Learning with languages – An Italian celebration of language, culture and community

June marks the start of Italian Heritage month, an opportunity to celebrate and reflect on Italian culture across the country. With Italian-Canadian communities and groups to be found in Vancouver, and throughout the province, individuals and cultural organizations – such as the Dante Alighieri Society of B.C. – encourage Italian-Canadians, and anyone interested in Italian culture, to explore and engage with its language, food, music and more in B.C.

For Renato Zane, president of the society’s B.C. branch, the language courses and various events on offer with the club allow British Columbians the opportunity to engage with Italian culture, both past and present.

“It’s a place of constant connection with… Italian culture that is very outward-looking. We want to learn about other cultures,” says Zane. “We see it as a way to reflect not just where Italy came from, but where Italy is going.”

Reconnecting to the roots

While Zane was born and lived his early childhood in Italy, his intercontinental upbringing saw him growing up in South Africa and, eventually, southern Ontario. While it meant little opportunity to engage with his Italian cultural roots in early life, it was a chance for both him and his parents to learn about and understand other cultures and languages outside of Italy.

The Dante Alighieri Society of British Columbia has helped showcase Italian culture through its language classes and various cultural events. | Photo courtesy of the Dante Alighieri Society of British Columbia.

“When we immigrated to Africa, my parents were very focused on learning about other cultures and integrating in other cultures,” says Zane. “We jumped right in and learned English. I remember my mother learned English at home… When we were doing our homework she was looking over our shoulder and learning as well.”

While he spent many years of his career in multicultural and multilingual broadcasting, including even a brief stint in producing Italian daily news programming, Zane says that an exploration of his Italian roots wasn’t a huge priority when he moved to the West Coast.

But after coming across and attending a Dante Alighieri webinar, Zane says his curiosity was piqued. As he eventually became more involved within the club, an opportunity came about to draw on his experience with non-profits to become its president, which he accepted.

“What interested me was the modern connection with Italian culture,” says Zane. “I’m very interested in sort of how Italy fits into modern Europe and into the global arena.”

For Zane and others, the club looks to provide such opportunities, with various events, book clubs and documentary screenings. One such event, earlier this year, involved a webinar with Italian diplomat Fabrizio Nava, whose talk offered a perspective on Canadian identity, but from a distinctly Italian perspective.

“That was so interesting because it generated a lot of discussion about what it is that we are proud of as Canadians,” he says. “What is it that makes us Canadians? How has our sense of identity changed over the years?”

As such, Zane says events like this look to reach out both to the Italian-Canadian community itself and beyond, and ensure anyone who’s interested has the chance to gain some perspective and sate curiosity about Italian culture.

Community through classes

Such is the case with the club’s language classes, open to all levels of language learning ability. Zane says that while some first-generation Italian-Canadians might not feel the need to keep up with the language through classes with the club, many find a real benefit in taking Italian classes in Canada in order to practice a less regional, more broadly-used style of the language.

“There are a lot of immigrants who came to Canada from very specific regions in Italy. And many of those community groups speak local dialects,” he says. “So we do have some that want to learn how to speak… national Italian.”

Renato Zane, president of the Dante Alighieri Society of British Columbia. | Photo courtesy of the Dante Alighieri Society of British Columbia.

For those who don’t have Italian heritage, the classes can also serve as an opportunity to brush up on their linguistic skills before traveling, and serve as an entry point to Italian culture and community.

“We see a little sense of community that develops when you start as [a] beginner,” says Zane. “And if you enjoy the experience, you may want to sign up for the next class. And you think people that were in that class [might be] making that journey with you.”

But in between the first-generation Italian-Canadians and those without a bespoke Italian cultural connection, Zane says there’s yet another group that finds a real value to reconnecting with Italy through language and learning.

For second and third generation Italian Canadians, often entering their early adult years, he says there’s often something about that period in life which encourages many people to connect with their cultural roots, including Zane’s own son.

“When he was growing up, he wasn’t that interested in learning Italian, and we never encouraged it. But when he went to university, he decided at that point in his early twenties that he wanted to learn Italian. He signed up for a program, went to Florence, lived [there] for a year,” says Zane.

Zane says that, much like his son, many at that age are able to find a sense of cultural connection through the language learning process. As such, he hopes the society can continue to provide that opportunity to any and all who are interested in kindling that cultural curiosity.

“People want to focus on life in Canada, and then when they get to a certain age they yearn for an understanding of their roots. This I’m sure is true of so many communities in Canada. There’s a better appreciation at a different phase of one’s life, or an interest. And that’s true of the language courses too,” says Zane. “People come back sometimes because they feel they’re missing something and they want to have that more complete connection.”

For more information about the Dante Alighieri Society of B.C., visit: www.dantesocietybc.ca

Leave a Reply