In a tall building in downtown San Francisco, facing the crowds on Market Street, there is a small but notable Italian school. Every day in the classrooms of this school passionate teachers engage students in the culture and language of Italy. The school's name is ItaLingua, and it is led by Francesca Gaspari. Despite living in the Bay Area for several years, Francesca still has the freshness and enthusiasm of a newcomer who has just landed at SFO from Europe. Francesca combines her passion for everything Italian with the skill and determination of an entrepreneur. I recently met Francesca and asked her a few questions to learn more about this important bastion of Italian culture which seems more known to non-Italians than to the Italian community itself. Here are my questions and Francesca's responses.
Francesca can you tell us a bit about yourself and your professional activities?
I’m originally from Bergamo, a historical town in the north of Italy, and I moved here to California at the age of thirty following jazz and love. I hold a diploma as a clarinet player from the Conservatory of Bergamo. I also spent three years studying acting. I have a passion for teaching. This is the background that supported me in working on my main project to create an Italian language school. As soon as I came here I started to look for opportunities to teach Italian. I was motivated by my passion for teaching and by the interest in our language I noticed from Americans and especially Italian-Americans who wanted to recreate a connection with their parents' or grand-parents' language. Among several other ventures, I created Salotto Italiano, a private Italian school I led from 1990 to 2000. In 1996 I began working with ItaLingua Institute, starting as part-time teacher to become in 2001 the school director. At ItaLingua I’ve done countless activities, from organizing cultural workshops to teaching classes. I love to combine the teaching of the Italian language with specific Italian culture topics based on my students’ interests. Unlike other schools, I organize Italian classes about literature, opera, Italian music, and Italian cinema. For my students I also organize special events with important guests such as Italian cuisine chefs, opera singers, Italian journalists, and more.
ItaLingua is a popular Italian School in San Francisco. What motivates people to study the Italian language?
Our students have many reasons to join our classes. Some are planning trips to Italy; others have Italian relatives or are tracing their family history. Many are attracted by our language because they love Italian art, music, architecture, fashion, cooking, and wine. In every ItaLingua class, students are involved in a complete visual, emotional, and phonetic experience. We try to bring language to life and let our students realize how beautiful, fun and sexy Italian is - so they keep studying it.
Many people don’t see the benefits of promoting the Italian language outside of Italy. Do you have any experience to share to help people understand the strategic value of your job?
Like Italian paintings or opera or literature, the Italian language is a work of art. Just as learning about Michelangelo or Verdi or Dante enriches anyone’s appreciation of beauty and its creators, learning Italian enriches appreciation of Italy and all things Italian. I believe that the promotion and teaching of the Italian language has an impact not only on the “diffusion” and appreciation of the Italian culture, but can have a positive effect also on the interaction between Americans and Italian businesses. For example, when a student of ItaLingua cooks a Barilla pasta plate, or drives a Vespa on the streets of San Francisco, or watches a Muccino movie, he/she will know the culture that generated those products and will experience some sort of positive connection.
Based on your experience, what are the major positive or negative stereotypes of Italians here in the Bay Area?
I am not really familiar with any negative ones. Our students admire Italians and want to learn our language to acquire Italians’ style, vivacity and joy in living. Those are not stereotypes; those are peculiar features and integral parts of our Italian culture.
What are the major differences between the ways Italian and other European languages and culture are presented and promoted in the US?
Spanish language is so widespread in the United States that people study it for practical reasons. The French government supports the Alliance Françoise and promotes the study of French language as a symbol of the culture. Chinese and Japanese are popular languages because California has close ties to Asia. I think Italian is unique because many people study it for the sheer love of the language and the fun of learning it. As a spoken language, Italian ranks about 19th—much lower than Spanish and French—yet it has become the fourth or fifth most widely studied language in the world. My hope is that Italian teachers abroad and the Italian government can “revitalize” the interest for our beautiful language.
You have been in San Francisco for some time. How has the Italian community changed over the years?
The Italian community has always played a significant role in the Bay Area. One major difference is that several decades ago many Italians were the children or grandchildren of Italian immigrants. Now many are fourth- or fifth-generation Americans, and their ties to Italy are not as strong. More interestingly, we are now seeing a new generation of Italians coming to the Bay Area. They are university students, entrepreneurs, researchers, and professionals. Those people are gradually changing the traditional perception of Italy and of Italian culture providing a more updated and modern image of our country. For the old Italians, as well for the new ones, the Italian language is vital in keeping their ethnic bond and preserving a sense of pride in our Italian heritage.
What can Italian associations like BAIA and Italian institutions like the Italian Consulate do to help promote the Italian language and culture?
I would love to see all of us working together to celebrate the language, for instance, during Italian Language Week in October. I’d like to offer classes in conversation and culture in Italian-owned or Italian-associated businesses, do special events on the language of Italian food and wine at restaurants and wineries, and involve children and families in Italian traditions and folklore. Language is the lifeblood of a nation and a culture and by promoting the Italian language we are promoting the essence of Italy.
I would like to thank the Francesca Gaspari for taking the time for this interview and for the important work she is doing every day at ItaLingua supporting and promoting the Italian language and culture. If you have a question for Francesca or for BAIA please do not hesitate to contact us or to leave a comment below. Francesca is a member of our online community BAIA Link where she can also be reached.