Speaking Italian in the GTA


2014/02/10 - Written by Sarah Mastroianni
Speaking Italian in the GTA
Speaking Italian in the GTA
“We No Speak Americano,” a dance version of Renato Carosone’s song, “Tu Vuò Fà L’Americano”, became a hit both in Canada and around the world when it was released in 2010. But considering that Italian-Canadians in the GTA do not communicate in their mother tongue like they once did, should they be singing, “We No Speak Italiano” instead?

According to the 2006 Canadian Census, the city of Toronto alone is home to 466,155 Italian-Canadians. As time passes and Italian-Canadian ties to Italy inevitably weaken, what is happening to la bella lingua in the Toronto area? It seems that there are a few things going on.

When asked the question, Professor Vanessa Rukholm, who teaches Italian language courses at Wilfrid Laurier University, replied, “That’s a tough one. I’m going to say that there seems to be a bit of a renaissance in terms of interest in people of a certain generation wanting to connect or re-connect, perhaps, with their Italian roots […] I do hear some dialect being spoken.”

Professor Roberta Iannacito-Provenzano of the Department of Languages, Literatures and Linguistics at York University, is of the same mind. “Definitely the interest in Italian culture and language is there across the spectrum. Let’s hope it continues,” she said.

In 2011, 166,415 people in Toronto recorded Italian as their mother tongue, according to Statistics Canada. This put Italian behind only Chinese in the rankings of the number of people in Toronto whose mother tongue is neither English nor French. There’s a difference, though, between having a chunk of the population that’s able to speak Italian (either standard Italian or a traditional dialect or Italiese) and having a chunk of the population that actually uses Italian regularly in their day-to-day life. In Australia, another country with a large Italian population, Mandarin only just (in 2011) usurped Italian as the most commonly spoken language other than English, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

But to get a clearer picture of the usage of Italian in the GTA, more information is needed. “There are absolutely no reputable studies as to the extent of Italian spoken in the GTA,” says Professor Jana Vizmuller-Zocco, also an associate professor at York University. “Perhaps the question should be, ‘why are there no studies regarding Italian spoken in Toronto?’” she suggests.

In the absence of a formal study, she recommends a look at historical Statistics Canada data to gain somewhat of a picture of Italian language trends in the GTA. She explains, “As far as Italian-Canadians are concerned, they do not hear Italian spoken by and within the family, […] once the major push to learn the language.” Regardless of whether people are hitting the books to brush up on their Italian or not, many Italian-Canadians in the GTA tend to engage fairly often in what Professor Marcel Danesi calls “code-switching”. It’s a fancy name for something that you’d recognize if you heard it: peppering English speech with Italian words when talking with another Italian-Canadian.

For example, “Zitta! I’m on the phone with my zia!” or “This weekend we’re doing the pomodori with my nonni.” “It has a function,” says Danesi, who teaches at the Anthropology Department at U of T. “You switch a word here, a word there to show your identity and to show that you’re of Italian origin,” Danesi explains. It’s not dialect, and it’s not bilingualism. “It’s part of identity formation. It’s your luxury identity. It shows that you have a certain background and are proud of it.” It’s what Carosone did with “Tu Vuò Fà L’Americano”, except in reverse.

Danesi also talks about the difference in the use of Italian between generations, starting with the first to arrive in Canada. “They would act out their linguistic and cultural lives from back home […] People all spoke a dialect from wherever they came from.” Then a change occurred. “In meeting and interacting, […] they made a new kind of standard language,” he explains, referring to Italiese, which he fondly describes as “the language of the heart.” “As time went on,” Danesi continues, “the second generation was more passive, receiving this language rather than using it. By the third generation, it was totally passive. By the fourth generation, it disappears. To me, that’s a tragedy.”

While a sizeable number of Italian-speakers remain in the GTA, the retention rate of the Italian language, meaning the number of people who have Italian as a mother tongue and who speak it either exclusively or often in their home, falls significantly behind that of other European languages like Polish, Portuguese and Greek. Vizmuller-Zocco goes on to explain that there are many reasons for the phenomenon of reduced language retention, such as the increased rate of intercultural marriages where the other partner doesn’t speak Italian, a sense of shame in speaking dialect, and less of a need to know Italian to communicate with grandparents and older relatives, who are now capable of communicating in English. Additionally, with high schools swapping language classes for more employment-friendly subjects like computer studies, “Italian-Canadians do not see the practical advantage in learning Italian,” she says.

Iannacito-Provenzano weighs in on the situation saying, “Today, we can see that a lot of parents of my generation (second and third) speak English with their kids, dialect with their parents, but many also make an effort to send their children to some kind of program that teaches Italian.” “Is this helping to maintain or promote Italian in the GTA?” she asks. “I would like to be positive and say ‘yes’ but many of us and our kids are bombarded by English and so the heritage language (standard or dialect) is feeling its effects.”

There is, however, some consolation. In a time when budget cuts to the arts and humanities at schools and universities are becoming more and more common, Rukholm says that in her experience, at the university level, “there does seem to be a lot of interest in the introductory level Italian courses. The numbers tend to be pretty strong.”

While this doesn’t mean that there’s a new crop of fully-fluent Italian speakers ready to bloom, the interest in the language at least counts for something. And although the future of Italian as a commonly-spoken language in the GTA is uncertain, people remain hopeful. “The Italian-Canadian community worked hard over decades to introduce Italian programs in schools and universities […] and together with the strong presence and contributions of Italian-Canadians in the GTA, there is an interest in Italian culture and language,” said Iannacito-Provenzano.

Rukholm agrees, “Particularly nowadays with access to things online like magazines and newspapers, more than ever Italian is at our fingertips.” We just have to reach out and grab it.



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