For anyone who has ever travelled to Italy or simply dreams of going there one day, the fantasy of living la dolce vita is powerfully seductive. Dianne Hales is no exception, but she also fell truly, madly and deeply in love with the language, fascinated by its story and its stories, tantalised by its adventures and ever eager to spend more time in its company. Italians say that someone who acquires a new language ‘possesses’ it. ‘In my case, Italian possesses me. With Italian racing like blood through my veins, I do indeed see with different eyes, hear with different ears, and drink in the world with all my senses…’
The result is La Bella Lingua, a joyous, funny and warmly affectionate celebration of Italy, its history, literature, food, music, movies and its people, who helped her not only to learn the world’s most loved and lovable language but how to really live like a true Italian.
Q & A with Diane Hales
Why and when did you start studying Italian?
I decided to study Italian more than twenty years ago so I could communicate with the friendly people we met on our travels in Italy. My goal was just to understand and be understood. However, the more Italian I learned, the more I wanted to know about Italian—where it came from, how it evolved, why it’s so musical and vibrant. I had so much fun in Italian classes and conversation groups that I didn’t want to stop my Italian education—and I never have.
How do you explain your passion for Italian?
During an interview at Apicius, her prestigious culinary academy in Florence, I asked Gabriela Ganugi, who had originally studied law, how she had acquired her passion for food. “Signora,” she said. “We do not so much choose our passions as they choose us.” That’s certainly been my experience. Italians say that someone who becomes fluent in another language possesses a new tongue. In my case, Italian took possession of me.
Are more people studying Italian these days?
Absolutely. Even in today’s global economy, when everyone needs to know English, more and more people want to learn Italian. Italian now ranks as the fourth most studied language in the world—after English, Spanish and French. In the United States it has become the fastest growing language taught in colleges and universities.
Why is Italian so popular?
No tongue is more musical, more emotionally expressive or more fun to hear, speak and sing. There also are plenty of practical reasons to study Italian: to prepare for a trip to Italy, trace your family history, translate recipes and menus, bargain with street vendors, prepare for a career in fields such as the culinary arts, fashion or music, or expand your business into Italy. However, my favourite explanation for the boom in Italian studies comes from Stephen Brockman, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, who observed in an essay on European languages that “Italy and the Italian language are perceived as beautiful, fun and sexy. And why not? I can’t see anything wrong with that.” Neither can I.
Why did you decide to write a book on Italian?
As a journalist, I know a great story when I see one—and the story of how Italian became the world’s most enchanting language has everything: drama, passion, comedy, beautiful women, gallant heroes, jealousy, rivalry, unscrupulous scoundrels—not to mention glorious music and fabulous food.
How did you do go about researching La Bella Lingua?
I used all the skills I honed in decades as a journalist and textbook author. I took classes in Italian language, history and culture both in the United States and in Italy. I worked very closely with a wonderful Italian tutor in San Francisco. In Italy I went to the great citadels of Italian, such as L’Accademia della Crusca and the Societa Dante Alighieri, to interview leading linguists and scholars. But my greatest resource turned out to be the Italian people, who have deep pride in their mother tongue and infinite patience with those who try to master it.
What was the most surprising thing you learned?
Italian is more than a language. It’s a way of living, thinking, creating, understanding. No less than Michelangelo’s sculpture, Dante’s poetry, Verdi’s music or Valentino’s dresses, Italian is a master work of art. And just as learning about art enhances appreciation of beauty, learning about Italian enhances appreciation of every aspect of Italian life and culture.
Praise for La Bella Lingua
Debuted as #3 in travel books in Australia, (May 2010)
Debuted as #8 on the nonfiction best seller list of the San Francisco Chronicle (May 2009)
“In this charming love letter to the language and culture of Italy, journalist Hales recounts her inebriation with Italian’s sounds and her lovesickness over its phrases. Enamored of this lovely and lovable language, Hales immerses herself in Italian culture on numerous trips to Italy in her attempt to “live Italian.” She comes to think of Italian as “a lovable rascal, a clever, twinkle-eyed scamp that you can’t resist even when it plays you for a fool.” Hales regales us with the mysteries of the language, such as when a color becomes more than hue. She tells us that yellow, for example, refers to a mystery “because thrillers traditionally had yellow covers.” In her rapture over the language, she also swoons over Italian literature (from Dante to Manzoni), opera (Verdi and Puccini) and cinema (Marcello Mastroianni and Fellini) as she rehearses the many ways in which the language has seductively slipped into Western culture and consciousness.”
“An economic crisis has a way of curbing one’s ability to rent a Tuscan villa for the summer, but, thankfully, there are other, more affordable means to indulge a passion for all things Italian. Among them: getting a copy of Dianne Hales’ wonderful new book, La Bella Lingua: My Love Affair With Italian, the World’s Most Enchanting Language.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
“A lovely and humorous account of one person’s love with a particular language.”
“Your book has been a fine companion during a period of intense travel. I dipped into it in dozens of hotels and airplanes! What a big adventure. Italy offers so many levels of discovery. I so enjoyed yours!”
