La Bella Lingua: the memoir vs. the manual

What’s the best way for you to learn another language? Live in a country where it is spoken? Get a well-explained grammar book? Some people learn better by doing, others by getting a detailed map of the knowledge they are about to acquire. Then there’s also a third way.

When I first glanced at Dianne Hales’s La Bella Lingua, in which she tells the story of how she fell in love with Italian and her adventures in the process of learning it, I saw another flower in the Garden of Italian Delight. There are so many other books that tell the personal stories of American women who fell in love with Italy and went there to actually make their declaration of love, starting with the esteemed Under the Tuscan Sun (about buying a house in Italy) to the current Eat, Pray, Love (about, among  other things, falling in love with Italian food). Italy is a country and a story that’s worth telling again and again -besides, that repetition fuels tourism, too.

However, this book is also part of a larger non-fiction trend – the self-help books that don’t instruct you how to do things, but rather tell you the stories of people who have learned to do them. Away from description and classification (the manual)  to personal narrative (the memoir). Written by non-professionals in areas of high emotional demand, like child rearing or diet, these books can’t make a claim for the scientific authority of their lay authors. But neither do they need to, since their goal is inspiration by example coming from successful ordinary trailblazers and the suggestion that anybody can do the same. An invitation to form a community of fellows. 

But could such a self-help memoir approach work for learning another language? Would you find it helpful for your own subjunctive or noun-adjective agreement mastery to know how other people got so passionate about the language?  Of course, every teacher draws on his or her personal experience when tackling specific issues in student learning. The most effective teaching is actually guiding others on the path you have trodden yourself, remembering the way you learned and relying on your experience (and memory!)  to connect with your students’ experience. That’s why people find it the most difficult to teach their own mother tongue as a second language because they don’t share the second-language experience of their own students while teaching it. Even though they may have internalized it, their path in doing so is totally different. But you won’t find funny stories of how the author mastered the subjunctive or learned the difference between false friends. Besides a few examples of the playfulness of Italian language, within a couple of pages, the author is not interested in these.

So yes, La Bella Lingua as a memoir is also a great inspiration for Italian language learners and thus helpful in their motivation. It takes the reader on the tortuous road from the first spark of interest through a passionate immersion in everything Italian, up to the author’s personal acquaintance with well known Italian cultural emblems such as some icons of Italian literature and cinema.

But it’s such a commonsense book to write. If it’s about inspiration, being inspired with Italy is the easiest thing in the world, right there with being inspired with Paris. The book doesn’t say anything new or important here – in fact, it abounds with the usual stereotypes about Italians (the distinct national character of Italian love (?) being the most wrong and stereotypical – and annoying, especially since Hales gives literary arguments). But this is what everybody already knows – Italy is an amazing place to get to know and live, even if they have never been there. Now I’d really appreciate more a book about falling in love and learning how to live in countries like Poland, Bahrain, Mali, or Belize. All beautiful places that are not part of Western popular culture.

Also, the experience of Bella Lingua can hardly be emulated in real life. The author had the financial means and free time to dedicate 25 years to just learning Italian in Italy on and off – something very few people would be able to do. It’s a vicarious pleasure only, just as making a home in Tuscany was an unattainable delight to just read about. Real non-fiction fiction.

As a popularization of Italian language and culture, this is a great book, even without giving the tool for others to master it.

And for those who do speak Italian, the book is an inspiration-sustaining reminder of its beauty.

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