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Italian Language Profile
Many people consider Italian as the most beautiful spoken language in the world, and I am one of them. Speaking in Italian about opera, painting, design, architecture, cooking, love or god makes you feel you finally understood the topi
The choice to learn Italian is most often one of love rather than reason. Unless you have a special reason (family, travel, interest in Vatican affairs or art history), you should probably begin with either French or Spanish, two languages closely related to Italian, then learn Italian at a later stage.
If you live in Italy or want to travel regulary, a knowledge of Italian will increase your experience manifold. Many Italians do not speak anything but Italian. If they realize you speak Italian they can become very talkative – and talkative they can be! Italians do not expect visitors to speak their language and, in my experience, they are quite forgiving of language mistakes and are willing to speak more to compensate for your relative muteness. This makes for an encouraging climate for the language learner.
Italian tends to be seen as a language of the arts and gastronomy. In the US, UK and Japan, Italian has the aroma of upper class, where people could afford to spend time learning a beautiful and culturally attractive language with no direct economic utility.
If come from an Italian background, speaking Italian might not be seen as chic, but just some sign that you are close to your community. Some might even call you a dago – don’t listen to them.
In countries where a Romance language is spoken, Italian is seen as an easy language. Thus, unless you already speak other more difficult languages, people might assume that you chose an “easy language” because that is all you could manage to learn. This is certainly so in France and Switzerland.
With these two caveats in mind, I’d say that Italian enjoys a very high chic factor.
A word of caution that I hope will be useless : Stay clear of the cheap show-offs sometimes seen in the USA who like to drop a few badly misspelled Italian words, like they would “casually” mention they had dinner with Madonna, in the vain hope that they look smart. The perhaps do to an illiterate audience, but this is a stupid and arrogant strategy and you should take every opportunity to knock them down if you ever encounter one.
Countries Italy, Switzerland, San Marino and the Vatican
Italian is mainly spoken in Italy, with 58 million native speakers. Other countries where it is an official language include San Marino and the Vatican, two tiny enclaves within Italy, and Ticino, a Swiss canton with a population of 840,000. Italian is also spoken in some areas of Croatia and Slovenia.
Expatriate communities abroad make up for an additional 5 million speakers.
Italy has one of the world’s top ten economies – way bigger than Russia’s for instance (table of languages sorted by combined GDP of the countries where they are spoken). If you work in the furniture, design or construction industries, Italian will be an important asset for your job.
Buying and especially selling from the Italians necessitates a lot of personal contacts. Many Italian businessmen, even those who deal with clients outside Italy, do not speak anything but Italian. Italian companies often have someone in charge of exports who speaks some English, but remember that the great majority of Italian companies are small to medium family companies with up to a few hundred people. If you speak Italian you can normally directly deal with the owner or his children and get better terms.
Traveling to Italy is intensely pleasurable, with about everything you can dream of : the richest archeological sites in Europe, entire Roman towns miraculously preserved for you to visit, cathedrals, roman circuses, monasteries, paintings, sculptures, lovely historical towns, immaculate beaches and ski resorts.
But Italy is not only about the past. Italian gastronomy is one of the most attractive in the world, with hundreds of varieties of cheeses, breads and wines. Hundreds of highly creative Italian cooks create new dishes with traditional inspiration in artfully decorated restaurants.
A knowledge of Italian will tremendously increase your travel experience by offering you the opportunity to converse with people. Especially in Southern Italy, most people you will meet will be glad to have a chiacchierata (informal conversation) with you. After many years I still remember some conversations with people on the street, at kiosks, restaurants, bakeries, museums, bookshops, and so on. The memories you will bring back will be not only made of stone monument but also of people.
The main problem when traveling in Italy seems to be that you have to go back.
Outside of Italy, the small but beautiful Swiss canton of Ticino is well worth a visit. The Italian spoken there lacks the manly rolled R so enjoyable in Italian, but the place is beautiful.
Many regional dialects are spoken in Italy. The country was unified only in the 19th century, and regional differences in culture and economic development are still strong.
The standard Italian (the one you can learn) is originally from Tuscany. Tuscans like to poke fun at regional accents, and especially that of Rome, with the saying Lingua toscana in bocca romana (“Tuscan language in a Roman mouth”).
Everybody in Italy speaks standard Italian, so you should not worry about those dialects. Unless you plan to live in a village for 20 years, or marry into a Sicilian family, there is no reason why you should need to learn one of those dialects.
