Why Study Italian?

La Maestra Maldestra

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.

“… Beautiful.”

Dolcetto o Scherzetto? Halloween, Italian Style

La Maestra Maldestra


Halloween (L’halloween, my Italian friends called it, pronounced lahl-oh-ween) is not a very Italian festa (holiday) at all, but that has not stopped gli italiani (the Italians) from jumping on the Jack-o-Lantern bandwagon in the last few years and celebrating in style. The famous phrase, “trick or treat?” has even been translated to “dolcetto o scherzetto? in Italian to help the holiday along.

Last year, I spent Halloween in Italy. If you’re a regular reader/follower/subscriber to this blog, you’ll know that during my time living in Siena, I hung out a lot at one particular little osteria and got to be good friends with all the staff there. As Halloween approached, they approached me and asked for ideas for the Festa dell’Halloween (Halloween party) they wanted to throw at the osteria.

I suggested that they order proper orange pumpkins from their fruit and veg supplier (there was nary an orange pumpkin to be found in Siena’s supermercati, just very un-festive yellow ones) and I buzzed around town looking for some goulish decorations to spruce the place up a bit. I helped get the Halloween posters printed so that the fantasma (ghost) came out just right, and spent time trying to get the wording right in both English and Italian for the ads we put up. “Gradita la prezenza in maschera“, for those of you who speak Italian, is how we translated “costumes welcome.

On Halloween afternoon, the boys closed the place early to set up for the big festa. After they assured me that they could certainly carve two pumpkins (something they’d never done before) without loosing any fingers or blood in the process, I left them alone to put the finishing touches on the party preparations and worried about how the pumpkins would look when I got back. When I swung back by later, I was greeted by these two lovely “Giacomo-Lanterns (the Italian version of Jack-o-Lanterns, apparently) which drew crowds to the festa all night:

I like to think they were the only two carved pumpkins in all of Siena last year! The festa was a huge success (went on till 4 a.m., they tell me) and all night people could be seen taking pictures with our unique pumpkins. Please note the Italian touches of vino rosso (red wine) and castagne (chestnuts) alongside our Giacomo Lanterns!

Happy Halloween to all!

Terrible Translations

Oh yes, you travellers out there know exactly what I’m talking about.

Have you ever sat down with the hopes of ordering a savoury meal, just to look at the menu and find it translated into nonsensical gibberish that’s supposed to be English? Or, worse yet! Have you ever seen something translated that makes perfect sense, just not in that context? It can lead to some  snickering,  pointing, picture taking, or even to some extremely loud, tears-streaming-down-your face, snot-pouring-out your nose guffawing. Did I paint a lovely picture for you? I certainly hope so.

Conjure up the image of an Alpine-style restaurant tucked away in a small town in the Dolomites, a summer evening, and a family of four. The father, a native Italian speaker, is graced with an Italian menu. Mom and kids are saddled with the English translated ones. The teenage daughter (yours truly), peruses the menu and suddenly starts to cackle like the Schlern Witch (a legendary little hag from the area).

“What the heck’s so funny, Sarah?” Dad asks.

“I’ll have the…” I lay my menu down on the table to start pointing, not doing a very good job of it because my finger is heaving up and down with my laughter.

“The…” Still cackling.

“The…!” Gasp. Laugh. Heave. Cackle. Gasp. Gasp. Snort. (Whoops!) Cackle. Laugh. Gasp.

“Spit it out, will ya sis?” Commands my brother.

“I’ll have the chunks of meat on a twig!” I say as fast as I can, trying to get it out between the heaving and laughing.

“The what!?” Dad looks at me like I’m crazy.

“Chunks of meat on a twig!”

Upon further inspection of the Italian language menu, we found out that the menu was offering spiedini, known in English as shish kabobs.  What did they use, the Rustic Hiker’s Guide to the English Language to translate that one?

And that’s not even the worst of it…

Picture a cozy restaurant in Belgium. It’s fall, there’s a fire in the fireplace, and it seems like just the right kind of night to try a something new. Mom and I flip through the fifteen pages of Belgian beer before we finally get to the non-liquid part of the menu.

“Oh Sarah. Oh gosh. What the heck do you think this is?” Mom tries to stifle her laughter as she points to one of the main dishes, a “specialty of the house”, or so they say.

“Windblown chicken?!”

Mom snickers in response.

“What the heck kind of place did you bring me to, Mom!? They wanna talk about cruelty to cows and stuff when they slaughter them…Let them come here! I’m getting a mental image of a poor, poor little chicken being flung around by a windmill!”

I do my best impression of a panicked chicken tied to the arm of a windmill, and it’s the end of Mom’s self control. Further inspection of the French language menu showed the dish to be “Vol-au-vent”, a little puffed pastry thingee that’s served with some type of thick chicken sauce over it. Sounds kinda good!

Not only can you encounter this type of linguistic creativity on menus (although I have found that they’re the most common displays of transfigured translations) but you’ll see it on signs in store windows, on official documents, on roadsigns and just about anywhere that tries to cater to tourists. Good-quality translations are few and far between, so get used to muddling through the made-up words, fancy spellings, misuses and syntactical creativity. Just think of it as another “cultural experience” while abroad!

See if you can spot the interesting translations in this French menu:

Terrible Translations