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  • Why You Absolutely Must Learn to Speak Italian?
    Our Paesani

    by Francesca Di Meglio

    Last April, my cousin Fausto took me to Dionisio, an American-style pub in Ischia, the island in the Bay of Napoli from which my family hails. The moment that Fausto stepped outside to take a phone call, Michele, a young man sitting near us, moved next to me and put his hand on my knee. Fausto returned and Michele said, “Che coincidenza! Tu vieni con due ragazze e io vengo con due ragazzi.” (“What a coincidence! You come with two girls and I come with two boys.”) Michele worked fast but he was charming, so I talked to him for the next 20 minutes or so. We bid farewell when I refused an offer to take a spin around Ischia Porto on Michele's motorino.

    When Michele left, Fausto, like a light bulb had just switched on in his head, said, “Ahhhh, I must-a speak-a English per conquistare le donne Americane.” He noticed that the only reason Michele even had a chance with me was because I spoke his language, Italian. And Fausto would have to speak English to communicate with American women should he ever visit the United States.

    Language can either be the bridge that connects or the wall that divides us. Thanks to the unified efforts of the National Italian American Foundation, the Order Sons of Italy in America and UNICO-National, the College Board in June unanimously voted to approve the Advanced Placement test for Italian. The three groups pledged $200,000 and Italian officials, Minister Mirko Tremaglia and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, took care of the remaining $300,000 that the College Board required, according to an article in the Italian Tribune by former First Lady of New York State Matilda Raffa Cuomo, a promoter of the Italian language. This victory should mean that more people – and especially Italian Americans – will learn our beautiful first tongue. The AP test allows high school students who have been studying a particular subject to take a standardized test that helps them get college credit without taking – or paying for – a college course, depending on their score.

    Unfortunately, I have found that I am the exception among the Italian Americans in my community. Many, especially those who are the second or third generation in this country, never learn to speak Italian. Others only know the dialect of their family's region; when they go to Italy, they cannot understand why folks in Roma do not know what they are saying in Calabrese or Siciliano or Napoletano. The dialects are important to know because they represent tradition and make you an insider in your Italian hometown. But to really understand today's Italy and the young people, many of whom never spoke a dialect, you must learn the standard Italian.

    A Google search of “Italian genealogy” produces more than 8,500 results, indicating that many people are interested in learning about their past and tracking down relatives still in the homeland. To really get to know your relatives in Italy (or to just have an easier time following the paper trail to your family's history), knowledge of the Italian language is necessary.

    You will even gain insight into the Italian psyche simply by paying attention to how they phrase things. Italians, who can take credit for the Renaissance and the Roman Empire, are a creative bunch. They are even artistic with their words. During a soccer game, when a player just misses a goal, the commentator will say, “Ha mangiato il gol,” which means “He ate the goal.” When was the last time you heard the regular use of a literary hyperbole on American ESPN? Another example: To wish someone luck, you might say, “In bocc' al lupo” or “In the mouth of the wolf.” Sure beats plain ol' “good luck,” doesn't it?

    In the end, Fausto was right that flirting with Italian men would have been a lot harder if I couldn't communicate with them. And falling in love (as opposed to lust) with someone who speaks another language would be nearly impossible for a talker like me. But the most important reason to speak the Italian language is not so I can pick up i ragazzi. Fausto, his sister Angela, his parents and all my other relatives and friends in Ischia are the real reasons I should continuously study Italian. My courage to speak a foreign language is an homage to them. (Not to mention the fact that my papa' always wanted his kids to speak his first language!)

    I know learning a foreign tongue is difficult. I too get embarrassed, and I inevitably make mistakes when I speak Italian. But I force myself to speak the language because I want to know – really know – my relatives abroad. And I long for them to really know me. I want to talk to them about my work and my dreams. I want to explain my American life. More than anything, I want to know their Italian life, and I need the Italian language to even begin to understand them. So, I roll my “Rs” as best I can and try to conjugate my verbs. E Io parlo – parlo con tutta la mia forza, con tutto il mio cuore!

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