Knowing I am his go-to for sharing with the class Italian American slang and how not to pronounce a word, my Italian professor locks eyes with me over our masks. So, I perk up in anticipation.
“Laurie, how do you spell stunad?”
I conjure an image of the word in my head, then spell it out as he scribbles it across the chalkboard: S-T-U-N-A-D. Then, he writes the real word—the Italian word— next to it. Stupido.
“How Italian Americans got stunad from stupido,” he says “I will never know.”
There are so many dialects across the Italian peninsula that if you take someone from Naples and throw them next to a Roman, they might have a hard time understanding each other. Because Neapolitan is a language different from true, Tuscan Italian. And when immigrants came to America’s shores and filled the East Coast with newer generations of Italian Americans, their dialects were further broken down into slang, making the original language pretty much unrecognizable.
For instance, Aglio e olio (garlic and oil) is a simple pasta dish but in my house (and the houses of millions of second-generation families), we pronounce it aiy-ya-oo-ya. That’s the equivalent of baking an apple pie and calling it appa-piya. This is just one example of the many feats of Italian slang I know better than the original language.
However, my mixed American and Italian perspectives didn’t hinder my learning journey towards mastering the true Italian language— if anything, knowing Italian slang words and phrases well proved to be beneficial for me later; namely, when I enrolled in Italian 101 during my junior year of college.
Before that, my exposure to learning a language the traditional way (in school) was restricted to high school Spanish. Learning a language in high school compared to in adulthood was both easier and harder. It was easier because when you’re 16, you don’t have nearly half of the responsibility you have when you’re in college. Becoming fluent in a new language requires immersion (reading, listening, and thinking in it), and in high school, you have more time to do just that.
Also, no matter how little effort I put into Spanish, I had been exposed to it since middle school, so by the time college-level Italian rolled along, I had retained more of the language than I’d thought. Though, on the other hand, learning high school Spanish was harder than Italian.
When sitting at the cramped desk of that rowdy, papel picado-decorated classroom, I wasn’t nearly as motivated to learn as I am now. This might be because at nearly 21-years-old, my brain is much more developed and prepared for learning a new language compared to when I was a teenager.
And also because Italy is my first love, my heritage, and my upbringing— despite having rarely heard the language spoken correctly. I grew up in an Italian American family. Both of my nonne were first-generation, and my ears were accustomed to the slang of Sicilian and southern dialects.
This is why during Italian lessons when I was introduced to phrases like ubriaco, aglio e olio, fagioli, and stupido, a lightbulb flicked on and illuminated all the slang resting dormant in the back of my mind. Ubriaco sounds a lot like “umbriag,” which is a slang term for drunk. Aglio e olio, while nowhere close to aiy-ya-oo-ya, forged that connection in my mind.
Before even being told what slang it produced (the one I was familiar with) I thought, ‘Hey I eat that all the time!’ While “stunad” and “fazool” look nothing like their parents (stupido and fagioli), learning the real words for this slang no longer felt so foreign and intimidating for someone who had never been taught real Italian in the traditional way.
The next day in class, my professor meets my eyes. I wait, knowing our daily slang lesson is coming up. “How do you spell gabish in your house?” he asks.
I spell it: G-A-B-I-S-H. Next to it on the chalkboard, he writes capisci. Do you understand?
Gabish may sound like nonsense in Italy, but having this slang ingrained in me helped me remember what’s right.
Learning to accept slang, even if it’s colloquially incorrect, opened a door that felt closed my entire life. Sure, I know when not to use it, and when different kinds of slang (like the kind real Italians use depending on what region they’re from) is appropriate. Knowing both of what’s formally or traditionally correct and incorrect only deepens your immersion into learning a new language.
Ultimately, no matter what language you use, whether it’s Italian, Spanish, or anything else, it never hurts to know too much. And by embracing the “informal” aspects of education and language, you may find connections in the most unlikely places!
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