There are many different reasons to learn a new language.  Mandarin will help you get ahead in the world of business, Arabic will give you opportunities in international relations, and Spanish will let you communicate with 406 million people across four continents.  And then there’s Italian; while it isn’t as widespread as English or Spanish, and while it’s lacking the socio-political urgency of Mandarin or Arabic, Italian is the perfect language to learn for those who want to intimately appreciate some of humanity’s great art, literature, film, music, and, of course, food.

Modern Italian, derived from Vulgar Latin, is virtually the same language as it was written 700 years ago by Dante Alighieri, Florentine author of The Divine Comedy, renowned for proving that a vernacular language, rather than the classic Greek or Latin, could deal eloquently with sublime mattersAfter the fall of the Roman Empire, Italy became a peninsula of rivaling city-states, and when scholars convened in the 19th century to determine a standard spoken language for the newly unified country, they settled on Dante’s Tuscan dialect, which they agreed was the most melodic and aesthetically pleasing.  In fact, the final words of The Divine Comedy, l’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle,” have been described by scholars (generally other Italians,) as the most beautiful and enduring words ever written.


Since then, Italian has been renowned for resonating beauty and romance—Lord Byron described it as sounding “as if it should be writ on satin”—and its popularity among people who study it as a second language demonstrates its lasting impact on western culture.  The trochaic rhythm of spoken Italian, (that is, its words are generally divided into pairs of syllables, with the stress being on the first syllable: Nel mez-zo del cam-min di nos-tra vi-ta,) gives it a tantalizingly musical sound, making it ideal for poetry and song.  In addition to Dante, poets and writers of the Italian Renaissance such as Petrarch, renowned for his love sonnets, Boccaccio, author of The Decameron, and Niccolo Macchiavelli of The Prince fame still inspire readers and artists.  Some of history’s greatest operas—even those composed by foreigners like Handel and Mozart—are written in Italian, and the music written by opera legends like Rossini, Verdi, Puccini endure to this day.  Even in the 20th century, filmmakers such as Giuseppe Tornatore, Roberto Benigni, and Federico Fellini are admired by anyone well-versed in foreign cinema.

So why learn Italian?  Because you are missing out on a crucial aspect of culture and humanity if you don’t.  Of course, you can always read a translation of Dante’s Inferno, watch Cinema Paradiso with subtitles, and read the English synopsis along with Madame Butterfly.  But in doing so you’re only getting a diluted version of the language’s true meaning, as well as being distracted from the sound of the words themselves, which is half the experience.  Being able to understand and revel in the language of Dante will give you a new appreciation for life and a heritage that has influenced much of modern history.  And if nothing else, you’ll be able to travel to Italy and order everything on the menu at whatever restaurant you come across, which is no small victory.  Buona fortuna!