Pinning Our Hopes on a Language

Each fall I check out the College Board results for the Advanced Placement test in Italian. In 2009, the Italian government convinced the major Italian American organizations to match its $1.5 million payment to the Board to set up a national AP test – that’s $3 million to play with the big boys.  In return for the millions, our community had to guarantee at least 2,500 student test takers each year.

The good news is the Italian AP is still above 2,500 students. The bad news is we dropped 200 from last year.  The count stands at 2,571 and the future does not bode well.  There are fewer schools offering the Italian AP and l’italiano hasn’t the cachet the Italians think it has.

The AP test is supply-side heritage with little demand to absorb it. Our community decided long ago that college scholarships rather than pre-teen acculturation (like our old Aurora Youth Program) should be its long-term strategy.  Partly financing college education was to translate into grateful Italian American youth who would seek out deeper heritage and later “give back” to their culture by acculturating their own progeny.  Good theory but it hasn’t happened that way.

Margaret Cuomo – daughter of Mario, sister of Andrew – exchanged emails with me some time ago when I asked for her help in funding the Aurora Program.  She flatly panned Aurora (and our demand theory) as ineffective.  It was she who, with good intentions, spearheaded the drive to fund the AP.  I’m sure the latest College Board results are turning her stomach.  But she is in the same company as Maria Vittoria Cifone, formerly at the Consul General’s office in New York.  Cifone also pooh-poohed Aurora claiming that money was better spent subsidizing Italian language classes in high schools.  Millions of euros were swallowed up by American schools that promptly dropped Italian when the subsidies and student demand ran out.

The Italian government’s game plan was never to target Italian American children. In their mind, Italian is a world class language that every ethnic group would embrace, after all it’s the language of music, art, and cuisine.  Economically, non-Italians who learn the language would be new customers for Italian food exports and trips to Italy, something Italian American kids would do anyway.  But non-Italic demand is not enough to fulfill the plan.

Here is a comparison of the 2017 AP performance over 2016:

Spanish…….168,307 (8% increase)

French………..22,621 (3% increase)

Chinese………13,091 (5% increase)

Latin……… 6,647 (1% increase)

German…….…5,089 (3% increase)

Italian………….2,571 (7% Decrease)

Japanese……..2,429 (2% Decrease)

Logically, we would expect Italian to place significantly higher than Japanese. After all, 17 million Americans claim Italian descent versus 1.3 million Japanese.  Unfortunately, history confirms our lack of support for our ancestral language.  Back in 1930, Atlantica Magazine published a debate between a number of Italian American professionals on this very subject.  One blamed the semi-literate immigrant parents for not inspiring their children, another the lack of innate Italian pride in their children.  I would agree with both arguments and add this one: the desire by students to follow the American crowd.  Back then the crowd was going French, today it’s Spanish.

I have come to the conclusion that our community never had a chance in acculturating our children through language. Neither the Greeks nor the Jews have language instruction in public schools or an AP, yet they have managed to inculcate their children, not only with rudimentary language skills (Greek or Hebrew/Yiddish) but with deep ethnic pride.  Their secret is a proprietary religion with mandatory religious/cultural youth instruction.  It’s simple: without mandatory youth classes kids grow out of their heritage not into it.  Dangling a scholarship for “business administration” or an AP in Italian language when kids are 18 years old is a pointless exercise if you expect to cultivate proud Italians.

We all attended Sunday school, and some of us went to Irish-dominated Catholic high schools or universities. The net winners were Catholicism and Irish solidarity, not italianita`.  Greek children attend Greek School and Jews Hebrew School and yeshivas. The results are not just religious.  This model is similar for today’s Hindus, Chinese, and Muslims – the children are exposed to their cultures as well as their religions.

If the Italian AP eventually gets dropped we should mourn the loss but understand the reason: we didn’t have a chance to begin with.    -JLM

2 thoughts on “Pinning Our Hopes on a Language”

  1. Some salient points John, and all those who support the study of Italian and taking of the AP in Italian. For me as with many others, it seems we lost the Italian language a long time ago when my grandparents, and yours perhaps, arrived here and were mocked and ridiculed as they not only looked different and darker, but they spoke a language that few, except the well traveled at that time in Italy, might know. And so they and our parents became acculturated losing the language. Years later, post 60’s, we realized what we lost but by then we lost generations of folks who spoke it, dialects aside, and true we had no schools such as other ethnic groups. We have to do more for the AP. But to do more, we have to ensure that we have Italian studied in middle schools and then high schools, and we need teachers who are qualified and prepared to teach the Italian, and that means rigorous education at the collegiate level if one can find a program such as a Master’s and/or Ph.D. in Italian, let alone Italian studies. Complex yes? We just have to work harder at it, and the Italic Institute was incorporating the study of the language as well as the incredible history, heritage and culture of our Italy in your old Aurora Program. For that, kudos!

  2. Yes, we definitely need to encourage our young people to appreciate their cultural roots, and to pass it on to subsequent generations. I believe the Italic Way is a unique publication which provides a valuable resource and study aid that could be used by high school and college Italian clubs, Italian cultural centers and colleges having Italian language and studies programs. Now, with all past issues of the Italic Way available digitally, this can be expedited much more easily. I believe that young Italian Americans and others as well have a deep hunger for information that conveys an accurate, unbiased account of the experience of Italian Americans. As a reflection of this, the Wikipedia article on Italian Americans presently gets more views on a monthly basis (around 23-24 thousand) than the Irish-American article which, I believe, is significant given that the Irish American population is approximately twice as large as the Italian American population. It is also true that the number of monthly views during the summer months is typically approximately 25% lower than the rest of the months, which may reflect the fact that students are accessing the article as resource material for their school assignments.

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