Not many people know this about me, but I do speak Italian fluently. This is definitely one of the greatest gifts I was given growing up with Italian parents. In my house, we grew up learning English, Italian and dialect.
Dialect is the specific language used from the particular area you are from in Italy. Of course, being from Reggio Calabria you just can't get any more slang and dialect than that..ok that might be a lie..because Sicilians really have a whole language of their own when it comes to dialect. I always said my parents came to America in a time capsule. They left thinking, speaking and acting the same as they do today. My mother has evolved with the times but my father, who is 78 years old, still thinks and believes certain things are the same there.
With all the transitions and change we had to learn growing up in our house, speaking Italian became secondary because the focus was on making sure we did well in school learning our English. Make no mistake, my mother was the enforcer at home and always made sure we kept our Italian alive...especially if we were in front of someone and she wanted to tell us something privately or just yell at us..it would be in a different language. Our secret code.
Other important moments to learn Italian was when we visited our relatives in Reggio Calabria. Now, I have a million cousins...and if you wanted to hang out or socialize with other kids..it was sink or swim. So, myself and my siblings learned quickly to retain the language or be faced as an outcast all summer.
As I got older, I realized our Italian dialect was not the language of choice in Italy, especially when I would visit my cousins in Rome and Venice. They spoke a whole different way..that left me thinking, "holy crap, I better learn proper Italian."
So, when I finally went to college I took Italian classes to learn the language all over again. I did it to expand what I knew of the language but also to preserve it. To know a second language is an amazing thing and I thank my mother and father everyday for giving me this part of their time capsule.
Today in Reggio Calabria, there's rarely an instance where people actually speak dialect. Only the older generations like my father and mother speak it. The younger kids have no clue how to speak it or what some words even mean. So, last time I was there I went out socially with my cousins and literally everyone was just astonished when my cousins revealed that myself and my sister spoke dialect too.
Mind you, when we're out we only speak proper Italian. I kinda felt like we were performing a little because everyone kept asking for requests on saying certain things. It was funny, but then I realized not only do we have the extreme privilege of living as Italian Americans but we also walked away with a cultural tradition that many Italians have lost. I'm a lucky person and thank God for my blessings everyday!
To see more on this topic, check out this interesting article written by the AMERICAN ASSOCIATION OF TEACHERS OF ITALIAN.