We all know that being multilingual has its perks but let’s be honest: speaking a foreign language and constantly translating in your head can also be pretty annoying and lead to major cringe attacks if you are not 100% proficient.
This is especially true whenever you find yourself in a situation where a great part of your surroundings does not speak your first language. Let me tell you, I am an expert in that field and there is a very easy explanation for that: I am from South Tyrol (A tiny, rural region, 500,000 inhabitants, bilingual).
South Tyrol has two (three to be precise, but let’s not go there now) official languages: Italian and German.
Why German when it is in Italy?
Long story short: after the First World War South Tyrol, which at the time belonged to Austria, was annexed to Italy. While in the following decades Italian-speaking families moved to the region, the former Austrian and therefore obviously German-speaking population already living there, somehow managed to keep their language.
That is why today, almost 100 years later, I am an Italian citizen who speaks German as her first language and a more or less acceptable Italian as her second.
Federico Fellini once said that a different language is a different vision of life and I can see that statement in action every day. I live in a region which tries to combine the bubbly, very animated and loud Italian way that is very leisure-focused, optimistic and sometimes thoughtless in the best way possible with the much more reserved, serious and hard-working German vision of living which many characterize by ambition, diligence and an amusing lack of humour.
Either ways, in South Tyrol you will neither meet stereotypical Germans nor Italians.
But guaranteeing the continuity and satisfaction of both language groups always has and still does take a lot of effort.
For example, we have to have bilingual everything. From official documents, to menus in restaurants, to road sign. There are German schools where Italian is taught and Italian schools where German is taught. There are events in German, events in Italian and events that never end because they present everything in both languages.
If something is not translated, the South-Tyrolean will find it – and beware if they do.
Don’t dare to think that growing up in such a setting guarantees bilingualism. Funnily enough, that is not true.
Although we all more or less understand the other language, we tend to avoid showing off our knowledge by simply not speaking our second language.
Whenever I meet people they cannot believe I am a German speaking Italian, they simply get confused and they label me as ‘German’. This constant state of “not belonging” makes me have identity crisis. On the other hand, I do feel unbelievably lucky.
I do not take for granted the possibilities that growing up in a bilingual environment has given me.
If the limits of one’s language really do mean the limits of one’s world, as Ludwig Wittgenstein once claimed, then I am literally living the best of both worlds – something that I will be forever grateful for.