On English, Italian, and Language

I was fortunate to be received by an Italian host who was friendly and willing to discuss some of the intricacies of Italian culture with me.  In my prior post, I mentioned that there was a pervasive friendliness that I experienced in my couple days in the city.  My host agreed with me on that point, but also mentioned that there were some barriers in communication.  She noted that Italians (especially the older generation) rarely bothered to learn English.

We tried to dissect why spoken English in Italy was not more common.  Italians are very nationalistic and show pride in their language and culture.  This is a good thing, but my host thought that there were too many Italians taking their nationalism too far and held the view that learning English was unnecessary.  I realize that this is probably more common in smaller, less visited areas of the country, but I also knew that near the popular tourist attractions, like the Duomo and Storza Castle, people hardly spoke English.  This may be one of the reasons why Milan isn’t a super popular tourist destination.

I don’t think it is wrong to hold such a strong nationalistic identity.  After all, I am a chest-pounding, flag-waving, maple-syrup-drinking Canadian who loves beavers and Canadian geese.  However, I think there are huge downsides when a person puts on blinders and limits their perspective.  I really appreciated my host’s insights into her own culture.  It made me think about how people can be so comfortable and sheltered in their own culture.  For me, travel expands my understanding of other people and my ability to empathize.

Another point we discussed was the difficulties of learning English, especially when it was not necessary.  If you lived in Italy for your whole life, there isn’t much of a need to learn English and, even worst, it was difficult.  My host had a working knowledge of the language due to her travels to Canada and her interest in American television.  However, she had problems with the grammatical side of English.  My knowledge of English grammar, and the ability to comprehend different “dialects” of English was something I took for granted.  For a foreigner in North America, the differences in grammar from the influences of urban and rural jargon.  I know this is a gross generality, but she noted that when she listened to African Americans, she found it harder to understand because a bulk of the literature used different grammar than she was used to comprehending.  We talked about “The Help”, the book by Kathryn Stockett, which was written from both an African American point of view, using their grammatical structure, and from an educated student’s prose. The switching perspectives in the book make it a highly interesting read.

English is the world’s universal language and I think I have taken my knowledge of the language for granted.  Since English was my first language, the grammatical differences, accents, and other small variations don’t bother me as much as someone trying to learn the language.


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