The question could be asked, “Would a man living in the ancient city of Rome be able to communicate effectively with a citizen of Rome today?”
The Italian spoken throughout Italy and other parts of the world today comes from the Latin language of the Roman Empire. As Roman soldiers invaded neighboring lands to invade and conquer, they carried their Latin vocabularies with them. Through the expansion of Rome, eventually all of Europe was using the Latin language to communicate.
Italian is referred to as a “Romance” language. This doesn’t mean it is the choice language of lovers (although the Italians are quite good at being romantic). The word “Romance” derives from “Rome,” the place where it was given birth. The Romance languages are a family which comes forth from the spoken language of Rome, namely Latin. And, Italian is the one which most closely resembles its illustrious ancestor.
Vulgar Latin, as we call it today, was the spoken language of the people. This began to change slowly after the Roman Empire was conquered and communications became difficult. By the second millennium A.D., the evolution from Latin to Romance languages (e.g. Spanish, Portugese, French, Italian, and Romanian are the most popular) was complete, and Italy was more or less a series of independent city-states that spoke local languages.
Much later, in the Middle Ages, the literary language used was still considered classical Latin. It was used by only educated Europeans. But then, thanks to a group of Italian poets, this would change drastically. For all intents and purposes, Dante Alighieri, Francesco Petrarcha, and Giovanni Boccaccio are considered the fathers of Modern Italian. Not only were they famous because they created epic literature, but also because they argue for the equal worth of literary and vulgar languages. AS their works became accessible throughout the land, so did their efforts to create universal understanding.
A couple of centuries later, Tuscany became the center of Italy’s commercial and diplomatic power, largely due to the growth of the city of Florence. The Tuscan dialect strongly resembled Latin, which made it favorable among famous Italian politicians, philosophers, and writers of the time. It was this society which made Tuscan popular throughout Italy. So modern Italian derived from the Tuscan dialect.
It was not until well into the 19th century that Italy became a nation and the variety of dialects spoken throughout the different regions unified to become a universal language. Along with unification came mandatory schooling. This boosted literacy and forced a transformation from native vernacular to a national language.
The Italian language today is understood by all Italians from Milan to Sicily. But, the regional dialects in between sound very different. In the Lombardy region alone, which is where we will be based, two dialects are spoken. People have interacted with such linguistic diversity for centuries, and have no problem doing so.
How Learning the Italian Language Could Impact Us Missionally
Learning the Italian language will challenge us emotionally and mentally as a family at a level we have never experienced together.
As the new school year began, we coached our children through the awful transition from a summer of no homework to the first week of homework sheets. All of them spiraled emotionally and doubted their abilities to make it through this point of suffering. As their parents, knowing there is an ever larger set of challenges ahead in adopting a new language, we could only look at each other across the table with a knowing look. A look that said, “They don’t know what they are up against. What we are all up against as a family.”
We have imagined ahead to the day when we leave them in their Italian classroom to be immersed in a lesson taught by an Italian teacher in Italian. Knowing their coping patterns, we are aware that it will be initially difficult. There will be the typical fight or flight dynamic to help them through. There will be the physiological effects that comes with nerves to walk through with them. It will not be easy.
Fortunately, we are doing things now to help them make that language transition. When we are at the dinner table, we quiz them on Italian words for things that we may be eating. We have started taking them through Level One of Rosetta Stone in Italian. We let them play with Duolingo, a fun language learning app on our mobile devices. And, we let them share Italian words they know when we go to Italian restaurants to eat. By no means will they have a conversational grasp of the language when they land in Bologna, but they will have at least heard Italian a lot and become familiar with the speech patterns.
Also, we will approach their learning the same way we hope to approach our own — with a healthy dose of Grace. The fact that we will all be going through this language transition will give us an unparalleled empathy for each other that will comfort and strengthen one another. Our children will look to us for support and we must be there to give it. Even if they fail, in our eyes they will see themselves as winners.
Learning the Italian language will force us to become vulnerable and dependent on native Italians for help.
As Jesus, who was King of kings and Lord of lords, made himself vulnerable with the woman at the well (John 9), asking humbly for a drink of cool water, we will become utterly dependent on the help of those who speak the language fluently. We have decided to turn this into a ministry tool. It is through humbling ourselves that we give others the blessing of helping us. Through Jesus’ act of vulnerability, he was able to reach into the heart of this woman who gave him a drink. We see depending on native Italian speakers in the same way.
We will pray now and when we arrive in Italy to learn a new language that we will always see being vulnerable as an opportunity to forge relationships that formerly did not exist.
So, pray for us now. Pray that we will do things now to prepare for that future shock. Pray that we will be ready to coach each other through that drastic shift after we move. Ultimately, God is working even now to make us ready. He will be faithful to resource us with strength for each challenge.