My lifelong quest to master speaking Italian taught me perseverance, boldness, and to embrace feedback. Italian also taught me grammar, vocabulary, and to love writing — in English. Italian will always mesmerize me but English is snappy and allows me to speak directly to the reader so they take action.
From the moment I first stepped onto Italian soil and heard this eloquent, melodious language, I was hooked. I could tell the answer to my boredom and lack of meaning in life, at age 18, would be found pursuing the mysteries of this magical language. Learning Italian gave me purpose.
Growing up in the Midwest, I knew that diving deep into studying Italian would fulfill me emotionally and spiritually forever. Behind those rich words spoken in a beautiful intonation and complex sentence structures, I could sense centuries of history and tradition and culture. In contrast, there was no culture, no sense of the past where I grew up. My town reminded me of Main Street by Upton Sinclair.
Learning Italian gave my life meaning. I suddenly had something to strive for that would always be just out of my grasp: native-level fluency and complete understanding. But that is just what made me even more excited and determined.
I wanted to speak Italian perfectly! I used to look up every word I didn’t know when I read an Italian book. I would never recommend this method now when you are learning a foreign language. I think it’s better to get into the flow of the reading and only look up words when necessary.
Learning a foreign language takes commitment. Wanting to become fluent in Italian taught me to commit and persevere. In copywriting I persevere in my research to listen to the audience to hear their fears and desires and to the company to hear their brand voice. I also persevere with concepting, writing, and editing to find the best message with the fewest words to get the reader to take action.
To learn to speak a foreign language, you have to step out of your comfort zone and be willing to make mistakes. Listening to and reading a foreign language are passive activities. But speaking is an active activity and requires courage and effort.
Stepping out of my comfort zone and speaking to strangers in Italian was not easy for me. In fact, for the first year when I was in Italy, I mainly risked speaking only to my Italian boyfriend. But because of my perseverance, I insisted that he speak Italian to me at all times.
Speaking to only one person that I was very comfortable with was a mistake. After my year in Italy, I spoke very well and correct Italian but it came easily only when I was in my comfort zone speaking to my boyfriend. As soon as I had to speak to other people I froze.
I wanted to speak perfect Italian and not make any mistakes. This fear partly came from the fact that there is only one country in the world that speaks Italian as its native national language and that is Italy. So I had this idea that all Italians spoke Italian perfectly and that they would be unforgiving if I made a mistake. Plus I was living in Bologna where everyone seemed very educated and sophisticated.
In contrast, I’ve never been afraid to take risks in Spanish. This is because I think of Spanish as a world language like English. It is spoken all over the world and is the national language of many countries. Speaking Spanish or English is about getting your message across and communicating. But speaking Italian was for me about perfection, eloquence, and trying to fit in and seem native.
Even back at home when I overheard Italians in a store, I had to push myself to say “Buongiorno! Parlo italiano anch’io!” or something. But I no longer had my boyfriend to practice with so breaking out of my fear and becoming bold was my only option if I wanted to try to stay fluent.
Later on, I became a teacher in a PreK-8 Italian immersion school. For five years I spoke Italian daily at my job with Italians and I finally lost the fear of making mistakes. In this environment, I spoke Italian to communicate instead of trying to sound perfect and smart.
Speaking Italian taught me to be bold and step out of my comfort zone. In copywriting, I have to use this boldness every day as I pitch prospective clients and tell them my ideas.
When you take risks by speaking Italian, you will get instant feedback whether you want it or not. Italians are not hesitant about correcting your mistakes. I love this because I want my Italian to be as perfect as possible.
Although being bold enough to speak was hard, embracing feedback was easy. By the time you have finally spoken up, receiving immediate feedback makes the whole conversation much lighter and fun.
The only time this is not fun is when you use a word for an embarrassing bodily function or a sexual act instead of the word you wanted to use. For example, say non ti scoraggiare when you want to cheer someone up. Just make sure you don’t say non ti scoreggiare by accident. Also, watch out for words that change meaning if you don’t pronounce a double consonant like anno and ano. This list goes on and on but don’t let it stop you from being bold!
Making mistakes comes with being bold and taking risks. Speaking Italian taught me to embrace feedback and to not take anything personally. Receiving feedback in copywriting is important and is the only way to finally arrive through collaboration at the right message for the client.
