Interview with

Giuseppe Delfino

Name: Giuseppe Delfino
Nationality or Ethnicity: Italian
Where do you live?: Reggio di Calabria, Italy
Languages: Italian, Greek (two varieties: Calabrian Greek and Standard Modern Greek), Sicilian, French, English, Spanish, Portuguese.

1. What’s your story? How did you get into all these languages?

I was born in Reggio di Calabria, the toe of Italy. In most of the  country, especially in the South where I live, two languages ​​coexist:  Italian, which is obviously the national and official tongue, and the  local speech (in my case Reggino, which is a Sicilian variety). Being  Sicilian, as well as most of the other local languages spoken within the  Italian State, generally considered here as a dialect or in any case as  the language of the most humble classes, when I was a child I was  forbidden to speak Sicilian, also because - according to a very  widespread (but false) theory – the use of Sicilian would have prevented  me from speaking Italian well: only in recent years I have started  again to speak the Sicilian language fluently, also thanks to the help  of grammar and dictionaries.

Even before the diffusion of Italian, however, in the past the area of  Reggio experienced the coexistence of two languages, since until the  thirteenth century Greek was widespread throughout southern Calabria  (and also in north-eastern Sicily). Still today, in some municipalities  of the metropolitan area of ​​Reggio, a Hellenic dialect is spoken  (called ‘Greko’ by its speakers). Since I was a boy, I have always been  intrigued by this form of Greek, which however is not taken into  consideration today by the majority of my fellow citizens. I started  learning it when I was still in high school, thanks to a children's book  that was given to me in a stand of local products. From there I began  to deepen it, and today I am linked to the ‘To ddomadi greko’ (lit. ‘The  Greek week’), a group of activists for the protection of Calabrian  Greek, led by Dr. Maria Olimpia Squillaci, a young native speaker -  expert in linguistic revitalization - who has achieved her PhD in  Cambridge. She helped (and still helps me) a lot in improving our Greek  variety.

From there, the parallel study of Standard Modern Greek was almost a  natural consequence. I started studying it in high school too, and  ironically on the days when the Greek national football team was about  to win the European Championship in 2004. It is a language that I have  learned completely as a self-taught, if I exclude some review lessons  that a Greek professor residing in Reggio gave me, who directed me to  the Πιστοποίηση Ελληνομάθειας, the official proficiency test for the  Greek language. I hope this year (2020) will be the right one for C2  level, for which I signed up just a few days before this interview (I  currently have level B2 certification).

This desire to learn Calabrian Greek would not have been possible if I  hadn't had all this great passion for languages. I've always had it. I  don't remember exactly where it originated from, but I have three  anecdotes in mind from when I was a child:
1) My fascination by the language courses (available in English, French,  German, Spanish and Russian) in files and cassettes that were sold at  newsstands, and which at that time were highly publicized;
2) The trip to Pisa where I convinced my father to buy me a city guide  written in Japanese, because - although obviously I didn’t understand  anything - I was charmed by its writing;
3) Hearing my Italo-French aunt Graziella, who spoke more French than  Italian at home (especially with her mother, her sisters, and my  cousin). I wanted so much to know what she said!

In any case, it was not until the third year of primary school (at the  age of eight) that I began studying a language: obviously the language  in question was English. After English, at school I also started French –  from my first year of middle high school – and Spanish (for one year as  an extra-curricular activity in the first year of middle high school,  and then as a compulsory subject in the last three years of high  school). However, obviously, the teaching of foreign languages ​​at  school we know how it is very often, so I studied the three languages  ​​as a self-taught, and I am still doing it despite the fact that  English and Spanish are the languages ​​of my university curriculum, and  as regards French I have achieved the C2 level of the DALF (yes,  languages ​​never stop to be learned!).

I can’t deny that, among these, the language I learned the fastest was  obviously Spanish, which then also gave me the input to quickly learn  Portuguese (Brazilian), for which I took just half an hour a day for 90  days to reach an advanced level. This latter - which I learned not only  because of the input Spanish gave it to me, but also because I have  always loved the language and the culture of the Lusophone countries -  is so far the last language I have acquired, and as I know that most of  the languages ​​I speak are Romance, I’ve undertaken two new language  challenges: Turkish (there are many reasons why I decided to study it,  but one of them is the fascination I feel towards Turkic linguistics)  and Russian (beyond politics, I believe that Russia is a country to be  discovered). I am working hard to ensure that this year I can reach an  intermediate level in at least one of the two languages.

