Italian Lost & Found:
Why my family stopped speaking Italian, and why I’m bringing it back
By Kelly Strobel
I believe, as Simon Sinek says, that whenever we embark on a delightfully daunting task, such as learning a foreign language as an adult, that we should always start with why. Only our why - not our how or what - is powerful enough to carry us through the excruciating humility of temporarily reducing our mature linguistic prowess to that of a 2-year-old, over and over again, in order to roll our tongues and stretch our mouths into shapes it has never formed before. As I joyfully struggle through this process of learning Italian, I can’t help but think, “I could have been bilingual.”
However, In 1919, President Theodore Roosevelt’s declaration of patriotic monolingualism set the tone of our nation, and ingrained the belief that the only way for immigrants to become American was to lose pieces of their former identity, especially their native language:
“...We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language, for we intend to see that the crucible turns our people out as Americans, of American nationality, and not as dwellers in a polyglot boarding-house...”
There is a definite value to having a common language that unifies citizens in a nation as diverse as the United States, yet being American and speaking the language of our heritage, in addition to English, do not have to be mutually exclusive. I believe as Americans, our immigrant past is a part of our heritage that should be honored by being woven into our future, not hastily chopped off like a excess branch on a tree. (And let’s not forget all of the benefits of bilingualism for the brain!)
Just as much as our lives can be shaped by the presence of our loved ones, they are marked just as much by the absence of them. My grandfather died before I was born, and all I know of him are stories from my mother and grandmother, and one of the things that stood out to me the most about him is that he was Italian. Or perhaps I should say his “Italian-ness” because he was born in California in 1915, shortly after his parents emigrated from a tiny Ligurian farming village called Varese Ligure. Like most Italian immigrants and first generation Italians, my grandfather grew up in an enclave of “Old Timers” from Italy. There simply was no need to speak English until he went to school, which only lasted until the eighth grade because his able-body was needed to work the farm. Even though he became fluent in English, Italian was always his most comfortable language, the language of his heart.
There are a multitude of factors why the language passed away with my grandfather. During WWII, Italian, as well as Japanese and German immigrants in the United States were considered “enemy aliens,” and speaking a language other than English just made them even more suspicious in the eyes of the state. It wasn’t just the government that pushed immigrants to assimilate, it was discrimination from other American citizens and immigrant groups too. My grandmother’s Irish father was not too keen on the fact that my grandfather was Italian. Not to mention, for immigrant children, all opportunities for a bright future in America required English, so it was a matter of survival.
Aside from the cultural and political factors, there’s also a completely logistical and pragmatic reason that second and third generations lose their descendants’ mother tongue: as the older generations pass away, it is very difficult to keep up proficiency in a tongue that seldom has a need to be spoken because language requires a community to be sustained. Fortunately, today the Internet provides an abundance of language learning resources as well as access to language teachers and learners with whom to converse. You can watch movies and listen to music, all online, mostly for free. For me, vicarious exposure to Italian on the Internet is not enough, so I try to visit Italy as often as I can. Visiting my great-grandparents’ village has been my most memorable travel experience. It was amazing to see that while their town in California has changed from farmland to urban sprawl, their native land was virtually unchanged, an intriguing peep into the past! I hope that next time I return my Italian is good enough to hold some meaningful conversations with the locals.
Varese Ligure, my great-grandparent’s village in Liguria
Keeping focused on my why helps me move through the embarrassing, awkward moments when my shyness or perfectionism clams me up or trips my tongue. I feel such a calling to stay connected to my Italian heritage. For me, language is the most beautiful family heirloom that can ever be gifted to future generations. Even though I never met my grandfather, learning his native language lets me know a small part of him, and when I have children, I plan to pass on his legacy to them through Italian.
After all, language is not only about the future, but the past too.
“Because language discloses cultural and historical meaning, the loss of language is a loss of that link to the past. Without a link to the past, people in a culture lose a sense of place, purpose and path; one must know where one came from to know where one is going.” The Atlantic, “What’s Lost When a Language Dies”
If you’d like to follow my journey learning Italian, you can follow me on my blog www.italianatheart.com.