"Languages Are Neat": An Interview with UGA's Italian Department

Languages are neat! If you’re anything like me (a certified language and literature nerd), you’re probably sitting there nodding your head in agreement with that statement, thinking, “Of course they are! Finally, someone else gets it.” But if not, there’s a pretty good chance you’re staring at your screen wondering why I would say such a thing, let alone open an article with it.

Don’t worry! I’m about to explain.

Ever since I was young, the study of language has intrigued me. It was the way in which I was able to tell stories, connect ideas, and communicate those thoughts with others around me. When I got to college, I was lucky enough to come into contact with the Italian Department here at the University of Georgia and a group of professors that not only shared my passion for languages but also encouraged my study of them. 

After taking a few years of foreign language classes, I became really interested in the process of language acquisition (as a psychology major, this fascinates me) and the existence of dialects. For those who don’t know, prior to the Risorgimento, or the unification of Italy, the country was divided into many different states, many of which spoke their own distinct dialects. After the establishment of the Kingdom of Italy in 1861, the Tuscan dialect became known as the “standard Italian,” and this was what was taught to children in schools, with many of the dialects either no longer being as widespread or simply dying off as time passed. I was curious about how people from different backgrounds went about learning a foreign language, what their experience was like once they had been confronted with a dialect (which, by all accounts, is a foreign language in and of itself), and the relationship between these two factors. 

A few professors from the University of Georgia’s Italian Department were kind enough to let me interview them about their language learning experiences. Dr. Rossella Di Rosa spoke from her viewpoint as someone born and raised in Italy, Dr. Jeff Kilpatrick recounted the way he achieved fluency as a California native, and Dr. Paola de Santo explained how growing up in an Italian household in the United States affected the way she approached the Italian language. Here’s what they said.

  1. 1. “How were you introduced to the Italian language?”

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    Dr. Di Rosa’s answer to this question was simple. As she was born in Italy, her introduction to the language was as a native speaker. “I was born in Italy, so Italian is my mother tongue,” she said, adding, “I also practiced it when I started going to school.” 

    Similarly, Dr. Paola de Santo was introduced to the language at an early age, since her mother was a native Italian speaker and her father was raised in a household where Italian dialect was spoken. Dr. de Santo commented that, while she “was always introduced to the Italian language,” the language spoken at home was mostly English by the time she was born. “I was exposed [to the language] early, but I didn’t actually focus on learning it until late high school and college,” she said, “I didn’t have a real grasp on any grammatical structures or learn it in any systematic way.”

    However, unlike his colleagues, Dr. Kilpatrick found his way to the Italian language in an educational setting. He explained that his wife had started taking Italian classes in college, which then inspired him to start studying the language through informal studying practices and reading before he studied abroad in Florence, Italy. “That was when I started formally studying Italian at that point, junior year in college,” he said.

  2. 2. “Can you talk about your personal language learning journey? What was your process?”

    Despite being the most cliché question to exist, all three of them answered in detail and gave vastly different responses. Dr. Di Rosa, who grew up as a bilingual speaker of both standard Italian and Sicilian dialect, explained that, since her mother was a schoolteacher, standard Italian was the only language she spoke with her, so besides this exposure, she began studying grammar once she started going to school. “For me, learning my mother tongue was like learning a foreign language,” she commented and explained that this was due to her having already learned Sicilian from her grandparents.

    Dr. Kilpatrick’s language learning process, however, was based on an early love for languages in general. He described that he had always been fascinated with learning how to communicate in different ways, “almost like it was a code,” and the fact that it was possible to interact in a completely different way. “I don’t know how young I was, but I used to have language learning cassette tapes,” he said, “My parents would make fun of me because I would be sitting in a car on a road trip and would have a tape on learning German or Chinese.” Dr. Kilpatrick then went on to explain that, in high school, he took his first formalized language class, which made him realize that he actually was capable of learning other languages. Later, when he got to college, he was introduced to linguistics, started taking Italian, and “just continued down that path.”

    In contrast, Dr. de Santo was never really interested in learning another language until she spent time with her mother’s family in Italy. “I became more interested in learning and motivated to learn Italian because it was something I was using every day, and I just sort of decided that I wanted to know this language,” she explained. She cited the importance of having a desire to actually learn another language, as well as confidence in one’s own ability to learn a language, since these are both critical to language learning success. After her time abroad, Dr. de Santo said she returned to college with a new drive to continue studying Italian and ended up changing her major to Italian Studies.