“La Bella Lingua is a joyous, funny and warmly affectionate celebration of Italy, its history, literature, food, music, movies and its people. For the novice and the aficionado alike, it’s an instruction guide to help appreciate the most loved and lovable language, but also how to really live like a true Italian.”
—What’s New in Italy
“A delightful, informative tour of both the history of the Italian language and her own account of innamoramento (crazy head-over-heels love) with la bella lingua.”
—Everett Potter Travel Report
“La Bella Lingua is a book for those people who wish to take full advantage of their time in Italy. This unique book serves as a history, a guide, and lexicon for English speaking travellers in Italy… Hales’ readers can come to experience Italy with as much passion and intensity as she recounts in her excellent book.
In Hales’ journey to master fluency of Italian she encounters truly unforgettable people and places. Her ancedotes are filled with useful information and are truly enjoyable to read. …Guide books offer polite and utilitarian phrases to readers such as Non parlo Italiano but Hales teaches Italian as it should be spoken: with style.”
—The Florence Newspaper
“An impassioned student, Dianne Hales takes us along on her delightful pilgrimage to the speaking heart of Italy. The rhythmic beat she comes to feel and love teaches her how to live, in beautiful and idiomatic Italian, “a language as rich in flavors and varieties as Italian cooking.” The reading pilgrim’s reward is this delicious feast of a book, a strong mix of cultural and spoken treasure.”
—Susan Cahill, Author of Desiring Italy & The Smiles of Rome
“Dianne Hales is just about pitch perfect as she weaves the engaging story of her innamoramento with Italian, hitting the high notes of Italian culture… a lovely, touching tribute to the many fine civilizing gifts that Italy has shared with the world.
Any smart traveler to Italy would want to read La Bella Lingua. It’s not only readable and engaging but informative about things not easily found in guidebooks and common tourist materials.”
—Julia Conaway Bondanella and Peter Bondanella, whose many books on Italian literature and cinema include The Italian Renaissance Reader, Italian Cinema, and the Cassell Dictionary of Italian Literature
“l’ho letta ‘tutta d’un fiato,’ degustandola come un ottimo bicchiere di Chianti! Ho colto in ogni parola, espressione, frase, riferimento, traduzione, interpretazione… il suo grandissimo ‘innamoramento’ e ‘amore’ per la lingua italiana.”
(I read it all in one breath, savoring it like an excellent glass of Chianti! I grasped in every word, expression, phrase, reference, tradition, interpretation your very great infatuation and love for the Italian language.)
—Prof. Pasquale Fantasia, Ufficio Scuola Consolato d’Italia, Detroit
“Her decades-long affair with all things Italian is so vividly told, you’ll soon be craving gelato.”
“La Bella Lingua will keep you turning pages, nodding along in agreement, laughing, even learning… And Dianne’s writing? A sheer pleasure. Truly. La Bella Lingua is a must for any lover of the Italian language.”
—Michele Fabio, www.bleedingespesso.com
“To say Dianne’s journey and her book were captivating would be an understatement. The uniqueness of her story, the vibrant prose contained within this non-fiction book, and her tales of some of her mishaps as she learned to speak Italian, kept me turning the pages, eager to learn more. Her book honors Italy and Italians everywhere. A highly recommended read—but beware—it will make you want to vacation there yourself. Brava Dianne! Encore!”
—Mirella Patzer, www.bestofitaly.blogspot.com
“La Bella Lingua is the kind of book you want to savor slowly, like a small piece of fine chocolate melting on your tongue… In Dianne’s expert hands a grammar lesson becomes an ambrosial experience, and by drawing on the riches of Italian art, history, cooking, literature, film, customs and romance (as well as countless anecdotes from her travels and research), Hales tempts us to fall as madly and deeply in love with Italian as she has.”
—Michelle Ward, the sweet life blog at www.lolalina.com
“Hales’ unrestrained joy of all things Italian jumps off each and every page as the author traces the history of modern Italian from its multiple origins in the dialects of the country. As we follow the historical journey of Italy’s linguistic twists and turns throughout the centuries, Hales interjects humorous anecdotes and folk tales. Around each corner of her narrative lies another surprising jewel of a discovery… A wonderful journey of all things Italian rolled up in an enjoyable history lesson. Don’t be a “brutta figura!” Go now and buy it!”
—ComUNICO, the national UNICO newsletter
“Ms. Hales captures the real essence of not only the language, but the culture of “il bel paese.” … She stuffs her pages with the history of the language and its people. She explores the very foundations of modern western culture through the contributions of great Italians and their culture throughout history… Ms. Hales’ style is never preachy, never overly reverent. She is an experienced journalist who takes the reader on a voyage of discovery and along the way she shares her admiration, occasional frustration and always her humor. I highly recommend this book. It is a great summer read and would even be useful in the classroom. I think teachers of the language and anyone who shares the author’s love of Italian will enjoy this book.”
—Alfred J. Valentini, Adjunct Professor of Italian at Utica College, Vice President/Treasurer Italian Teachers of Central New York