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  • Writer's pictureSerafina Paladino

Learning the Nuances of Italian through Poetry

Wouldn’t it be great if you could read stories from around the world and connect with people from different cultures because you knew more than one language?

This is the exact thought that ran through my head when I began to study foreign languages. During this time, I discovered that reading is an essential part of learning grammar rules and new vocabulary. For some, this can be accomplished by browsing through articles and social media posts. In my case, I found that my Italian improved from reading poetry.


Why you should learn Italian

Italian is often overlooked by students who choose to learn another Romance Language like Spanish or French under the impression that Italian is less useful. This is unfounded, however, because Italian opens the door to not only learning another language in this family, but it also introduces one to fascinating periods in European history like the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. I have a particular fondness for medieval Italian literature because many of the texts written during this time have inspired creatives for centuries. Poetry held a prestigious position within this literary canon, and I consider it a great resource for learning Italian for numerous reasons.



This is a picture of a Venice Canal.
There are many reasons to learn Italian.


The Benefits of Reading Italian Poetry

First, the best part about reading poetry is that it tends to be shorter than a novel or essay. When words are formatted into brief stanzas, it is easier for a student to read them and remember the words they need to look up if their meanings are uncertain. This is not always the case when reading a novel because sometimes, entire paragraphs will be incomprehensible for a new student. One might ask how reading poetry differs from using an app or flashcards to study. My answer is that a poem contextualizes a specific word or grammar rule that a student is learning in an exciting and unique manner. In other words, a flashcard is a handy tool for remembering a word, but poetry allows one to comprehend the meaning behind it. This same problem also plagues beginning Italian students because while memorizing vocabulary in the language is easy, constructing a coherent sentence is not. I recommend that students use what they know to read Italian poetry outside of their coursework so that they can authentically take in the nuances of the language.


The Problem with Mood & Tense

Looking at an example from my studies, I found it hard to differentiate between the tense and mood of verbs since both play a similar yet fundamental role in their conjugation. I define tense as referring to the time (past, present, future, etc.) of an action, and the mood indicates how it is conveyed. There are four moods in Italian to remember:

· the indicativo or indicative, used to talk about events that occur in reality

· the congiuntivo or subjunctive, describes dreams, wishes, or probabilities

· the condizionale orconditional, used for hypothetical situations

· and finally, the imperativo or imperative, which gives commands

This list of moods may appear daunting to someone unfamiliar with Italian because conjugating verbs is rarely a concern for someone speaking their native tongue – it is like this part of language becomes instinctual over time.



This is a picture of a man walking down a street in Italy.
Differentiating moods and tenses of verbs in Italian can be hard.


Learning Sentence Patterns with the Subjunctive and Conditional

With practice, it is possible to achieve this same fluency in Italian. That is why I advise students of all levels to practice recognizing sentence patterns that require moods like the subjunctive and conditional. For example, in English you could say, “if I was rich, I would buy a castle” and in Italian, this sentence would translate to “se fossi ricco, comprerei un castello”. Notice how the Italian sentence begins with “se” (if) and is followed by two verbs: namely, “fossi” which is conjugated in the past subjunctive, and “comprerei” which is in the present conditional. This is a pattern that you will encounter regularly when learning Italian, and so it is important to memorize it. I did so by pondering the curious lines of medieval poet Cecco Angiolieri’s sonnet “S'i' fosse foco”. The poem begins with:


S’i’ fosse foco, arderei ’l mondo;

s’i’ fosse vento, lo tempesterei;

s’i’ fosse acqua, i’ l’annegherei;

s’i’ fosse Dio, mandereil’en profondo;

(If I were fire, I would burn the world;

if I were wind, I would assail it with storms;

if I were water, I would drown it;

if I were God, I would hurl it into the deep;)


The opening tone of this poem is darkly humorous and even provocative, I recall being shocked by Angiolieri’s words when I first read them because they diverge greatly from his peers. It is rare to find a medieval text where the author boldly proclaims that he will burn down the world, and I cannot stop myself from marveling at the strangeness of Angiolieri and the grammar he inadvertently teaches to the reader. I do not foresee myself forgetting the uses of the subjunctive and conditional moods anytime soon thanks to this odd poet and his artistic vision. Like a song or dance you would learn as a child in elementary school, this poem is a creative resource for me to remember a tricky grammar rule. Even if you are not knowledgeable about Italian medievalism, the lines of this poem, much like a childhood song or dance, are quirky and memorable.



This is a picture of a stack of books next to a teacup and saucer.
Reading poetry can help you to learn grammar.


Further Readings

On the other hand, for those students who are fascinated by Angiolieri, this poem provides them with a solid foundation for reading other great works of literature written during his time. One of these great works that I recommend advanced students read is the Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. The poem is separated into three parts: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. It follows a pilgrim’s journey as he traverses through the afterlife. Today, Dante’s Comedy is regarded as a masterpiece of world literature. Short and witty poems like Angiolieri’s prepare you to take on difficult texts, and there is always more to learn along the way. Poems like these and the lessons they teach are just the beginning of your exciting journey to learn Italian, and you will continue to improve with each vocabulary word, mood, and tense mastered.


Every step you take matters. ReDefiners World Languages offers courses and workshops in English, Spanish, Arabic, and Mandarin. For more information, please visit www.redefinerswl.com or email us at info@redefinerswl.org.

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