  3. 3. “What were some challenges that you faced while studying the Italian language?”

    When I asked this question, I was pretty certain that their answers would differ, but it was interesting to see parallels between their personal backgrounds in the language and the challenges that they faced when they started learning Italian. Take, for instance, the difference between Drs. de Santo and Kilpatrick.

    Dr. de Santo, who explained that her greatest challenges when learning Italian were reading, writing, and grammatical structures, was first introduced to the language orally. First, in her household and then later in Italy with her family. While she explained that she could always make herself “understood,” learning the actual structure of the language gave her difficulty. In contrast, Dr. Kilpatrick, who came to know the language in a formalized setting where reading, writing, and structure were introduced early on, struggled far more with the oral communication of Italian. While he explained that part of the reason for that was just his personal fear of speaking, I found it interesting that he “was in [his] Master’s and was still uncomfortable using Italian,” just as Dr. de Santo still found it challenging to work with the grammatical parts of the language even in her graduate-level studies.

    Dr. Di Rosa, like the others, was influenced by her introduction to Italian in that she found pronunciation the most difficult to master. She explained that, as a Sicilian, she struggled with differentiating between open and closed vowels, since the Sicilian dialect does not use this distinction (standard Italian does).

  4. 4. What has been your most rewarding experience because of the Italian language?

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    As someone who has been blessed with new friends, mentors, and ways to communicate because I have been introduced to UGA’s amazing Italian department and this language, I was eager to hear what these professors had to say about what they’ve gained from Italian, and they did not disappoint. Each had a unique answer to give. 

    For Dr. Di Rosa, it was the fact that she was able to teach and, more specifically, the fact that she is able to share her passion for the language with her students. “This is the rewarding part of our job,” she said. 

    Dr. Kilpatrick explained that through Italian, he and his family now have an “adopted” family in Italy. He said that one of the family members had originally been a work colleague of both him and his wife and that now they visit his family every time they are in Italy. “We’ve been back to see him and his parents and his cousins, aunts, uncles, and his partner, and we feel like family,” Dr. Kilpatrick said, “It would be unimaginable for us to go back to Italy for any amount of time and not see them.”

    In Dr. de Santo’s response, she told me that her greatest reward had to be the way that learning Italian and experiencing Italian culture has changed the way she sees the world around her. “It gave me access to a whole host of information and tools and arts and literature that wasn’t accessible to me previously and that I was able to use and be able to think about,” she said, explaining that her experience was critical during the time that she was shaping her own worldviews.

  5. 5. Can you describe your first interaction with an Italian dialect?

    Their answers to this question were interesting to me because it showed how dialect can be incredibly inclusive (if you’ve grown up around it) or extremely exclusive (if you’ve never had the opportunity to learn it).

    Dr. de Santo explained that her earliest memories of dialect were little sayings that her father used to say to her when she was little but that at the time, she didn’t understand what it was or that it was a dialect. “It just felt like an ethnic identity [rather] than an actual dialect,” she told me. However, when she spent time abroad in Abruzzo (an Italian region), she discovered a town with a dialect theater, where she watched a play in dialect. “That was [one] of the times that I felt the most isolated in Italy because I couldn’t understand them but they could understand me,” she said.

    Dr. Kilpatrick also provided an instance where dialect caused someone to, in a way, “be on the outside looking in” when it came to communicating. He explained that he had met a Florentino (someone who lived in Florence, Italy) during his work at UGA, who, during one conversation, began to speak very fast and had to be stopped because the dialect wasn’t recognizable. “He was speaking in dialect, and I could not understand a single thing he had said,” Dr. Kilpatrick said.

    For Dr. Di Rosa, the experience was altogether different. Her first introduction to dialect was with her grandmother, with whom she spoke Sicilian. She explained that, for her, the Sicilian dialect is part of the oral component of her culture. When asked about how things would be different for her if she hadn’t grown up around dialect, she said, “I think a part of my culture and my identity would be missing. This is linked to wisdom and sayings that are taught in dialect that you can’t learn from a book.” 

  6. 6. Was there ever a time when dialects inhibited your understanding of the language? Have dialectal differences ever caused miscommunication between you and another Italian?

