Eataly is a massive new food emporium for all things Italian in the heart of Manhattan. There are 50,000 sq ft of olive oil, pasta, prosciutto, and panettone, plus an array of places to find a meal. One of the partners behind Eataly is the author and TV chef Lidia Bastianich.
“Here we have all opportunities to enjoy authentic Italian products that are artizanale, from the origins of Italy,” she says.
Like generations of Italians before her, Bastianich came to the United States when she was a child. America has been her home for more than half a century.
“The love for Italian food, specifically Italian food, has been a crescendo in all of these 50 years. It seems that Americans are in love with Italy: they love Italian style, the culture and music, but then Italy is a special country.”
It especially feel like that in the United States. So that makes a recent piece of news all the more surprising. A couple months back the State University of New York at Albany announced the elimination of Italian language as a major.
Maria Keyes, a lecturer at SUNY Albany, says she was left speechless. Originally from Rome, she’s been teaching at the university for 23 years. Keyes says it is currently the only place in the local region where students can major in Italian.
“Once this goes away there is nothing,” she says. “There are other colleges where they teach one or two classes, maybe because the students go overseas on exchange programs, but I’m surprised that the only place where a student has a chance to gain a degree in Italian is to be closed.”
The authorities at SUNY Albany say the cuts were unavoidable: their funding comes from New York State, which itself faces a massive budget shortfall. Other language majors have been closed besides Italian, including French, Russian and classics.
Chinese isn’t one of them. Nancy Rhodes is with the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington. She says that one of the reasons Chinese is currently on the rise is that there is a strong push from the Chinese government to promote the language in the United States. That push is in large part financial, with lots of money going not only to colleges, but also to budget-strapped high schools.
“The Chinese government comes and says we’d like you to teach Chinese, and by the way, we can provide you with teachers. So it’s a great deal for many of these schools,” Rhodes adds.
The Italian government spends money in American high schools too. It funds a chain of education non-profits called the Enti Gestori, which help pay for Italian programs and teachers. The Italian government also recently threw its weight behind the Advanced Placement exam in Italian. The AP awards college credit for high school students. The Italian exam first arrived in 2005 after a campaign by various Italian American groups. One of the leaders of that campaign was Margaret Cuomo, of the Italian Language Federation.
“The program ran for three years, but you have to remember in 2007, 2008 the recession was on its way,” Cuomo says.
“Things became very challenging to support a program that still wasn’t at the point of being self-sustaining.”
Last year the Italian AP ran out of money and was discontinued. In response, Cuomo and others went lobbying and fundraising again, enlisting the Italian government along the way. It worked: the Italian AP will return next September–and Cuomo is determined it won’t be cut again.
“This program is for the foreseeable future.”
Cuomo is insistent: and that’s what it takes for a small language such as Italian to thrive in the United States today, when budgets are tight and other languages dominate the political and economic spotlight. Languages are in a competition for students and resources.
Some institutions can barely afford to offer any foreign languages. So when there’s pressure to introduce the language of the day, it can come at a price. “We hate to see a language being dropped–German, or Italian being dropped–so that Chinese can be added,” Rhodes says.
The Bronx High School of Science is a public school about an hours subway ride away from Eataly, the food emporium in Manhattan. Renata Paolercio teaches Italian there, one lesson a day for each grade.
“Here I feel fairly comfortable,” she says. “We have a fairly consistent enrollment, but it’s that one class every year. So I do feel quite a lot of pressure on myself to ensure that at least one freshman class comes in each year.”
If students don’t sign up for Italian–if there’s no demand–there would be no class. One of the things Paolercio says motivates her high school students to enroll is the prospect of college credit in year four, their senior year. In fact, she says not having that option would be disastrous.
“You could essentially kill the program in one year, not having a fourth year option for students.”
So when the Advanced Placement exam in Italian was cut last year Renata Paolercio had to scramble. She found an alternative to the AP, something called ‘University in the High School’, which also offers college-level classes. But that course is run by.. SUNY Albany, the university that just cut its Italian major. Now, of course, there are questions about the future of University in the High School, at least regarding Italian.The survival of a language in schools and colleges is mostly about money. It’s also about confidence. If students can’t be sure schools are committed to a language, they’ll be unlikely to commit to it themselves. Still, Italian’s not in danger of disappearing from American education. Almost 80 thousand high schoolers took the language in 2007/8, the most recent figures available. And don’t forget, not all learners are in formal education.
“We will teach Italian language in the vernacular of food.”
At the Eataly food emporium, Chef Lidia Bastianich plans to offer something called La Scuola, an in-house school where patrons can learn to eat and talk like Italians.
“They will have breakfast so they can say ‘how delicious, how good’ in Italian: all of those things that are very useful language, that’s at the basis. It’s about how you make the language your friend.”
Our reasons for learning languages change. Right now Chinese commands the headlines, as Russian and Japanese did in decades past. It’s harder to make a case for Italian solely for business reasons.
Once upon a time Americans learned Italian because they wanted to communicate with their Italian grandparents. Now, if Bastianich is right, Americans are learning the language in part because it’s a lifestyle.