist Party (the old PCI).
“Che sah diche” is the Americanized version of “Che si dice?” It means “What does one say” literally; or, much more liberally, “What’s up?” of “What’s new?”
“Ciao” is one of the most mis-spelled words. It means “hello” or “good-bye.” Oh, it is not Italian to say “Ciao, for now!” Indeed, it is very un-Italian.
Gedrule,” or something of the sort, is the phonetic spelling of “cetriolo,” which means “cucumber” and is used in Italian also to call someone “stupid” or a “bumpkin.”
“Madone” are “Maron” are the two expressions of surprise and/or exclamation, which come from the standard Italian “Madonna”—Virgin Mary.
“Sempre Avanti” is used by many who do not know Italian. Its origins are that of the battle cry from Mussolini’s Fascist era. The expression was sometimes longer, as in: “Sempre avanti ad ogni costo per la grandezza della patria!”
“Stunahd” is the Americanized version of “stonato,” which literally is out of tune, out of harmony with what is going on.
“Ti voglio bene” means “I love you,” in both a familial and romantic way, used in wither occasion. It is not the equivalent of the sign-off in a letter, “love,” or the like. In this case, one would say “Con affetto,” literally, “with affection,” or something similar such as “affettuosità,” which we would freely translate “affections.”
Editors Note: This article by prof. Tamburri has evoked a conversation on our facebook page (www.facebook.com/iitaly). Here are some of the comments as of September 20, 11pm.
I SAY THE SAME THING! THEY USED TO SPEAK ITALIAN SO WE WOULDN'T UNDERSTAND WHAT THEY WERE SAYING!
Wow thats way my parents did speak so I would not understand them. Ok do I'm not the only one.
Interesting article, I heard the excuse "my family spoke dialect" so many times..not only in the US but in many other countries where Italians moved after WWII...I love the Italian Language, I don't care how impractical it might be!!!!!
Believe me or not, this fact of the parents not talking to their children on purpose is the same thing said by all the Italo-American people who I meet here constantly in Rome. Don't be sad, through Mrs. Cammy Reali we can set up f...ree lessons via Skype. I would be proud to do this for you guys. A friend of mine living in Denver is doing also in this way with me from time to time. It's a good way to improve! Think of that!
I wish to be in NYC with Cammy to attend the San Gennaro's Fiest Day, but there is an Ocean in between !
Have a good day, ciao!See More
I grew up speaking only italian in the house and stupidly i let outside forces convince me i had to be only american and speak only american. I so regreat it cause i lost a lot of it but i am not letting my kids do the same. At 2 they were inroled in a toddlers italian language program and my husband and i talk to them in italian as much as possible.
Maria C. Scali
Want to thank my parents for speaking Italian at home, and teaching us to be proud of bring bilingual. Teachers used to try to convince them, that we would get confused in school , but in fact we always excelled !!
Skype lessons sound like a wonderful idea! :) I grew up with Italian spoken in our home and of course in my grandparents home but they didn't want us to learn the language. I took a few courses in college but learned more when traveling to Italy over the years! It's a beautiful language but not easy b/c of all the dialects from region to region. Proper Italian is magical - like a song! I love EVERYTHING Italian! ....bella Italia
I enjoyed the article. I believe it is important for ANYONE to learn Italian. Unfortunately, there are non-Italians who go out of their way to be Italian and act snobby with it, COMPLETELY MISSING THE POINT. Italians are not like that. People tend to do that with French as well. Learning another culture is no reason for one to beat another with it over the head. If you really want to be Italian, be loving. That's the foundation.
Francesca Cerchia Pensa
I love that the Neapolitan dialect was spoken in my home when I was a child. When I grew up, I also learned that other language spoken in Italy; Italian.