I was recently asked by a former colleague, who’d spent time teaching English in China, why I was bothering to work with European languages. He pointed out, correctly, that Chinese was the most widely spoken first language in the world, being spoken by roughly one fifth of the world’s inhabitants. China’s role on the world stage is clearly expanding, with the country functioning as a major international business and economic partner for both the US and the EU. Learning European languages, in my colleague’s opinion, is becoming unnecessary for Brits.
“And why Italian, of all the possibilities?” he added. “It’s only used on that one Mediterranean peninsula.”
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this, because Italian has always meant so much to me and I want to be able to defend it.
Italian is spoken by 55 million people in Italy and 62 million worldwide. It is only spoken in Italy, San Marino, Switzerland, and some regions of Slovenia and Croatia. But what a beautiful sound the Italian language makes; in some part of central Italy it sounds almost like singing. I confess that my reasons for learning the language were largely due to overhearing Italians at my local sports centre. I find the sound of the vowel-rich syllables uplifting and soothing.
After a year of evening classes I went to Italy for the first time in 1999. When I spoke to shop assistants, bar staff and pharmacists, they understood and answered me, and my sense of euphoria was profound. The Italians I met seemed surprised and delighted by my efforts – rare as it is, I’m told, to encounter an English person attempting to speak their language. This seems odd, given the number of British people who retire to the Tuscan or Umbrian countryside.
Italy is a popular tourist destination. And yet for someone wishing to learn beyond the basics to use on holiday, finding a teacher based in the UK does not seem to be easy. I tutor in Italian, and some of my students travel 40 minutes to visit me, having not found anyone more local. Some even come from Italian families and want to be able to communicate with relatives living in Italy.
There are also many reasons for studying Italian at undergraduate or postgraduate level. Many UK and US based companies trade with Italy and thus need to employ Italian speakers. Several of my Italian into English translations have been concerned with the luxury furniture industry, for example.
As for culture and history, I cannot imagine a richer source. Italian influence dates back to the ancient world, with the work of such prominent individuals as Archimedes and Virgil. Italy boasts household names when it comes to contributions to music, literature, science, food, fashion, and art (according to Unesco more than 60% of global art treasures are housed within the borders of Italy). The composer Puccini was Italian, as was the painter Michelangelo, famous writers such as Verga and Dante, and scientists Galileo and Avogadro, whose ground-breaking contributions to science are still relevant today. Italian cinema dates back to the early 1900s, with actors such as Sophia Loren, directors like Fellini and Sergio Leone, and such iconic films as “Cinema Paradiso” and later - with the development of the spaghetti western theme - “A Fistful of Dollars”.
When it comes to actually learning the language, Italian provides good brain exercise. Personally, I enjoy the logic of Italian grammar, with its rigid rules regarding verbs and pronouns. While the French language, for example, can be very idiomatic and wordy, Italian has a certain undisguised clarity about it, I feel. This can make it easier for language learners.
While I would wholeheartedly encourage people to learn Chinese – or indeed any language with global significance – the next time someone asks me why I bother to work with Italian, I’ll know what to say.