By Anoushka Dani
Since I was two years old, I have been fed on a steady diet of pasta and Andrea Bocelli.
When I was forced to make the switch from wheat pasta to brown rice and found, much to my dismay, that brown rice bow-tie pasta is not a thing, I began searching for something as satisfying as farfalle for the health-conscious. I came to two conclusions fairly quickly:
- There is nothing more filling than a bowl of cheesy, gluten-rich, cholesterol-laden pasta.
- Dairy, wheat and sugar are the nutritional equivalent of the 7 deadly sins (minus 4) and are things I have been indulging in on a near daily basis (I’m sorry, but oat wraps will never beat sliced bread).
Having a mom fluent in Italian and having been fed copious amounts of minestrone (force-fed at times. As good as it tastes, one person can only stomach so much soup), it was naturally assumed that I too would end up studying the language. When I took up Spanish instead (plot-twist), my decision was met with mild confusion and much gesturing of the hands on my aunt’s part. Despite studying a different language, my mom was able to offer valuable insight into studying foreign languages which gave me a boost in the linguistic department. In between catching up on old TV series (she has just discovered that you can stream Italian TV live), I was able to sit-down with my mother and talk about her time abroad and experience as a foreign language student. Here, I share the details.
East Meets West: To pursue a degree in Italian, my mom had to leave everything familiar to her in India and move to foreign country she had only heard of in travellers’ tales.
A: What made you choose Italian? What were your other language choices?
S: Well, we had many languages to choose from. Our university in Delhi, where I studied basic Italian, had a great language program. Our options included French, Spanish, German, Japanese and everything in between. I chose to study Italian specifically due to the political and business scenario at that time. In my college years, the Indian Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, was married to an Italian and we had a lot of business and trade coming to India from Italy. The only issue was language as Italian companies looking to establish plants or factories in India were not strong speakers of Hindi or English and likewise, only a few Indians could hold a proper conversation in Italian. Italian became an asset because it was a rare qualification, which was another reason I chose to learn it.
A: What did you aim to do with a degree in Italian on coming back to India?
S: There were many career options. You could become a translator or an interpreter, have your own bureau, work with the Italian Embassy or teach Italian as I did. Another option is going into research and doing something with Italian literature.
A: What did you end up doing with your degree in Italian after studying abroad?
S: Once I came back to India, I was able to work as a translator and interpreter, later getting into technical interpretation which included helping establish plants that manufactured things like mopeds, scooters, car parts (Peugeot, Piaggio, Fiat). I also worked in the textile and fashion sectors because foreign companies looked to set India up as a production source. I worked for a time in Italian TV for a company called Rai Uno, again in the translation field ( we used to present a show on the environment and ecology). I spent some time with a company who had set up a production unit for Gianfranco Ferré, a well-known fashion designer in those days. I was part of a group that went to Italy to study the machines and do the technical translation but also had to interact with the assembly line workers as there was a language barrier that needed breaking.
A: How did you end up moving to Italy?
S: In those days, we used to have courses run by Italian cultural centre and if you enrolled and did really well, you would get a scholarship. All the scholarships run by the centre would take you to the University of Perugia in Umbria so over the course of 4 years, I had about 3 scholarships which took me to “La Universita per Stranieri” (University of Perugia) right in the heart of Italy.
A: Were you immersed in the language 24/7 or was English spoken commonly?
S: No, English was hardly spoken unless we had people coming in from the US or Canada or other countries where English is the predominant language.
A: Before moving to Italy, did you have a strong basis in the language or where you forced to strengthen your language skills to communicate effectively?
S: No, you had to have a fairly strong basis in the language because you were selected through an examination process. If you did well in the examination, it would end with you being sent to the university in Perugia. Once you arrived in the town, it was 100% immersion, little to no English. It was wonderful because you had all these people coming from different places around the world at different levels of proficiency in the language, yet we were forced to speak to each other in Italian simply because we did not share the same mother tongue. That definitely helped getting fluent quickly.
A: What was it like being a foreign student in a country you had never been to?
S: I found moving from India to Italy a smooth process. I was going to a university full of foreigners who were coming to Italy to study Italian or medicine etc. It was first time experience for all of us and having that shared similarity between us made the move much easier. I learnt a lot about other cultures, which, apart from learning the language, was the best part of the whole experience. I made some great friends, had some great exchanges in the language as we grew more comfortable in it and thoroughly enjoyed myself.
A: Do you have any advice for students studying a language?
S: Immersion is key. Whether it is reading, writing, listening to music or watching a show in the language you are studying, to better your skills, you need to make sure you are immersing yourself in the language enough. Of course grammar, vocabulary etc. are also important, but in my opinion, immersion should be one of the central focuses.