What Learning Italian Has Taught Me
Languages have always fascinated me. Even though I was born and raised in Brazil, my parents chose to put me in English classes very early (I was 3 years old when I began learning it). My brain just seems to have been shaped into thinking in different languages.
So when I reached 24 years of age, I felt like it was about time that I challenged myself to learn something completely different.
My initial idea was to learn something completely out of the box, such as Mandarin or German. Of course Latin languages are all very different, but Portuguese (which I'm fluent in), Spanish (which I'm proficient in), Italian, and French all share very similar roots and rules.
To my disappointment, German classes seem to be extremely hard to find, and upon finding a few schools in Miami that offered it, none of them had any availability. I was then talked out of learning Mandarin by a few friends, who made the point that Chinese people are busy learning English and Mandarin is far from fulfilling its promise of being the "new international language of business." And hey, during my visit to China in 2011, I had no problem communicating in English! It's a language I still definitely intend to dip my toes in, but it didn't compel me enough to get on it as of right now.
So my next idea was to learn Italian, and after I found out that there was a Società Dante Alighieri located in Miami, it became a no-brainer. I had always heard great things from them and it felt appropriate to embark on this new journey with a institution that was recognized around the world.
And now, one year later of weekly Italian studies, I have drawn a few conclusions.
The Respect It Deserves
Boy, was I wrong that Italian wouldn't be a big challenge since I already spoke Portuguese and Spanish! The Italian language seems to me like a very, very old language, and with that I mean that it feels incredibly complex and full of nuances and differences between "old" and "new" ways of saying things. It's easy to assume that every language is like that, but in my opinion, it is especially true with Italian.
Italian literature dates as far back as the end of the 12th Century. In the 13th Century, for example, Italian poet Giacomo da Lentini is believed to have invented the sonnet. These guys are also credited for things like Dante Alighieri's "Divine Comedy," the invention of political science by Niccolò Machiavelli, The Enlightenment discoveries of Galileo Galilei, the works and inventions of Leonardo da Vinci, and so, so, so much more. Approaching Italian needs a certain respect and acknowledgement of its context, because this language has communicated an overwhelming amount of knowledge and creativity throughout its existence.
What It Has Taught Me
But in the most unlikely of ways, the Italian language taught me more than its history and nuances.
It introduced me to a certain assertiveness that the Italian people are known for and that I wasn't particularly used to. Of course I am not trying to boil down an entire population to a particular trait that I identified, but in general, Italians seem to be very direct and efficient in how they communicate. Portuguese and English, which I am fluent in, are in my opinion very good languages to beat around the bush. Italian culture, on the other hand, introduced me to a more straight-to-the-point approach to communication that I now, at times, apply to life.
Learning Italian has also introduced me to entirely new contexts within pieces of art and media that I already loved. Watching Italian films and studying Italian art hasn't been the same since I immersed myself in the language. Everything became much richer and meaningful. I considered "The Great Beauty" a great film about Italians, for example, but now I see it more as a satire about performance artists, and think it has little to do with the actual country. On the other hand, classics such as "Life Is Beautiful" and "Cinema Paradiso" seemed to become even more spectacular and important. Most recently, I began reading John Hopper's "The Italians," a fascinating analysis of Italy and its people through the lenses of a foreign journalist.
Languages Expand Who We Are
It was no secret to me that my Portuguese-speaking self and my English-speaking self had substantial differences in how I talk, what I say, when I pause, where I speak up and where I don't. Learning Italian seemed to expand who I am even further, adding yet another layer to my thought process and giving me news tools to play with inside my brain. It is less about the perfect grammar and more about the true understanding of how this language functions and which cultural context it exists in. Learning a new language can declutter the limitations and tics you previously had, teaching you how to say things you didn't know there were words for, in ways you didn't know you were allow to say them.