La Maestra Maldestra
Let’s just get this out in the open right from the start: Italian is not considered a particularly useful language.
Don’t gasp. Don’t cry. Don’t be surprised to hear this coming from me. I may love Italy and all things Italian, but I know the score.
In the grand scheme of the world, not that many people speak Italian. The big discussions between political leaders don’t happen in Italian, and not many people (other than those living in Italy) are forced to learn Italian at school. You don’t need to understand Italian to read Dante any more, and you don’t need to speak Italian to get a job unless you live in Italy. You don’t need it in order to travel around Italy because a ton of people there speak at least some English, and you don’t need it for immediate access to pop culture anywhere outside of Italy.
In today’s world of immediate gratification and propelled by the widespread need to do things for the main purpose of “getting ahead”, why push yourself to eke out a bit of time from your jam-packed schedule to learn a language that isn’t going to help you in pretty much any tangible way? (At least, that’s what you think).
English is the language of the world, and any of us with it as our Mother Tongue should count ourselves lucky. English is it. Italian (and every other language) is out. Isn’t that the general consensus?
I’m here to tell you that contrary to popular belief, Italian is useful.
It’s useful, it’s helpful, and it’s a language that, through its nature and the nature of its speakers, lends itself to being fun.
Knowing a second language in general is a good thing. It’s like gymnastics for your brain when you switch back and forth between the two. They say that people who know and use a second language, ward off alzheimer’s disease longer than their monolingual counterparts. Who doesn’t want that?
Also, if you tell me that Italian hasn’t been useful in my job hunts, I’ll eat my hat. I have had four, count them, FOUR jobs that knowing Italian has helped me get: my job working for a tour operator in Tuscany, a group leader for summer abroad students in Italy, writer for an Italian-Canadian magazine, and Italian instructor at a university. In a couple cases, my knowing Italian was the deal maker/breaker in my getting those job offers. Now tell me that it hasn’t been useful. And tell me that those jobs aren’t at least somewhat cool. Tell me!
You can’t do it. Because the jobs are cool, the experiences were/are amazing, and Italian has proved itself useful for helping to feed my salvadanaio (piggybank).
Then there’s the more “Italian” side to this argument, the touchy-feely side.
Think of how many more people you can talk to if you know a second language. And think about the people who speak Italian. There are a lot of real personaggi (characters) on that peninsula, and by knowing Italian, you get to talk to them. You get to get to know them. You get to read Dante in all his original 13th century splendour, and you get to listen to songs like “We No Speak Americano” and understand all the words.
We don’t study Italian because we need to, like everyone who studies English does. We don’t have that pressure. Our jobs, (well, most of them), our livelihoods, our families don’t depend on our knowledge of la bella lingua. But maybe that’s just it, the beautiful part of it all. We study Italian because we want to, not because we need to. Because the music of the language moves us to learn it, to engage in this “impracticality”, to throw some of our precious time to the wind and do something simple for the pleasure of being able to pronounce words like piacere.
And if I wasn’t convinced of the merits of knowing Italian before, a conversation with the owner of a language school in Rome this summer really tipped the scales for me.
“Sarah,” he said, cigarette in hand, leaning casually on the railing of one of the school’s small balconies. “In this Italian school, we used to also share the space with an English school. Our two sets of students were completely different. The English ones, well, they didn’t want to come to class, they walked around with their heads down, all grey, you know,” he shrugged.
“But the ones who were studying Italian,” his eyes lit up and his voice took on a breathy quality.
“Sarah, the ones who were studying Italian were just more…” he waved his hand casually as he searched for the word. It didn’t take him long before he plucked it out of the Roman sunshine and gave it to me through a slow smile.