This evening, as I wrote a message in Italian to a friend on Facebook, I randomly wondered to myself — how and when did I first learn Italian?
I thought about it and realized that it all began in sixth grade at Palomino Elementary. I had a teacher named Ms. Tabacca who quickly became my favorite. She taught us many things including culture, poetry and French that have left a lasting impression on me. I remember that she would give us a French lesson every Wednesday, of which I dreaded like nothing else. Being deaf, I struggled and lagged behind. Not only that, my teacher had my hearing classmates practice speaking French while I sat quietly and feeling very self-conscious until it was time to work on reading and writing in French. Oh, how I hated it!
Ms. Tabacca soon realized this and was determined to give me the same opportunity and access afforded to other students. While everyone worked on their pronunciation, she had me memorize an impressive list of irregular and regular verbs as well as their conjugations. Then she taught me about French gender, articles (definite, indefinite and partitive), determiners and so on. I became so immersed in it that by the end of the year, my command of French was probably equivalent to that of a first-semester French college student.
By then, I was completely hooked and continued studying French throughout middle school. My 7th and 8th grade French teacher, Mrs. Hoffman, was so impressed with my French that I was her “pet” from day one. Whenever she asked a question in class that no one could answer, she’d turn her attention to me and say, “Gaston, dites-leur!” (Jason, tell them!)
In high school, my foreign language requirements were waived because I was fluent in ASL so I did not continue studying French. However, it was during this time that I became interested in discovering my roots and being part Italian, I was curious about Italian. I remember being amazed when I noted how similar it was to French. At the age of 16 or 17, I became acquainted with a fellow calitrano, Mario Toglia, who noticed my interest and sent me a whole bunch of old Il Paperino (Italian version of Donald Duck) comic books (which I still have and treasure!). I scrutinized them every night, over and over, until I was able to understand them word for word. I bought books and dictionaries, made flash cards, subscribed to Il Calitrano, read La Repubblica on the Internet and wrote in Italian whenever I could.
A few years later, the Italian Placement Exam at Rochester Institute of Technology placed me into Fifth Year Italian, quite an accomplishment considering I never took Italian before. I went on to complete Sixth Year Italian before returning home to Arizona.
Today, English and American Sign Language aside, I know Italian fluently and have enough grasp of the French and Spanish languages to the point where I can sustain an entire afternoon’s worth of conversation. I’ve also dabbled in German, Romanian and dialetto calitrano. I want to learn Mandarin Chinese, Esperanto, Hebrew, Russian, Latin, the list is endless. So many languages, so little time.
So, Ms. Tabacca — if you ever read this, I want to thank you for instilling the passion I have for languages. If it weren’t for you, I would have never overcome my fear and learned all the languages I know today. I probably would not have gone to Italy as many times as I have. My relatives in Calitri barely speak English. If I weren’t able to communicate with them by writing back and forth in Italian, how would we have communicated? I probably would not have known my Italian-speaking cousins on Facebook, some of whom I talk to on an almost daily basis.
Tu as vraiment fait une grande différence dans ma vie et c’est à toi que je dois tout.