Friday, October 05, 2012

English, anyone?

Hats off indeed to my Slovenian, Croatian (and also Greek friends) out there and their very good command of the English language!

I was recently at a concert in Udine.  Before the show started I was chatting with some Slovenian and Croatian colleagues.  I don’t know Slovenian nor Croatian, and some of them don’t know Italian, so what could the common language be?  German or English?  The latter one obviously. 

And so we chit-chatted on a variety of things and also had a laugh or two along the way.  We were basically socializing and having a good time too.  Right next to us was an Italian friend of mine. He was standing there and was (trying) to listen to us, but with no such luck as it was clearly evident that he didn’t understand a single word.  We spoke about his new job covering weddings (as a photographer).  At one point he told me that he really needed English for his work with foreign couples coming to Italy for their weddings (a BIG market for that type of photography in Italy).   He told me that at school as a kid he had learned it rather poorly.  So I “tested” him and said the following and rather simple phrase: “So where did you learn English”?  I admit that I said it with a quasi-American accent/slang, just to “test” his linguistic skills.  Well, he didn’t understand a single word (and we’re NOT talking about a lengthy and complicated speech like the recent one that Obama gave at the U.N. General Assembly, but a very simple phrase).

To emphasize this linguistic “ignorance” on behalf of the average Italian, years ago I taught English to Phd students at the local University of Udine.  There was not ONE single student who could, while speaking, put together a simple phrase and WITHOUT making the simplest of mistakes.  And we’re NOT talking here about under-graduate students in 1st university, but about people with ALREADY Phd degrees under their belts!   This scenario is also multiplied in the rest of Italy, and is not just a problem in Udine.

This “ignorance” we can also owe to people like Pietro Fontanini, the current president of the Province of Udine (a “Leghista”, a Northern League member):  in a recent editorial in Udine’s local paper, he insisted that MORE should be done for the local language, called “Friulano” (n.b. some refer to it as a simple dialect, when in reality it’s a proper language with its own grammatical rules. The locals here get greatly offended if you refer to Friulano as a “dialect”!).  He stated in his editorial that 74% of families in the Friuli area want their kids to learn Friulano at school, a language that quite personally OUTSIDE of Friuli’s borders is totally useless (not taking anything away naturally from safeguarding a region’s cultural heritage.  After all, I did live for 3 years in Montréal.  I lived daily the separatist and language issue in that Canadian province known as Québec, so I do respect a region-country’s specific cultural traits).  I’m wondering when I read that if these very same parents know a) English and b) the importance of knowing English.  Probably not.

It also doesn’t help that we’ve had major mismanagement on behalf of some of our “illustrious” and corrupt leaders, such as Silvio Berlusconi (a friend of mine in Rome has been his personal interpreter and went with him on many occasions to the White House to meet U.S. Presidents).  Famous were his words years ago of the famous three “I” that he wanted to promote so dearly in Italian schools:  Imprenditoria (entrepreneurship), Internet and Inglese (English).   None really took off well in Italy under his so-called leadership (few things actually do!).  As far as his management style vis-à-vis the first “I” is concerned (being also the rich businessman that he is), here’s what a recent Economist article said about good’ol Silvio:

“During the years when Mr. Berlusconi dominated Italian politics, its economy grew more slowly than anywhere else in the world, apart from Zimbabwe and Liberia”!

But in the language debate in Friuli you not only need some criteria but you also need some plain common sense (and brains too!):  times have changed now and kids nowadays gobble up social networks and what-not hook, line and sinker.  One primary communication tool is the English language, and not necessarily Friulano.  Also, with low-cost flights in Europe you can be in the center of Dublin with about 50 euros, and to have a REALLY good time in the Irish capital, you’ll do it (more) knowing English, than just Italian or Friulano (as I myself have notices in my many travels throughout the EU).

My foreign friends not only speak English very well but they also write it correctly too.  As one knows, speaking and writing a language are two completely different things!

I also mentioned my Greek friends because I’ve been to that wonderful country now 5 times, the last time just a few weeks ago in September to the wonderful island of Leros.  I met no one on that small island who DIDN’T know English, some in a basic way mind you, but at least they spoke English and I could understand them (and they could understand me, unlike my Italian friend)!  This is perhaps because these three countries (together also with Portugal) also show programs on their tv networks in the original language and with subtitles in Slovenian, Croatian and Greek.  In Italy instead the programs are dubbed in Italian (they say that “dubbers” in Italy are some of the best in the world), but the end result is that Italian friend of mine who couldn’t understand my simple question (and he’s NOT the only one either!)… 

P.S. After all these years of linguistic ignorance on behalf of our politicians, it is soooo refreshing to finally see an Italian leader, one who pops up once in a blue moon, who is interviewed by the foreign press in English and who can calmly converse with other world leaders in English, and without the presence of those fastidious Italian interpreters.  I’m naturally talking about our current Prime Minister, Prof. Mario Monti!  Now, if he could only convince someone like Fontanini (and all those like him) on the importance of learning English…