This article was written originally in Italian for the online newspaper ”Alessandria NEWS” with which I collaborate. Every week I talk about various aspects of life in the USA and I thought important to explore the reasons why American students keep choosing to study Italian in college. This is what I found out firsthand from my Marquette students.
Why Study Italian in the U.S.?
As many of you already know, I teach Italian language and culture at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
I have always been curious to know the reasons why   my students want to learn Italian, a language with a very challenging grammar and one not spoken that much outside the Italian borders.
On the first day of classes in August, we introduce ourselves and one of the things I ask each of my students is to explain the reasons why they decided to study Italian in college.
Many of them don’t know anything about Italy though they may have an Italian last name. They have no knowledge of the language as it has not been spoken in their home since long, long ago and so they take my class. Yes, Italian surnames abound. And many of those whose names are not clearly recognizable as Italian choose to study it because they are of Italian descent and they want to reclaim the language of their ancestors. Hats off to them!
If being of Italian descent is a very valid reason to study Italian, who are the remaining students and why do they subject themselves to the mess of Italian grammar?
The second category of students is those who want to study a semester abroad and the “abroad” for them is Italy. Marquette is linked to two American universities in Rome (John Cabot and John Felice), an American university in Florence (Gonzaga University) and the Universita ` Cattolica Del Sacro Cuore in Milan. While attending two or four semesters of foreign language (depending on the fields of study) is a requirement for Marquette students, it is not mandatory to choose to study Italian at Marquette to spend a semester in Italy. If so, Italian would probably be one of the most studied foreign languages at MU, since one of the most sought-after destinations in which to study abroad is indeed Italy. I applaud whoever recognizes that speaking the language of the guest country is a form of respect that will allow him/her to integrate and fully enjoy all aspects of the host culture.
Other students decide to study Italian because they went to Italy for vacation and fell in love with the country. They want to learn the language because they want to go back.
One other is the category of those who are native Spanish speakers or who learned it in high school. They think that the two languages are the same and that they are going to get an easy A without putting too much effort into studying. Unfortunately for them (and they will soon discover it!) if they don’t study, “A” could become a mirage.
The last category is that of students who admit to being in need of language credits to graduate and have based their choice on ... they don’t really know! They are in the classroom because they need the credits and awakening their interest in the language is "my challenge”.
Everything I've written so far is about who takes my language courses, since my students of the culture course have different reasons.
Since the course is on the history of Italian culture through its cuisine, some students think they are taking a course where they eat every day ... the words “student” and “hungry" are inextricably linked. Students are always hungry! Much is due to the fact that they survive by eating cafeteria food which is "a la carte” and costs the same as going to a fancy restaurant. A student may choose what he wants, but the money will be deducted from a specific meal plan chosen by the student. Given the cost of universities in the USA, I thought that the money for food was unlimited. I may well be wrong, however - otherwise why do so many students have microwaves in their rooms and survive on Ramen Noodles (dehydrated Chinese style noodles), which cost very little money and only require one to add water, but which contain a high concentration of sodium and preservatives. Even my daughter’s friends, already in college, confirm this fact.
  My students of the culture course, once the disappointment that it is not a cooking class has worn off, begin to appreciate and understand the Italian culture. The greatest reward of my teaching is to receive their emails, after the course is completed, in which they thank me for teaching them the culture behind the food they eat and giving them the tools to understand so much during their travels in Italy. It could not be otherwise since food is a very important aspect of Italian culture.
The last category of Italian students I am considering in this article is the most motivated. They are those who decided to get a minor in Italian Studies. At this point many of you may ask yourselves what a Minor is. A Minor is a second discipline that you may choose in American universities, while the Major is the subject of the majority of your studies. A student graduating from undergrad studies (after 4 years of college) has many options: some students graduate with a single Major, but others may earn two or even three Majors and a Minor. This is an interesting article I found about universities in the USA:
At Marquette we offer a Minor in Italian studies. Compared to a Major, a Minor requires fewer credits and since we are small in our department, offering a Minor is already a success.