As native English speakers, we are not usually taught grammar explicitly. It is something that we pick up and often just know. When you study Italian, you spend a lot of time studying strict grammar rules, especially in verb conjugations.
You will learn the dreaded Concordanza dei tempi e modi. This is a table that explains the rules for which tense and mode you use in the various independent and dependent clauses in a sentence. It’s based on Latin and it is very rigid and traditional like a lot of the Italian language.
Most people hate Italian grammar and complain that it is too complex. But that is what I loved. I loved how my brain seemed predisposed to making sense of the grammar and predicting it. And studying Italian grammar is how I learned English grammar.
Knowing English grammar as a copywriter just makes you a better writer overall. English is the perfect language for copywriting because it is so flexible and creative. You can invent new words and break rules. Knowing grammar rules and when to break them makes you a more powerful writer and copywriter.
Just as most people hate Italian grammar, they love Italian words. Say almost any Italian word like asciugamano (towel) or giardino (garden) and immediately your whole body relaxes and your hands start moving in rhythm. This is because most Italian syllables end in vowels.
In addition to the rhythm, Italian vocabulary is fun because the words have a way of multiplying by changing an ending or adding a prefix. Looking up one word leads to a web of words. For example, look up scrivere (to write) in the dictionary. There are 11 words above it that all have to do with writing: scritta, scritto, scrittoio, scrittore, scrittura, scritturale, scritturare, scritturazione, scrivania, scrivano, and scrivente.
If you look up “to write” in the English dictionary you will get only 4 words that are variations of “to write” using suffixes: writable, writer, writerly, writing. The other related words are compound words: write down, write in, write off, write out, writer’s block, writer’s cramp, write up, writing desk, writing paper. Making new compound words is one way English is creative.
Italian evolved from the volgare (vernacular) of Latin. English evolved from the Germanic languages of the Angles and Saxons and has been influenced by many other cultures and languages including Latin and French. This makes English very rich and you can usually choose between the common simple word we normally use or if you want to sound more educated you can use a Latin based word. For example, the Latin based word for “to write” is “to scribe” which is actually very close to the Italian scrivere. So you could actually say “he scribed a note that he passed to Jane.” But you would sound very old-fashioned.
As a copywriter, knowing Italian helps me because as much as I love to trace the web of words and their origins, I know to stay away from words with Latin roots. The copywriter should usually pick the Anglo-Saxon version of the word to make the copy succinct and to the point.
Writing in English
Linguists have argued that the main difference between Italian and English is that Italian is a “reader-responsible” language and English is a “writer-responsible” language. This means that in Italian, the reader is responsible for digging deep and getting meaning out of a text. Conversely, in English, the writer is responsible for making the test meaningful.
Because Italian is a “reader-responsible” language, full of an exaggerated use of synonyms, idioms, allusions, and metaphor, it will always be just beyond my grasp. Just when I think I’ve got the meaning, it slips away from me and I feel as if I understand nothing. I can read the words, hear the sounds, understand the grammar and parts of speech, but the meaning remains elusive, always challenging me.
My fascination with this complex language is what makes me a better copywriter. It’s what causes me to dig deep for meanings of words and to understand difficult patterns and structures, allusions and metaphors. And it’s also what makes me love the direct, to the point, stripped of the excess nature of English. I love sifting through a paragraph of eloquent elaborate Italian and distilling it into a few essential words in English.
English can be so powerful in its simplicity and flexibility. Something that Italian can never attain. Italian will forever cling to old forms of grammar and an exaggerated use of ornate language. But English is quick and nimble and can cut to the chase.
Why do I love Italian? Because it is eloquent, complex, ornate, traditional, exaggerated, excessive, full of allusions and mystery, sophisticated and rhythmical. There is a great word in Italian called dietrologia. In English, you could translate this as “behindology.” In Italian journalism this means that there is always so much smoke in the news story, the words are hiding something, there is always something behind. Reading an Italian news article is great practice for your Italian and will surely leave you thinking you understand nothing even after you have translated it correctly.
While learning Italian will always fill my soul by forcing me to pursue something beautiful I can not quite attain; writing in English gives me the satisfaction of a job well done of conveying meaning simply, directly, and clearly in as few words as possible. This is why my quest to master speaking in Italian has made me a better copywriter in English.