By Nickolas Marinelli
For English, press one. Para Español, oprima numero dos. Is there anything more frustrating than hearing these words coming from your telephone? After all, this is America. And in America, we speak English. It infuriates me to have a recorded voice tell me that I have to press one to speak my own language—or for Spanish press two.
Wait a minute, did I just spontaneously translate a bit of Spanish into English?
Never mind. That’s not the point. The point is that in America, English is the official language. Well, that’s not literally true. In spite of numerous efforts over the decades, we have no official language in the United States. But English is the predominant language, and everybody should speak the predominant language if they expect to communicate with the predominant population.
Well, maybe that’s not exactly what I meant to say, either. As it turns out, in California, non-Hispanic white folks like myself have recently dropped down into minority status, just below—you guessed it—Hispanics. California may no longer be as lily-white as it once was, but we’re still part of America, right? And in America, we have always spoken English.
Or have we?
According to the prestigious Internet, Spanish was spoken in what is now the State of California for about two and a half centuries before John Hancock put his John Hancock on the Declaration of Independence. In that gloriously-American year of 1776, when the United States was born in New England, Spanish was already being spoken in New Spain, including right here in San Francisco.
In fourteen hundred ninety-two Columbus sailed the ocean blue…but he did it under a Spanish flag. The first settlement on the newly-encountered American continent was not Jamestown in 1607 (the settlers of which were never heard from again). The first settlement was actually in Saint Augustine, Florida in 1565. It was a Spanish settlement, not an English one. It’s still there, and it’s doing quite nicely, thank you.
Spanish was the predominant language from sea to shining sea long before the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock.
And as if history isn’t enough to shake our English-only, American world view, current statistics are even more alarming: Forty percent of Californians speak Spanish. Nationally, 45 million people speak Spanish, and another six million are currently studying Spanish. It is the second most spoken language in the United States, and is also the second most spoken language in the world; English now ranks third.
So why the resistance to the Spanish language, and why do we as Americans resent it so much? Is it xenophobia? Racism? Arrogance? Ignorance? Could it be fear? Could it possibly be that we are afraid of something?
And what does all this have to do with Italian-Americans?
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Language is a funny thing. It is—to borrow a phrase from Italy’s Consul General Mauro Battocchi—a “culture connector.” To speak a language not our first is to be part of a culture with which we may or may not be associated by genetics or geography. To speak another language can be a powerful thing. Conversely, not to speak another language can give us a feeling of powerlessness, weakness, and even paranoia.
“They know something we don’t know. Are they talking about us? If they spoke English, we would be able to understand what they’re saying about us.”
Of course, if we spoke their language, we would be able to understand what they’re saying, too. But we’re American. That’s not how we roll.
So where did this collective linguaphobia come from? Where did we ever get the idea that we should speak only one language? Talk about being uniquely American! People in most parts of the world speak multiple languages, and their cultures haven’t crumbled to the ground as a result. Why is it such a bad thing to speak English and another language? I don’t know about everyone else, but for me, the reason is crystal clear.
It’s fear. I admit it. I’m a lily-livered coward.
I was brought up in a home where the adults were ashamed to speak their first language—Italian—because during World War II, it was “the language of the enemy.” So in my home, instead of being exposed to the Italian language, I was exposed to fear and shame.
But that only explains why I didn’t learn Italian as a child. What about as an adult? As it turns out, the lily liver of my childhood evolved into a chicken heart as I grew into manhood. I studied Italian in high school and college (and a dozen times since), but to no avail. Though I now understand the language fairly well, I lack the courage to speak Italian. I suppose it’s the fear of sounding like an idiot in the presence of fluent speakers. That fear ties my tongue into knots to this day.
But I haven’t given up, because there’s too much at stake.
The language of any people is what binds them together. We’re reminded of this every time we hear people around us speaking Spanish, or Mandarin, or Tagalog, or any other language that we don’t understand. They have something that binds them to one another, and which preserves, sustains, and continuously unites them as a culture. But as Italians and Italian-Americans, what do we have (besides pasta)?
We’re at a critical point in our Italian Community. We’re seeing the last generation of native Italian speakers in our families fade away, and we’re doing precious little to connect with new Italian immigrants. We’re getting dangerously close to losing the one thing that binds us together as a people. Will what’s left of our italianità dwindle away within a generation, or will we muster resolve and discipline necessary to reclaim the language that is key to our shared heritage? Can we get past the idea that it’s enough to speak only English?
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In 2013, we celebrated the Year of Italian Culture in the United States. It was the biggest push for spreading the gospel of “all things Italian,” and it was a tremendous success. In the Bay Area, we had the advantage of welcoming a new Consul General of Italy who fearlessly led the charge, and did more to promote Italian culture than any previous representative of Italy had ever done here before. It was a glorious year for our Italian-American Community.
And now, as that same Consul General of Italy prepares to enter the last year of his tenure in San Francisco, I’m reminded of how powerful his voice can be, and how fearlessly he promoted Italian culture in 2013. And I can’t help but wonder how our Italian Community in the Bay Area could benefit from his leadership in the area of Italian language in 2016.
Let’s face it: in spite of having a large number of Italian organizations, each with its capable leaders, there isn’t one person who has the gravitas, who has the sheer force of personality, to stand out as the leader of our Italian Community—except the Honorable Mauro Battocchi.
So let’s make a deal—an early new year’s resolution of sorts:
La Scintilla Italiana will focus on promoting the Italian language throughout 2016 with all the resources it can muster. We will profile Italian language programs, and teachers, and students, and books, and online resources—so that there is no want of information for anyone who cares to learn our language—wherever, whenever, and however works best for them. We will be fully committed to helping our Italian Community reclaim the Italian language.
As individuals and as a community, let us all commit to learning the Italian language during 2016. Some will celebrate Christmas 2016 as fluent speakers of Italian. Others will pick up just enough to make the non-English speakers in the room wonder what we’re saying about them. But by the end of next year, every person of Italian heritage in the Bay Area should have, at the very least, the ability to speak just enough Italian to communicate with one another in our own language.
And let the Consul General lead the charge. I invite—no, I challenge the Honorable Mauro Battocchi to declare 2016 the “Year of Italian Language in the Bay Area,” and to take the lead in promoting the Italian language with all the prestige and resources of his office, as well as all the charismatic leadership skills and bravado that has characterized his tenure for the past three years.
I believe that together we can do this. Together we can once again take ownership of the one thing that unites everyone of Italian heritage: la nostra lingua.
My dream is a simple one: I want to pick up the telephone, dial a number, and have a recorded voice say, “Per parlare italiano, premere tre.”