The Challenge of a Disappearing Language
“You are an American. You speak English.” ~Rose Fieramosca
I heard that quote my entire life. My Grandmother was a proud American. She would tell us stories of her youth in Newark. How she learned patriotic songs. How she went to “finishing school” as a child. I learned recently she was even a neighborhood volunteer during World War II. I could just see her in my mind’s eye taking charge; something that was a natural skill for her, I think. I grew up in a multi-generational household like most kids I knew in Belleville. I saw my Grandmother every day of my life until she closed her eyes forever. It was a privilege. I learned a lot from her and not a day goes by that I don’t think about her and miss her.
One thing I did not learn from her, however, was the Italian language. Growing up I would bring home children’s books in Italian and even a picture dictionary from the library. I would hand them to her and say “teach me.” Her answer was always the same. “You are an American. You speak English.” She could switch from English to Italian in a second. However, I only remember hearing her speak Italian a handful of times. She hated to hear Italian spoken as the primary language when people were in America for decades. When I entered middle school and needed to take a language, I wanted to take Italian. My parents chose Spanish. My Grandmother was horrified I needed to take a language at all. In high school I tried to switch over to Italian and again I was shot down. I spent three years taking Spanish and was terrible. To this day I know how to say “my homework is in my locker” and how to order coffee. That’s the extent of my knowledge.
In college, however, that all changed. I once again needed to take a language. I was told if I signed up for Spanish, I would need to take the advanced classes. I knew that would be an utter failure. Here was my chance to switch to Italian. I had a wonderful Italian teacher. I was terrible.
I worked hard. I went to the language lab multiple times a week. I really tried, but I was a complete failure. Turned out I retained more Spanish than I thought. I kept mixing up my Italian with my Spanish. I once completed an entire test in Spanish. The professor that I was trying to be a wiseguy. I promised him I wasn’t and begged to take the exam over again. He actually used my mistake as an example to the class as to how similar the two languages are. I remember him saying “if you can learn one romance language, you can learn them all.” Yeah, right. I couldn’t even learn one.
Every few years I make a feeble attempt at learning Italian. My most successful attempt was about a year and a half ago at the beginning of the pandemic. I thought it was a good opportunity. We were stuck in the house for months on end. I ordered new books and began again.
I started out OK. I found success with Language Hacking Italian by Benny Lewis. I made it through the first few chapters fairly well. It all fell apart when I tried a lesson with a live teacher online. I could see her frustration as I tried to choke my way through a lesson. Failure again.
Now as I start this journey again, I am even more determined. I’m starting Language Hacking over again and a goal for this year is to be able to conduct a 30 minute conversation confidently by the end of the year. By sharing my goal with all my readers, it will help hold me accountable to my plan.
I want to learn Italian for many reasons. First, I feel it will continue to put me in touch with my heritage. As I’ve mentioned before, as the previous generations have left this world to sleep with the Lord, I feel the connections to my past fading. By learning the language of my ancestors, I feel I’ll be able to keep that connection alive. Second, I am a huge fan of genealogy. As I continue through my family history, I know more and more information will be in the Mother Tongue. By having the ability to understand what is in front of me will be a huge personal accomplishment. Finally, there are many wonderful books and music in Italian. I want to have the ability to read them in their original language instead of searching for a translation. I also want to have an ability to listen to Italian music and understand what is being sung.
I feel there is an overarching importance to learn the language of my heritage. Italian has the dubious distinction of being the fastest dying language in the United States. Research released in 2018 showed the number of Americans speaking Italian within the home dropped from 900,000 to 550,000 between 2001 and 2017. Only 20% of K-12 students study a foreign language, and Italian makes up less than 1% of this number. As I wonder why this is the case, I have a few theories. I think part of it is related to people from the older generations taking pride being an American and working hard to assimilate. Additionally, when World War II broke out, Italian was considered the “language of the enemy.” In addition to forcibly evacuating 120,000 Americans of Japanese background from their homes on the West Coast to barbed-wire-encircled camps, Executive Order 9066 and Presidential Proclamation 2725 called for the compulsory relocation of more than 10,000 Italian-Americans and restricted the movements of more than 600,000 Italian-Americans nationwide. The federal government considered passing laws that would take away the property of all Italians who didn’t have citizenship papers; Italians living near defense factories would be forced to move; and Italian homes would be searched and cameras, shortwave radios and guns would be confiscated. In an effort to prove their patriotism to their new homeland Italian-Americans enlisted in the military at a higher rate than people of other backgrounds. Older generations were afraid to speak their native language in public.
The generations that came after WWII aren’t as well-versed in their Italian culture and heritage. We heard stories growing up, but many like me felt something was missing. Now, as what were historically ethnic-specific neighbors are no longer, people do not always meet and marry from a similar ethnic background. When researching data on language in America, I discovered many mark their ethnicity as “white” or “non-Hispanic” on forms. White is a race. Your heritage is your ethnicity. I feel that is an important distinction in today’s society that is becoming lost.
So this is my vow as I begin my language challenge… again.