Italian culture is dominant in many areas and there are many ways to enjoy it from the confort of your home:
Italian designers of modern furniture and every day items are famous all over the world. I attended many times various trade shows in Milan, including the famous Fiera di Milano where almost every furniture maker in Italy displays his latest creations. This is a unique experience. If you are interested in design, a knowledge of Italian will give you direct access to this world, through trade shows, trade publications and numerous books about contemporary creations.
Italian fashion is sold the world over, and Italian fashion houses such as Armani, Versace or Gucci have become household names in most countries. This is an expensive pursuit but fashion victims should dream about coming to Milan and ransack the shops on Via Montenapoleone while not attending fashion shows.
Italian gastronomy can be enjoyed at a much higher level if you speak Italian. When visiting Italy, there are numerous markets you can visit, such as the one of Piazza Campo dei Fiori in Rome. On these open air, weekly markets, small merchants would come from the country to pitch their local cheeses, prosciutto (hams), zucchini flowers and other vegetables, homemade pastries, olive oils and other delicacies. Most of these come from small producers and if you speak Italian, you can spend hours tasting and discussing the relative merits of each prosciutto or asking exactly where the tartufi bianchi (white truffles) came from and how good they are this year. Back home, you can enjoy many fine Italian recipe books and books about specific products, all in Italian. Only a small fraction of these books are translated, so the knowledge of the language not only increases your experience, but lets you access more information.
Art History – anybody serious about it must learn Italian. Ask anyone who studies Art History at University. Many academic books on the topic are available only in Italian, and when visiting Italy, most museums have notices only in Italian.
Architecture, ancient and mordern, is serious topics in Italy. There is a two thousand year old continuous tradition of designing beautiful buildings in Italy. Consequently, there is a wealth of architectural books and magazines available only in Italian – all very enjoyable.
Opera buffs will not need convincing but for the rest of us, let’s not forget that the majority of popular operas are in Italian. Sure, the Italian in La Traviata or Don Giovanni is slightly different from the one spoken now, but if you want to get a full enjoyment of these works, understanding the libretto is a must. And you will be able to sing your favorite airs, with every single world distinctly pronounced, while cooking or under the shower. This is one of the nicest way I have found to practice the language!
Italian pop music is no opera, but there are great songs of hit parade grade. My own preferences are all time disco hits, such as Ti amo by Umberto Tozzi, L’Italiano (Lasciatemi cantare) by Toto Cutugno or Felecità (Al Bano e Romina Power). Top Italian pop songs are world class, easy to learn and let you practice the language in a highly recreative way.
Roman History – Italians are the closest heirs to the ancient Romans, and if you want to study Roman History, Italian is just as useful as Latin. There are thousands of books in Italian about the Romans, both academic and for the general public. They make an amazing reading. For instance, I have a book about the food in ancient Rome and a very detailed study about the use of concrete (yes, concrete) in Roman buildings, with studies of dozens of samples taken from various monuments.
The catholic church, although universal in its vocation, is more present in Italy than anywhere else. You see priests and nuns all over the place, and bishops and cardinals in Rome. If you stay long enough you can probably catch the pope at a religious function if you feel like it. No matter your religious belief, this is a fun aspect of Italy and newspapers and TV are filled with reports of the church, interviews of priests, news about the latest canonizations. A street in Rome is entirely dedicated to selling clothes for priests, equipment to say Mass in the field and of course hundreds of crucifixes.
Italian books can now easily be ordered from outside Italy using the Internet. My personal choice is Internet Bookshop Italia, which always delivered books on time and were pleasant to deal with. Non-fiction books are of high quality and there are many excellent novels, modern and classical, as well as captivating books on contemporary affairs in Italy. As always, reading novels requires much more vocabulary than reading non-fiction.
Italian newspapers are now easily accessible through the Internet. Among the most famous are the serious Milan daily Il Corriere della Sera, Torino based La Stampa or the Roman La Reppublica. I also use a lot Google News Italia.
Italian television – for those who can receive it – is better than its reputation. People like to poke fun at the many silly games and talk shows on Italian TV, but my own experience is that there are many gems out there. When you turn on the news in the evening, an electric Italian blond anchorwomen tells you in the finest Italian about the news of the day. Some local Italian news is quite baroque, and you get to see interview of people on the street from all over Italy. On talk shows you can see colorful Italian politicians in heated discussions about societal issues with bearded cardinals. On Sundays a helicopter flies over some of the most spectacular historical towns in Italy, stopping at pre-arranged spots where huge italian matronas prepared endless tables covered with local food specialties, then historians explain the history of the local monuments, etc… This is so captivating you can barely turn the TV off.
Italian movies were once famous all over the world. The movie industry is now in decline, but if you don’t mind looking at older movies, there are many treasures out there. And you can get them on DVD with subtitles – this doesn’t hurt.