2. Which language(s) do you wish you could spend more time practising?

I use the language exchange apps which also allow the use of voice  messages, so through them I can always get in touch with native  speakers. But obviously the live conversation is different, and that's  what I miss a bit, also because unfortunately Reggio - and I'm sorry to  admit it, because I love my city very much - is much less touristy than  others (many don't even know about it, and to make myself understood I  must say that it is the city ‘in front of Sicily’).

3. What are some languages you’d like to learn in the future?

The list is very long, so - as asked by the question - I will limit myself to some of them (explaining of course my reasons):

Maltese = Maltese is linked to the Arabic dialect that was spoken in  Sicily during the two centuries of Islamic domination on the island  (827-1091), and due to socio-economic contacts and short military  occupations, in that period of time this language was spoken also in  Reggio (in my city there are some surnames of Arab origin). Moreover,  beyond the historical question, Maltese - being from a taxonomic point  of view an Arabic dialect (written with the Latin alphabet, and having  also a lot of Sicilian and Italian loanwords) - can be seen as  preparatory to MSA, and it is the language of a country which is one of  the pearls of the Mediterranean sea;

Japanese = From a linguistic and cultural point of view, Japan is  indescribable, and causes me a charm as few other places in the world  know how to do. Although, unlike the many fanatics of Japan that we can  also see on YouTube, I do not idealize it, and I am aware that it  remains a country with many social problems;

Icelandic = Although the myth of Icelandic as ‘the language of the  Vikings’ must be debunked (because over the centuries Icelandic has  undergone many changes from a phonological point of view, and since the  nineteenth century it has been the protagonist of a policy of linguistic  purism), however it remains true that knowledge of Icelandic allows  easy access to a very rich literary heritage. Without forgetting,  however, that Iceland is a modern country with a constantly evolving  culture (thinking of Iceland only for its Middle Ages is like thinking  of Greece only for its Antiquity);

German = The impact of German language and literature (including  academic literature) on the world cannot be questioned, and certainly  cannot be expressed in a few lines without being reductive: for this  reason, I feel a bit 'obliged' - of course in a positive meaning - to  learn it, since it is the only one of the great languages of Western  Europe that I don’t know yet. But German is a language I really like,  starting from its sound;

Hebrew = Although I am an agnostic atheist, I am very interested in the  history of religions, and those like me know very well the role that  Hebrew plays in it, for which, however, the same considerations that I  made for Icelandic, and that is it is also a language of the present,  not only of the past.

4. So let’s be honest, what’s the sexiest language?

Of course in an absolute sense there is no sexiest language.

I admit that at a personal level I find very sensual languages ​​such as  Greek, Spanish (especially Castilian and Mexican), Persian, Hindi, and  Urdu (of course Persian, Hindi, and Urdu are also on my list), or indeed  German, but it is also the tone and timbre of the voice that influence,  so in this respect I will always prefer a mellifluous voice that speaks  one of the languages ​​I have not mentioned above - which, however, are  only examples - over a rough one that speaks, for instance, in Persian.

5. What’s the greatest pleasure you get from speaking so many languages?

During the interview I put a lot of emphasis on the cultural level of  languages. But there are two other aspects that give me great pleasure  in speaking a language: the feeling of having reached a personal goal  (which is still always possible to improve), and knowing new people that  you would never have known if you had not spoken their tongue.

6. Some people say the world is really just going to have a few languages left in a 100 years, do you think this is really true?

We cannot predict the future, but linguistic diversity must be  absolutely protected, because it is often underestimated by the man of  the street, and equally often opposed by politics for nationalism. Many  people think it would be better if there were few languages ​​in the  world (not realizing that every language that dies is a burning  library).

It is something I often see in Italy, especially – as you can understand  from my answer to the first question – with its local languages.

7. What is your message to young (and not so young) people out there who are interested in studying multiple languages?

If  you are eager to learn one or more languages, do it without being  discouraged by the obstacles you will encounter on the road and, above  all, by not listening to those who want to limit you (for example saying  that you cannot do it for any reason)!

The International Association of Hyperpolyglots - HYPIA. (c) 2020

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