If you’re looking to learn one of the most spoken languages in the world you’re not going to choose Italian. Searching through lists of most spoken global languages, most put Italian well below Spanish, Mandarin, Hindi/Urdu, French, Portuguese et al – some generously as high as 19 and others as low 40.
However, researchers looking at the most popular language courses in universities around the world found that Italian was the fourth most studied language. In a separate study the British Council found that Italian was the third most popular evening language class in the UK.
It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it
So why all the interest in this ‘minority’ language? Is it the culture of Italy that attracts people to its language – the food, literature, music, art and history of the place and its people?
Maybe, but also the physicality of the language draws people to learn Italian. Italian is seen as an especially expressive language because of the way Italians use gestures alongside spoken language – often instead of speaking!
Anyone with a passing acquaintance with the Italian language or Italians may well view gestures as a simple addition to language, like mimicking an action to make a point – saying ‘Call me’ while shaping your hand like a phone and holding it to your ear. But Italian hand and body gestures are much richer, more articulate and just as nuanced and complex as spoken or written Italian.
A psychology professor in Rome, Isabella Poggi, found that Italians use approximately 250 hand gestures in an average day. The professor says that “the only thing differentiating them from sign language is that they are used individually and lack a full syntax”.
A song and dance about Italian gestural communication
Watching Italians communicate in the stradas and plazas is like watching performers in physical theatre.
In 2011 I made a documentary about the gestural communication called La voce del corpo (The Voice of The Body).
My documentary aims to create a deeper understanding of gestural communication, focusing on non-verbal communication by the Sicilians, veritable masters of the art of ‘speaking with the body’.
In Italy the documentary was recognised as a ‘Film d’Essai’ (a work with a superior authorial quality) by the Italian Ministry of Culture, General Direction for Cinema. It was entered in the ‘Schermi di Qualità’ scheme for the promotion of Italian cinema, selected for the Sicilian Itinerant Festival of Documentaries ‘Visionan DOC’ organized by FICE Sicily.
In 2013 I moved to London and screened the documentary at the National Film Theatre. Film and theatre director Richard Eyre attended this screening and invited me to coach an Irish cast in Sicilian non-verbal communication for his production of Pirandello’s ‘Liolà’ for the National Theatre.
When I arrived at the National Theatre for the first time he introduced me to one of the theatre staff, another Sicilian, and told the two of us to “go on the stage and just talk in your dialect. We (the cast and production team) will watch your hand movements and afterwards you can explain to us the meanings”.
However, I had actually prepared a presentation. I knew the work of Pirandello well and I had studied the English script the performers were going to use in this production. This took the director a little by surprise, but he asked me to go ahead. So I did, in front of the 20 or so assembled actors and additional crew I demonstrated hand gestures, facial expressions, body language, the differences between gestures used by men and women, the old and the young.
When I finished the actors were excited and wanted more, they became crazy for information and instruction about Sicilian gestures. They asked about how signs could be combined with words, about replacing words completely with gestures, the origin of gesturing and how we learn it as children.
The director was amazed and gave me my own room in the theatre in which I could meet with the actors individually or collectively and discuss specific scenes or general techniques.
The experience I had with Richard Eyre and his cast has been one of the most important, strange and funny events in my whole life.
It led to me being interviewed by the BBC for their See Hear programme for people who are deaf or hard of hearing about the correlation between Italian gesturing and sign language.
I was then invited to the Guardian to be interviewed about the importance of gestures to Italian life.
From there I received an offer to produce Italian hand gesture workshops at the University of Bristol, which has since taken me to universities all around the world.
So, I have become a teacher of Italian body language and it has been wonderful to find so much enthusiasm and interest in this aspect of Italian life and culture.
My experiences have convinced me that the reason Italian is such a popular language to learn, even though relatively few people speak it, is the appeal of its physicality. And it has been wonderful to watch English speakers adopt and adapt gestural communication into their own everyday speech.
About Luca Vullo
Luca Vullo is a filmmaker who has made several documentaries, short films, music videos and commercials. His work has won prizes at a number of international film and documentary festivals.
He is the owner and founder of the film production company Ondemotive which alongside film and documentary production organises training and workshops young people and children in schools, community associations, cooperatives and rehabilitation centres.
He currently lives and works in London.
Learn Italian at IH London
IH London offers a range of Italian classes to suit any language level and every learning objective.
Our teachers speak Italian and get you using the language from the very start of your course through role play, games and problem-solving activities. You also work on grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation, enabling you to use Italian independently in a wide range of situations.