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)!