Two of the students who are now studying to fulfill the Italian Minor’s requirements I interviewed specifically for this article: Anna , of Italian ancestry and Adam , who doesn’t have any ties to Italy except that he began studying Italian as a freshman to fulfill his language credits and got hooked on the language and culture. I have known them since they were freshmen and we still meet every week for an informal conversation group, so for me it was nice to get their answers (we spoke in Italian for this interview).
Of course my first question was aimed to know the reasons why they chose Italian when they arrived at Marquette and the answer for Anna was that her family is of Italian origins, and also because her Major is archeology and Italy is one of the places in the world where history and art are all around you. Adam chose to study Italian because one of his father’s best friends was Italian and he called him zio( uncle).
Neither of them knew the language.  Anna knew just a few words she had learned from her grandfather who spoke Italian, though her dad does not and her mom is Greek and speaks her native language. The language lessons when he was a freshman led Adam to choose to continue with second year Italian and then to decide to get a Minor in Italian studies.
They both studied in Italy last year. Adam spent six weeks last summer in Milan at the very intense Universita` Cattolica’s summer program. I was happy to meet Adam in Milan last summer when I visited Universita` Cattolica and I met with the colleagues who teach Italian for foreigners and the people who are behind the successful relationship between MU and Cattolica. I found a happy Adam. He was totally at ease in this new environment, his Italian language abilities so improved in such a short time. The reasons for this are Adam’s incredible learning ability and the fact that the program in Milan, being Cattolica an Italian University with a program in English for foreign students, gathers students from all over the world. The students are living the city life, and the common language is not English but Italian. Of course he learned lots of new words and expressions that he took home to the U.S.
Anna chose Rome, John Cabot University.  Rome is the eternal city and a person who studies archeology, history and art couldn’t ask for a better location. For Anna the linguistic experience ended up not being as good. From her own words: “Rome is too full of tourists  and people who speak English" ,adding to this was that she already  took too many language courses with us and John Cabot University  could not offer her advanced courses in Italian. Anna spent a semester in Rome without studying Italian.
The conversation was also attended by Angela. Angela will go to Italy next semester. She is of Italian nationality, even though no one in her family speaks Italian and she is the first who is studying it. Angela is now attending my culture course.
I wanted to ask Angela and Anna, since she is also in the culture course, what they are finding interesting of the Italian culture we are considering in the course. Neither of them had any  idea how Food and historical events of a population are intermingled, how music and literature and art have taken food as a reference and how learning about eating habits makes  it easier  to understand many aspects of the Italian people .
Adam hasn’t attended my culture course yet, but he has already taken courses in Italian cinema and literature, and his participation in the discussion was very interesting.
Although I had already received enough information from Angela, Adam and Anna, I wanted to understand if and how the motivations to study Italian had changed among my language students after nearly two semesters of studying the language.
A part of our program entails language exchanges with native Italian speakers, thanks to Skype and our language program via @mu.  The exchanges are positive for both the Italian speakers learning English and the American students learning Italian. The two languages are spoken at different times during the exchange and they need to remain distinct and never mixed. When a problem presents itself during the exchange the solution must be found in the language that is used at the moment. In order to stimulate possible topics of conversation, part of the preparation we give to the students is cultural. We learn the vocabulary for topics like education, shopping, parties, sports, health, city life, etc.  .So when I asked my language students what they found different between Italy and the U.S., many of them remembered aspects of culture that looked strange to them: for example the fact that many shops close down for lunch, that hair salons are closed on Mondays, and that at night there are pharmacies on duty and people go there to buy medicines and not to the ER and that the universities are public as is the health system and they both cost much, much less than in the US.

It will be interesting to listen to them during the exchanges this year, even more because the exchanges will take place with, on the other side, the Association of Culture and Development in my hometown, Alessandria. This will be a way for me to stay connected to my city of origin, and I hope that my students will be able to understand that Italy is made of many different realities that are not Milan, Rome, Florence and Venice, but just as interesting.