I have heard it said that by learning another language, you gain another soul. Doing a little research, I found that it was in fact Charlemagne - also known as Charles the Great, King of the Franks, King of Italy and the First Emperor of Western Europe - who coined the phrase.
Having united and managed all manner of folks, in many different countries, you can bet that Charlemagne knew a thing or two about language and culture! He realized that through the acquisition of a foreign language, he could better understand and rule people he might otherwise never could have comprehended.
I would like to take this idea a step further and suggest that understanding the culture of your target language’s country will make you a better student of that country’s language. In other words, language is more than verb drills and grammar exercises. Languages are living, breathing means of communication, and by understanding the nuances of culture - the good points as well as the bad points, the idiosyncrasies and the history - you will have a better handle on how the language evolved and developed, and how it is used in its modern context.
I originally went to Italy to spend time in Florence and to study Renaissance Art. Although I lived in Italy for only six months, the experience of living amongst Italians made a huge impression on me. At first I was fascinated by the lilting sound of the language, and my competitive nature compelled me to learn the language well. But, as time went on, the more I basked in Italy’s light, art, architecture, food and wine, the more I also became interested in the Italian people and what makes their clock’s tick and their bell’s chime.
You just have to spend a small amount of time “nel bel paese” (in the beautiful country) to understand that Italy operates on a completely different frequency from the U.S. For instance, American hamburgers & guacamole, prom nights & sock hops, manifest destiny and the “pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstrap” mentality just don’t figure into the Italian scheme of things.
Living in Italy I felt like a fish swimming in an American current, battling the irrefutable Italian tide. I quickly came to the brilliant realization that it wasn’t worth the effort to fight the flow. After only a few weeks I knew that to appreciate my time in Italy, it was necessary to break with stereotypical American notions and open myself up to the Italian experience. I later realized that if I wanted to become fluent in the language I also needed to become better versed in Italian traditions and Italy’s historical past. In addition to learning about Italian prepositions and grammar tenses, I needed to understand more about Italy’s sagras, holidays, religion, politics and the deep commitment to family in Italian culture.
My quest to learn more about Italian language and culture has led me on an amazing journey - and the more I learn, the more I want to know. My thirst has yet to be quenched. My voyage of discovery has taken me all over “il bel paese” (the beautiful country), from the Alps and Dolomites to the Tyrrhenian Sea and the Adriatic Sea. I have visited large and small cities, living like a local with friends, participating in holidays and traditions, always with an open mind and a keen interest in making friends and learning more through the eyes of the Italian people.
I have met winemakers in the Salento and olive oil producers in Puglia. I have dined with radio personalities in the Basilicata and cheese makers in the city of Mantova. I have made “orecchiette” pasta with a 95 year old grandmother in Oltranto, and I have explored the underground caves in Castellana with an Italian school teacher.
I have learned how to make “cartapesta” at the tutelage of an artist in Lecce, and I have watched ceramists paint dishes in Grottaglie. I have danced the “pizzica” with ballerinas in Casalabate, and biked along the Wall of Lucca with locals. I have fished in Savelletri with a teenage girl and have witnessed the grape crush in Garda with a grandfather. I have made chocolate truffles with the head chef at Baci Perugina, and have zip lined in the Lucanian Dolomites with young professionals.
I have slept in the “sassi” in Matera and have snorkeled in the waters of “Le cinque terre” (the five fishing villages). I have sipped spritzs in Bardolino and watched children playing on church steps in Lecce. I have hosted an exchange student from Puglia, and returned to her home town of Locorotondo to watch the procession of S. Rocco and “ooh!” and “aah!” with her family as we watched fireworks that lasted until the wee hours of the night on “Ferragosto.”
These are just a few of the experiences that have enriched my life and given me invaluable insights into the Italian language and culture. Each experience has made me a more well rounded individual, helping me to break out of the confines of my own culture and language traditions. Through my ongoing exposure to the Italian lifestyle, I now embrace it and take great pleasure in listening to Italian music, watching Italian movies and reading books. The more I discover, the better I am able to appreciate the Italian sense of humor, as well the Italian propensity to use colorful curse words and hand gestures. I understand more clearly why Italians embrace tradition and resist change. I am now familiar with some key Italian life mindsets and phrases, such as the “l’arte d’arrangiarsi” (the art of getting by), and of course “la bella vita” (the love of the sweet life).
Language and culture go hand in hand!
They are beautifully intertwined together; they help shape the way we think, and they broaden our perspective. I absolutely feel that I have gained a new soul. Learning the Italian language has given me a passport into a new world, one that I embrace wholeheartedly.
For additional language learning tips and suggestions, visit the Studentessa Matta website. Click on the tab “Learning Ways to Improve your Italian” and you will find more learning resources, websites, YouTube channels, blogs, books, and music ideas to spark your interest and help you practice Italian.
Hero Image (Learn a Language Gain a Soul) by Author (Melissa Muldoon)