Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

entry Jan. 2003

Language(s) & Communication

Here’s a bit of off–the–cuff anthropology. It's related to the entry, Naples, Survivor Culture, and to my perception that there is less of a difference between “insider” and “outsider” in Naples than in many other places. Perhaps it relates also to the local ability, or lack thereof, to learn foreign languages. 

Anyone who teaches English as a foreign language abroad (as I do) comes away with the feeling that some cultures are better at it than others. A cursory stroll down almost any street or into any store in northern Europe will leave you with the impression that everyone —say, in the Netherlands— speaks English. Movies and TV are routinely in the original language and subtitled in Dutch, and local children will no doubt hear thousands of hours of English before they get a chance to study it formally in school. They are primed for French and German in much the same way. It is a polyglot culture.

In Naples and in Italy, in general, everything is dubbed into Italian. Young people seem to approach the study of another language the way they do Latin in school —as a dead language, totally unconnected to their daily lives. They almost never experience English directly. Admittedly, the onslaught of American popular music has modified that somewhat, so that a sentence such as “How ya gonna do it if ya really don’t wanna dance?” is part of the same local perception of the English language mosaic as, “Little we see in Nature that is ours;/We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!” It’s all English. It’s in the same ballpark. (That can cause a few problems at exam time. EBL—English as a Ballpark Language? Maybe.) 

So, my sharp and highly intelligent students in Naples don’t really care that indirect questions follow normal subject-object word order and not that of direct WH-questions. They say, “Do you know where is the station?” and are quite amused at my insistence on “Do you know where the station is?” And I can see “What difference does it make? You understand me, right?” running through their minds. Maybe that is related to the fact that Naples is a "survivor culture". They are a flexible, hospitable and outgoing people and totally undemanding of you when it comes to your own ability to speak their language. They will gratefully accept any kind of Italian from you and thank you for it and sincerely compliment you on it. You become an “insider” almost by declaration. You say in your worst Italian, “Hey, I want to belong” and their answer is “Fine. No problem.” 

You communicate anyway, even without proper verb conjugations, and those little niceties of language fall by the wayside as the difference between insider and outsider gets more and more muddled. You communicate, and it is almost like being present at one of those mighty births of creole language that linguists tell us occur when cultures and languages blend. Thus —here’s the point (you knew there had to be one in here, somewhere!)— Neapolitans are as willing to accept their own mistakes in other languages as they are to accept your mistakes in theirs. 

Yes, there are cultures in the world that are so xenophobic that they reject any attempt on your part to speak their language, much less take out membership in that culture. If that is one end of the spectrum, there certainly must exist cultures at the other end, the place where all the “flexible, hospitable, outgoing and undemanding” xenophiles gather and get along.

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