“Perché gli americani vogliono imparare l’italiano?” (“Why do Americans want to learn Italian?”) This was the question my friends asked when I told them that I was going to go from working on my Master’s in Italy to teaching Italian conversation at Bowdoin. My reply was aloof, well-hidden behind an exploratory and reassuring tone: “Hopefully I will able to tell you the reason when I am back.” At that time, I told myself that I could say “pizza” with a faint American accent. That could always be my answer when I returned home if I did not find a better response overseas. I also imagined that Americans would be interested in studying Italian politics, perhaps, to handle their Berlusconi-style president’s policies and lovers. Back in August, I did not know that I could simply say that they wanted to understand all the dialogue in the Oscar-winning film “Call Me by Your Name.” I am still thinking about using these answers when I return to Italy, since they still sound valid to me. But if someone wants a more satisfying response, I want to be ready. So here I am, less than one year later, trying to fit some of the stories I have encountered here at Bowdoin into the scrapbook I will bring back home.
My ideal response is multi-faceted. It has the faces of the students who let me peep into the consciousness that brought them to the Italian language and culture. I imagined that some American students wanted to trace back their roots through the acquisition of the language. Yet I did not expect that for them, learning Italian meant eventually discovering that their grandma was unable to speak it anymore. Indeed, grandma was told to forget that language as her heavy accent affected her English pronunciation and limited her opportunity to find a good job. It is at this point of the story that I take a deep breath, trying to sense what the act of learning a language—a language new to the student, but at the same time, old and forgotten to their family—implies.
As a student of languages, I know the new skin one can put on when speaking a language different from the mother tongue. I even make fun of the fact that most speakers—and I am one of them—change their voices when shifting from one linguistic identity to another. That’s why I was surprised that it was only after that a student said, “L’italiano è una lingua perfetta per descrivere momenti come questi” (“Italian is a perfect language to describe moments like this one”), after having listened to an Italian recording of the description of a cloudy sky, that I understood how this principle applied to those learning my home language, too. This student’s wide open eyes were trying to catch all the imaginative power and the descriptive strength concealed in the Italian language while listening to the voice in the earphones. Can you imagine the smile on my face when the same student told me that they started reading “Città invisibili” by Italo Calvino in Italian, even though they are not taking an Italian course this semester? I am quite positive that, after having read the entire book, they will go back to Italian classes.
Language is a plane. It is a plane that brings you to a more neutral sphere where you can claim to belong to a different culture that has different values. It gives you the tools to bind together pages with refreshing new words. It helps you shape an image that will contain what your parents taught you, but also incorporates what they taught you not to. This is not just my story. This is the story of brave legs and brains that move forward, sometimes painfully and confusingly. They keep moving at the rhythm of a new intonation on their tongue. (Something that, according to the German ears, sounds like: Babedibubedi.) They keep learning it because, as they have told me, they are sure that their families will eventually comprehend: Indeed, choosing Italy as the background of their smiling faces—for a semester, a year or even longer—will eventually prove to be a better idea that stepping into the picture in which their parents might have imagined them.
Italian is also the smile that appears on the face of the student sitting at the next table in the dining hall as I pronounce a sentence in Italian—maybe in too ebullient of an Italian voice—in which they might have found a familiar word. I don’t know which word it was that popped into their ears, but I can see that it brought them to a reality that can only be described in Italian.
Arianna Apicella is the Italian Teaching Fellow.