Learning Italian


If one wants to become acquainted with a culture, one really should become involved with the language. And of course, vice versa. There are different ways to do it and I suppose I did all of them. Studying grammar and dictionaries, reading whatever came to hand, speaking with everyone whether a stranger or not, friendships, boyfriends, translations.

It doesn’t hurt of course to have a knowledge of other languages as well. German as a child, later Spanish, and then a smattering of French.

It takes a bit of courage to simply jump into a foreign culture/language. The cultural aspect can perhaps be easier if one is studying art and civilization. I would say luck plays an important part. Take my case. It was Italy, could have been Germany or France. But it was Italy my art history heart was drawn to. I had relatives in Germany. But winter was approaching. Could have been France, for I loved French Romanesque and Gothic. Yet my future was to be in Italy and I still haven’t figured out quite why.

Perhaps Germany with relatives and linguistic problems centered mostly around using the proper series of titles for Herr Doktor Professor etc. and distinguishing between the familiar and more formal pronouns. It was time to move on and Florence seemed the logical next stop. Even though my knowedge of Italian was limited to the basics needed by an art history major. English must have made do in the beginning for I did find a pensione and manage to buy my bread and wine and get to the various museums and churches.  The bright orange Russo’s Practical Italian Grammar had me studying verbs and tenses and I also did my best with dictionaries, in a curious pot pouri of languages for one of them had belonged to my German grandfather and was still very Latin.   

The turning point came when I was going through various notes and a piece of paper fell out with the address of someone in Florence given me by a colleague in New York.  So, on the 25th of October 1955, I set off for the archaeological museum to meet a person who was to become a major figure in my life.

Although he did speak English, he seemed rather relieved when I told him that I really had to learn Italian. He took me at my word and decided to become my tutor. “You must write your impressions,” he insisted. “That way we can correct your mistakes.” As he perused my “homework” he would often shake his head “Oh, bellissima! How logical your thinking is”. Indeed it was a strange world where even mistakes could be beautiful.

But mistakes could also be a font of fun. Sometimes it might be the pronunciation and sometimes it might be the wrong word. Just as getting Italian students to pronounce “th” properly, I will always have problems with double consonants. American tourists are likely to ask for fish tea rather than peach tea, confounding pesce or fish with pesca or peach.  The gn also seems to have been a problem and anello or ring might turn into agnello or lamb. In a fairy tale it might well be the former but not the latter.

I wonder now if I was aware of the Florentine dialect at the time, where the c’s were aspirated turning casa into hasa and carne into harne. Even now I love reading Pinocchio aloud and can hear Collodi’s Tuscan intonations.

Gradually I did start reading the great Italian authors – Pirandello, Manzoni, Boccaccio, Grazia Deledda, D’Annunzio, Leopardi.   Calvino and Umberto Eco came later. As with other classics like Primo Levi.  Still my lack of familiarity with classical Italian culture hindered me from participating in the high school and university studies of my children, even if dinner conversations might deviate into the Latin and Greek roots of words.  They knew their Italian history, their Italian heroes, their Italian culture and literature. I might have countered with Mark Twain or Hemingway although I had nothing like their background. It is not quite the same. A similar fate had awaited me when I was studying Latin in high school and my mother, who had been brought up in the German classical Hochschule, tried to teach me the pronunciation. Absolutely incomprehensible for my American Latin teacher.

Claudio once said that with an American mother, he didn’t know if he was supposed to stand at attention or not when they played the Star-Spangled  Banner.  I seem to remember that when I was in grammar school we were supposed to put our hands on our hearts.

Language and culture. Having raised my children in Italy, in an Italian speaking ambience, I’ve noted that even if we are in an English speaking group, I’ll automatically switch to Italian if I turn to say something to my sons, who will be speaking fluent English with their companions.

German, English, Italian.

What is my native tongue? What is my native country? And then there is my adopted country.

Who am I?

4 thoughts on “Learning Italian

  1. Beautiful and deeply moving when read by one who struggled with all languages from French to Italian after years of study. I was in awe of Claudio and Lambi’s skills when they were little boys – and, of course, your easy transition from one language to another – which wasn’t so easy after all. M

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  2. It is a delicious treat to read your words this morning – sipping my espresso with a dollop of ice cream. Your voice is clear and beautiful, Erika, just as I remember it. Grazie Mille!

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  3. I just came to stumble into your blog, but I could’nt stop listening and reading your text. Your voice and your words kept me staying. It was so alive and interesting. My mother tounge is not english, but I understand it better than italian. But my heart beats for the beautiful country Italy. And the italian language is also something that I adore. My heart belongs to Italy. But the language is a struggle. I live in a country where I cannot use it. I am trying to learn it because I want to be able to speak with italian people when I go to Italy. I understand that it must be strange for you to have many countries as your home country, but what is your native country in your hart. I am born in one country, and i have lived here all my life. But the strange thing is that I has had a longing for Italy almost all my life. When I am in Italy I feel like I am “at home”. My heart beats for Italy, but my life I have to live here in another country. I will always feel there is something missing in my life. I thank you for your writing and I send you a hug, even though I don’t know you (I hope it is ok for you, I don want to be rude) Your text really meant something for me. Thank you once again! (And yes, I know my english is not so good. Many years have passed since I studied english, but I hope you can understand what I wanted to say.)

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    1. Thank you for your lovely comment. And hugs or abbracci are always welcome. As a friend said, I am all three of my countries – that is who I am. So you too are Italian since you feel at thome here whatever country you were born in and have lived in most of your life.

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