    I posed this question specifically to Drs. Kilpatrick and de Santo since they had not had the same opportunity as Dr. Di Rosa to learn an Italian dialect. Dr. Kilpatrick hadn’t ever had an issue with communicating with someone else because of this, but he did mention that this was partly because “whoever speaks the dialect, they also speak regular Italian.” In Dr. de Santo’s case, she cited instances where she had been speaking to someone from an older generation and encountered a slight barrier in communication. She said, for example, “They would look at me and be like ‘I know what she’s saying,’ but they would have to bring their children or grandchildren to speak to us.” Like Dr. Kilpatrick, though, she explained that most dialect speakers in Italy do speak the standard Italian, so miscommunication isn’t really an issue.

  7. 7. How has your personal background affected the way you approach the language?

    In Dr. Di Rosa’s case, she was especially grateful for her background in Sicilian dialect when it came to approaching not just Italian but other languages as well. “I realized at university that Sicilian kids, we [were] different,” she said, “My brain is trained to learn languages simultaneously. When I learned another language, whether it was Latin or English or Spanish, it was much easier. I was used to seeing that languages differ and that you can’t say the same thing in one language as another.” She also added that growing up around the Sicilian dialect had been an “enriching experience” for her.

    Dr. Kilpatrick explained that, for him, he wasn’t sure if his background really affected how he approached Italian but that, in a sense, he always felt like an “outsider.” He elaborated by saying, “The weird thing with Italian, in feeling like an outsider, is that a lot of the people in my programs were Italian heritage or were from predominantly Italian heritage areas, so I didn’t have as much in common with them. I was the California kid with people from New York and New Jersey, so I guess that might have impacted me in a way, in sort of feeling solitary.” He didn’t, however, think of this as a negative thing. “I always thought of it as ‘I get to be The Californian,’” he said, adding that he had always seen it as a way to meet people from other places. 

    When Dr. de Santo spoke, she elaborated on her early childhood experiences where she was “almost embarrassed” by the language when it was spoken in her home and how it, in general, wasn’t “embraced” in her house. She explained that as she got older, she felt “disadvantaged” and “sort of robbed” by the fact that she hadn’t accepted the Italian language at an earlier age. She also added that, in terms of speaking and learning dialect, she regretted not being given the opportunity to really learn a dialect but that she “didn’t feel like it was [her] language.” “ It was always something that you didn’t learn, it was something you were born with,” she said.

  8. 8. How has teaching impacted you and the way you see the language?

    This was yet another question I’d crafted from my own experiences. Working as an Italian tutor (although I’m obviously not a professor in any capacity) has not only given me the opportunity to share my passion for this language with other students who are just starting out on their own language-learning journey, it has also enriched my understanding of Italian and forced me to look at it from an infinite number of different angles. Each of these three professors expressed similar sentiments.

    Dr. de Santo explained to me that, for her, she viewed teaching as “bridging the [language and the culture]” in order to get rid of the “divide between the two.” She said, “It forces me to look at Italian culture from a student’s eyes and what would be useful for them.”

    When Dr. Di Rosa spoke, she highlighted the fact that teaching has helped her to “always know the ‘why’ we say something” in Italian. “I’m more confident because when I teach,” she said, “ I understand that there is a reason for every part of the language.”

    Dr. Kilpatrick echoed some of Dr. Di Rosa’s views but emphasized that he tries to make the language more accessible to students by enforcing the idea that it’s okay to make mistakes. “[I will tell them] ‘you’re trying to learn to communicate.’ Just get it out there because you can do more than what you think you can,” he said.

The process of learning a second language (or third or fourth) is an invaluable experience that undoubtedly changes you: the way you think, the way you speak, even the way you view the world around you. It has certainly done so for me. So, let’s say it one more time with feelinglanguages are neat!

If you haven’t picked up a second language yet or if you’ve been thinking about doing so but just haven’t gotten around to it, this is your Official Sign to start. Hopefully this article has inspired that place that exists deep down in each of our souls that longs to know and to be known to take the first step toward unlocking a whole new part of the world that was closed to you before.

I would also like to take a moment to thank Dr. Rossella Di Rosa, Dr. Jeff Kilpatrick, and Dr. Paola de Santo for their willingness to contribute their time and words to this article and for the part each of them has played in fostering my love for Italy’s language and culture. I am so incredibly grateful.