Dianne Hales La Bella Lingua Becoming Italian
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Dianne Hales - La Bella Lingua

La Bella Lingua: My Love Affair with Italian,
the World's Most Enchanting Language

Q & A

Why and when did you start studying Italian?

I decided to study Italian more than twenty years ago so I could communicate with the friendly people we met on our travels in Italy. My goal was just to understand and be understood. However, the more Italian I learned, the more I wanted to know about Italian—where it came from, how it evolved, why it's so musical and vibrant. I had so much fun in Italian classes and conversation groups that I didn't want to stop my Italian education—and I never have.

How do you explain your passion for Italian?

During an interview at Apicius, her prestigious culinary academy in Florence, I asked Gabriela Ganugi, who had originally studied law, how she had acquired her passion for food. "Signora," she said. "We do not so much choose our passions as they choose us." That's certainly been my experience. Italians say that someone who becomes fluent in another language possesses a new tongue. In my case, Italian took possession of me.

Are more people studying Italian these days?

Absolutely. Even in today's global economy, when everyone needs to know English, more and more people want to learn Italian. Italian now ranks as the fourth most studied language in the world—after English, Spanish and French. In the United States it has become the fastest growing language taught in colleges and universities.

Why is Italian so popular?

No tongue is more musical, more emotionally expressive or more fun to hear, speak and sing. There also are plenty of practical reasons to study Italian: to prepare for a trip to Italy, trace your family history, translate recipes and menus, bargain with street vendors, prepare for a career in fields such as the culinary arts, fashion or music, or expand your business into Italy. However, my favorite explanation for the boom in Italian studies comes from Stephen Brockman, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, who observed in an essay on European languages that "Italy and the Italian language are perceived as beautiful, fun and sexy. And why not? I can't see anything wrong with that." Neither can I.

Why did you decide to write a book on Italian?

As a journalist, I know a great story when I see one—and the story of how Italian became the world's most enchanting language has everything: drama, passion, comedy, beautiful women, gallant heroes, jealousy, rivalry, unscrupulous scoundrels—not to mention glorious music and fabulous food.

How did you do go about researching La Bella Lingua?

I used all the skills I honed in decades as a journalist and textbook author. I took classes in Italian language, history and culture both in the United States and in Italy. I worked very closely with a wonderful Italian tutor in San Francisco. In Italy I went to the great citadels of Italian, such as L'Accademia della Crusca and the Societa Dante Alighieri, to interview leading linguists and scholars. But my greatest resource turned out to be the Italian people, who have deep pride in their mother tongue and infinite patience with those who try to master it.

What was the most surprising thing you learned?

Italian is more than a language. It's a way of living, thinking, creating, understanding. No less than Michelangelo's sculpture, Dante's poetry, Verdi's music or Valentino's dresses, Italian is a master work of art. And just as learning about art enhances appreciation of beauty, learning about Italian enhances appreciation of every aspect of Italian life and culture.