There’s a reason it’s called our mother tongue, or madrelingua. When we are removed from the familiarity of our homeland, our mother tongue gives us the comfort of home. It’s the only thing that doesn’t take up any luggage space that we can take with us wherever we go.
I’m in the process of gathering documents to apply for Italian citizenship jure sanguinis through my maternal grandfather. He was born in California right after his parents emigrated from Italy, and one of the criteria for obtaining dual citizenship is that his parents were Italian citizens (i.e., not naturalized) at the time of his birth.
It’s amazing what information you can find on the Internet that not even your immediate family knows. Since none of my relatives who would know the answer to the naturalization question are living, I took to ancestry.com to find some answers.
There they were. My great-grandparents’ naturalization papers, on the Internet (funny how, in their lifetime, they never knew of the Internet, yet I cannot imagine my life without it). My grandfather was born in 1912, and his parents had not been naturalized until well into their 70’s, after they had been living in the US for several decades. Their signatures were wobbly, possibly due to old age, or the unfamiliarity of writing. How had they felt in that moment? Pride? A sense of duty or formality? Had they felt the slightest sense of grief in exchanging one homeland for another? (I know that I had felt a tinge of mourning when my Nevada driver’s license was rendered void with a hole punch and replaced with a California one when I was living there to attend grad school. There is something irreplaceable about your birthplace).
My great-grandparents never learned English. The simply never needed to. They were in rural California amongst Italian family and other Italian immigrants. Italian was my grandfather’s first language, and consequently, being Italian was how he defined himself and how others defined him, especially my grandmother’s Irish/German family. The strength of this identity is evident in the fact that even generations later, my mother and I still feel a connection to being Italian, even though we are first and foremost American.
My great-grandparents never returned to Italy. I always wonder, did they miss home? Did they long to return, but were unable to make the long journey over land and sea? Did they feel Italian, American, or a little of both? Did they ever imagine that they would have a great-granddaughter who would visit their village and learn their language?
As a linguist, I am fascinated by the connection between language and identity, probably because I tie my identity so much to English. I love English. My identity is intertwined with my mother tongue. Without it, I am lost, unable to express myself fully. There is no other language in which I can feel myself (although I hope someday I will in Italian). Even if I become entirely fluent in Italian, English will always be my mother tongue. Yet, I still feel that part of me is missing because the Italian language in my family died with my grandfather. The beautiful thing is that I have the power to bring Italian back to life, for myself and my future generations. That is the biggest motivation for me learn Italian: to carry on my grandfather’s legacy. Just as much as language is part of my identity, so is my family heritage.
It’s times abroad when I am unable to express myself that I feel the most connected to my mother tongue. While visiting Orvieto with my parents and brother, we found ourselves tired, frustrated, and lost, not to mention embarrassed that we drew attention as tourists as our suitcases obnoxiously bumped along the cobblestone. I felt responsible for our situation because I had organized our trip, and as the sun set, we still could not find our Airbnb, and I couldn’t get ahold of the host. I wished we could take a taxi directly to our door, but being a hilltop town, the traffic in Orvieto is mostly pedestrian.
As my family doesn’t speak any Italian, I was our collective voice in elementary Italian. At first I was eager to fulfill this duty, but I grew weary after finding myself in situations where I too, had no voice. I was determined not to ask directions and find this place myself, even if it caused me frustration. As dad’s do, my dad became the hero of the night since I was being too stubborn to ask for help. He started asking waitresses and shopkeepers (in English) for directions, but none of them could speak English.
Finally, a shopkeeper understood that we were lost and needed directions, so she waved in a friend chatting outside her shop to help. He too, could not speak English, but he was kind enough to walk us all the way to our Airbnb, which happened to be on a poorly marked side-street a few minutes away. His kindness turned this otherwise frustrating and demeaning situation into heart-warming one.
I was no stranger to feeling powerless and insignificant without a voice. It had happened to me many times while studying & teaching in France & Italy. This contrast deepened my dependence on English, and at times using English was the only way I felt at home abroad. In hindsight, if I had let myself feel a little discomfort, I would have made enough progress to feel at home in a new language. All the same, this lack of voice connected me even more to my immigrant ancestors; I am sure they felt the same as Italian-speakers in an English-speaking country.
The next day while leaving Orvieto, I heard my younger self.
“Americans? Oh thank God, you speak English!” A blonde girl pointed at the funicolare, the cablecar that takes passengers to and from the Umbrian hilltop town of Orvieto. “Does this go to the train station?” she asked desperately.
Since we were going down the way we had come, I knew that indeed it did lead right to the train station. I found it rather curious that she must have arrived in Orvieto, undoubtedly by train and funicolare as we had, yet she seemed to have no recollection of how.
I assumed that they were lost tourists, as we had been when we arrived.
Seated behind us on the funicolare, I heard the blonde American girl whisper to her friend: “It’s such a relief to hear English.”
How long had they been in Italy? Months I assumed, missing English like that.
The American girls nervously bought train tickets to Rome, in English. The ticket agent was the first Italian I had heard speak English in Orvieto.
While waiting for our train to arrive, we learned that the girls had been in Orvieto for two weeks, and were doing a semester abroad. I saw younger self in them, when I had first arrived in Europe. Young, unsure, and dependent on my tongue. A bit clueless about their surroundings, yet curious and hopeful for adventure.
When I studied abroad in France & then Italy, I was surrounded by so many other Americans; I lived with them, took classes with them, and hung out with them. It wasn’t until I taught English in France that I knew true linguistic isolation. My ears had slowly began to register bonjour as the new normal.
Three months into my French sojourn, it was a jolt to my ears when I unexpectedly heard English again. Before he spoke, I knew he was American – the hoodie and baseball cap were a dead giveaway. He swore like a sailor. As I walked through the streets of Toulon, there was another like him. And then another. It turns out, they actually were sailors; an American Navy ship had docked in the port of Toulon.
It wasn’t just English that I missed. I missed connection. This experience made me feel even more connected to my Italian ancestors because I’m sure they had felt the same at some point after coming to America and being in the linguistic minority.
I envied these American girls who had just arrived in Orvieto for their semester abroad. I wished that I could go back to that time when I had my whole future ahead of me. Well, I still do have my whole future ahead of me, but instead I have acquired a new identity in my career that has become like a heavy winter coat that I’m ready to shed. Teacher: overworked and underpaid.
One of my well-intentioned reasons for becoming a teacher was that I love learning, and teaching is the other side of that coin. Since I don’t know how to be paid as a professional learner, this blog allows me to share my passion for learning Italian, and hopefully teach and inspire others by showing how I learn. Learning Italian is the perfect reconciliation of my past and future selves, and now that I’m older and wiser, my courage to make mistakes and be vulnerable while learning Italian is like a flashlight leading the way down an otherwise dim path of language learning, knowing that eventually, I’ll be able to turn on the light in Italian and fully reveal myself as I can in English.