The Italian-speaking inner voice that can't be silenced

Do you ever hear voices in your head? I do. All the time. I hear two. One voice, usually the voice of reason and control, speaks English. The other, the voice that pipes up in moments of extreme emotion and passion, speaks Italian.

For the most part they happily take turns expressing my opinions, narrating my life and inner-monologue. But in all honestly, I think my Italian voice is the dominant player. When unjustly silenced by my English voice, the Italian voice self-combusts, forcing the ‘Italian-ness’ through my arteries and veins. It flows at high speed through my limbs until forced to escape through my hands, sending me into wild fits of gesticulation.

There are some things that only my Italian voice can express. I dare say that many of you have similar experiences. Born and bred an Italo-Australian, there are certain things in my life that simply demand the Italian voice. Years ago I found myself Googling “come si dice ‘scolapasta’ in inglese?” My soul shrank upon learning that ‘colander’ was the answer to that question. ‘What an ugly word!’ I thought. Similarly, I can’t bring myself to say ‘dish cloth’ when using a ‘pezza’ in the kitchen. Honestly, it just feels wrong.

I find myself trapped in this mental bilingual tug-o-war given the life experiences provided to me in my most formative years. My parents don’t speak Italian, they speak Calabrese.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Calabrese dialect, or with Italian for that matter, let me assure you that they are two very different linguistic experiences. I was raised in a world in which the most comfortable language choices for my parents informed my own linguistic growth. Thankfully they chose to expose me to as much Italian as possible from a young age – songs, stories, words and rhymes. The process of negotiating two voices in my head, as you can gather, started from birth. Our distinct Calabrese dialect indeed shaped those early experiences I had growing up, and it continues to play a significant role in determining who I am today.

Despite the fact that it was not always smooth sailing, I can now appreciate those experiences with warmth and fondness. At times I struggled to balance the two worlds. During my primary school years I longed to be more culturally exciting than ‘just another Italo-Australian kid’. I recall enjoying studying French in Year 7, but decided to make a choice for my future. When the time came to tick the subject selection box for my Year 8 subjects I chose Italian. During a conversation with my mum I promised her that I would finish Year 12 speaking fluent standardised Italian. That was my goal and my driving force. I could see the end point and worked tirelessly to get there.

When you start dreaming in a language other than the native tongue that dominates your world, you know you are making progress. My love and passion for all things Italian became an obsession in my late high school years. I would dream, think, read and write in Italian. I translated and memorised Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be…’ soliloquy in Italian at the tender age of fifteen just for fun. Would you consider this ‘normal’ teenage behavior? As my friends idolised movie stars and drooled over the latest boy bands, I was transcribing the lyrics of Eros Ramazzotti’s greatest hits, scribbling them on my school diary and exercise books. As you can see, my English voice didn’t stand a chance during adolescence.

My complete and utter obsession came to a head during a period of language study in Rome. Not only was Italy (and all things Italian, for that matter!) my life, but I now felt more at home in Rome than I did in Melbourne. The rhythms, pace and idiosyncrasies of the città eterna spoke to me and I felt truly at home. When my time came to an end I was faced with a somewhat existential crisis: Where do I belong? Who am I? I was stuck in a terrifying position; in all honesty I didn’t want to return to Melbourne. I would have happily set up shop in Rome, married a local, had lots of little Roman babies and called it a day. At a certain point, though, logic kicks in and life moves you along. More than a decade has now passed and my Italian voice still can’t be silenced.

Nowadays my life is absolutely grounded in Melbourne, but my heart and mind wander back to Italy on a daily basis. I’m an Italian teacher and PhD candidate, conducting research in the field of Italian language education. In all that I do, I try to bring the Italy that I love and adore into the classroom. I want my students to share the same passion and enthusiasm for the Italian language and culture that I do. We celebrate every milestone, no matter how big or small. Learning a language and appreciating another culture is a journey, not a destination. Every student will take a different path on their journey with different pit stops along the way.

Looking back at my humble linguistic beginnings, I appreciate the opportunities given to me by my parents, and the sacrifices made by my grandparents that have led me to where I am today.

– “What are you trying to say here?” I ask one particular student.

– “I’m not sure, Miss.” She pauses thoughtfully then adds, “It just sounds right when I hear it in my head. You know what I mean?”

Yes. Yes, I do.