Longing for a Conversation

I am in language withdrawal.

Right now I am suffering from an inability to speak in a foreign tongue. Having lived with Flavia and gallivanted throughout Italy for the past four months, my mind gradually began to think in two languages. Although I was far from bilingual, hearing Italian words became music to my ears and conversing in the tongue felt like singing a beautifully, eloquent song. Today, however, I am back in a country where ain’t, yo, home boy, BBM, and lol, among others, are everyday words and phrases.

In high school I studied Italian for three years, but I was unfortunately unable to continue with the language as a senior. Lucky (or unlucky, depending on how you look at it), Georgetown required that I study a language during my undergraduate career. Looking to review and renew my interest in the language of my dad’s ancestors, I enrolled in intensive Italian courses during my freshman year at the university. As a student in the College, I was only required to take Italian through the intermediate level, so I completed my language studies at the end of last spring, or so I thought…

Over the course of last summer I began thinking about my academic and future goals and study abroad was among them. With no knowledge of any other languages besides Italian and English, my options for study abroad were limited to Italy and English-speaking countries. Though I thought I finished studying languages, I applied to Georgetown’s Villa Le Balze program, which required that participants enroll in an Italian language course. With my background in the Romance language, I registered for Advanced Italian I. Along with three other students in the class, I spent the semester not simply studying vocabulary and grammar rules, but also learning about Italian immigration policy, globalization, the Italian education system, and national economics. Combining this instruction with the lessons I learned at Flavia’s and on the streets made me feel as if Italian proficiency was a definite possibility.

Unfortunately for me, however, this past semester of Italian was most likely my last. As a double major, there is very little flexibility in my schedule that would allow me to continue taking Italian courses. Even more unfortunate is the fact that I am already halfway to an Italian minor; I would only need to take three more classes to have the minor added to my transcript. Yet, the problem is that there are simply too many other requirements with English and Government for me to worry about that interfere with my ability to enroll classes within the Italian department.

Having spent more than four years studying Italian and then living in the birthplace of the language, I am frustrated by the fact that those years will likely become just a memory. While there is a considerable Italian community in Rhode Island, as well as across the country, the majority of today’s generation does not speak the tongue of their immigrant family members. The beautiful tunes of ciaoarrivederci, and buon giorno have been replaced by heysee ya’ later, and what’s up. It seems that though many Italian Americans have embraced cultural traditions from their ancestors, such as the double kisses, Sunday pasta with gravy, and wild hand gestures, there exists a verbal disconnection between themselves and the nationality they so proudly proclaim.

Considering the beauty, tradition, and history associated with Italian, the language’s  fading presence outside Italy’s borders is a mournful. My time in other non-Italian speaking countries has made me appreciate Dante’s language so much more. It was when I visited  London that I realized just how much I loved Italian. As I gave my roommate an unofficial guide to the Renaissance art in the city’s National Gallery, I stopped often to listen to the Italian visitors commenting on the paintings that I had become so familiar with from my art history class.

Sfumato,” I overheard one woman say, referring to the technique made famous by Leonardo da Vinci in which colors are soft blended to create a smoke-like effect. I cannot recall what painting this woman described because I remained much more focused on listening to and deciphering her words. Hearing the fluidity of her speech amidst the English and American accents, I longed to one-day actively participate in an Italian conversation speaking about subjects as diverse and interesting as the majesty of Renaissance art.

I fear, however, that this dream will become a sogno nel cassetto, a dream in a drawer that fails to come to fruition. I miss the days of conversing in one of the original Romance languages, and I am afraid that my lack of practice will cause me to forget all that I have learned during my years of Italian study. Two weeks back in America and the only Italian I have spoken has been the occasionally grazie, salute, and pronto. I thought that I might have had my chance to converse in Italian yesterday, but it was an opportunity squandered.

As a woman came into the doctor’s office where I work, I immediately perked up when I heard her attempt to schedule an appointment.

“Do you speak Portuguese?” The woman at the desk asked.

Before she said anything, I already knew the answer.

“No, Italian,” the old woman responded. She seemed like one of the few, one of the few Italian speakers in America. How I longed to begin a conversation and ask her questions about where her family came from or about her favorite pasta recipe, but before I had the chance, she gathered her appointment card and left the office, leaving me and my Italian tongue silent.


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