Food for Thought (About Italian!)

When I went to Italy two years ago, I got to experience how to cook real Italian food with Giglio Cooking in Florence. I was looking at some of our photos, and today, I decided that I’ll cover Italian food culture today! There are several things I’m going to go over in this post, including words for certain foods, Italian food-related etiquette, and about Italian food in general. As much as this blog is about language, it’s also about culture!

The size of a meal

While this obviously varies in different parts of the country, a good rule of thumb in Italy is that meals, ascending in size, are ordered so: breakfast, dinner, lunch. You might find it odd that dinner isn’t the largest meal, but this is completely normal in Italy! Lunchtime is often the biggest meal of the day partly because much of the family or coworkers have lunch together to relax. It is considered poor taste to discuss work at the lunch table if you can avoid it. Having a heavy meal also makes one sleepy, and it is not uncommon for cities to slow down a little after lunch, since many people go home to take a nap. This tiramisù looks delicious, doesn’t it? Too bad there’s already a bite taken out of it!


Family meals VS Formal meals

Some people think that Italian meals are regularly extravagant, multi-course affairs. However, most Italian people are just like everybody else, and don’t have time to put together such a meal! A family meal can be very large as mentioned before, and often consists of fresh, homemade dishes. You probably have the image of an elderly Italian woman working away in the kitchen making dinner for her family, perhaps with help from her daughters. Italian family meals are informal affairs and focus on enjoying food with one’s family. As you can tell from the photo below, making fresh pasta, like pansotti, is a tiring process. (In case you’re wondering, the person making the pasta in the photo is me!) Fun fact: pansotti means “pot-bellied”, which is a fitting name for this stuffed pasta.


Now, in contrast, formal Italian meals are very complex, and do consist of multiple courses, served in a specific order. Italian cuisine prides itself on serving only the freshest food to please diners. As a result, Italian restaurants in Italy avoid making too much food in advance, as it will get cold and won’t taste as good. A typical formal meal in Italy consists of the following courses in order: aperitivi, antipasti, primi piatti, secondi piatti con contorni, dolci, and digestivi. The first course, aperitivi, consists of alcoholic drinks meant to stimulate the appetite, particularly wines such as Prosecco, Cinzano, and Vermouth, and they accompany the antipastiAntipasti literally means “before the meal”, and consists of small appetizers, which may be cold foods like prosciutto and other cured meats, as well as cheeses, mushrooms, artichoke hearts, and olives. The primi piatti (“first dishes”) are typically pasta, gnocchi, soups, or risotto. You might not know that strictly speaking, gnocchi aren’t considered pasta, as they are not prepared in the same way as pasta and are more like potato dumplings than anything. Secondi piatti (“second dishes”) are the largest portions of the meal, consisting of meat and fish. Dolci (“sweets”) follow those dishes, and are usually fruits, certain pastries, as well as other sweet dishes, such as the world-famous tiramisù. The word comes from the phrase tirami su, which means “pick me up”. Considering that it has rum and coffee in it, it’s bound to do so! To end the meal, diners often have coffee with digestivi (“digestives”), which are digestive liqueurs, also referred to as ammazzacaffè (“coffee-killers”).

Dining etiquette

Now, regardless of whether it is a family or formal gathering, there are few basic rules of dining etiquette in Italy. First, never start eating before the host has declared the meal to have started. In restaurants, putting your utensils on your plate signals that you are done eating, so put them to the side if you’re not done. It is highly improper to try and mop up all the sauce on your plate with bread; do it delicately!

Perhaps most surprising about Italian etiquette is that wishing someone Buon appetito! (Bon appetit in French and English) is impolite! It comes from a medieval Italian threat, in which the host would say this to his guests to effectively say “Eat well now, because if you don’t behave, you will not be invited again.” It is also seen as poor manners to fidget, touch oneself (very bad!), or put one’s hands or elbows on the table, for anything but eating.

Ingredients in Italian cuisine and dietary restrictions

If you’ve ever been to an Italian restaurant, you may be fond of the red and marinara sauces, the ones that are more famous. Well, here’s some trivia for you: the tomato is not a native ingredient to Italian cuisine, and was brought by the Spanish from the New World! It is now a popular ingredient in Southern Italy, due to being relatively cheap and easy to grow. The North uses more vegetables native to Italy, making much more frequent use of cattle and dairy products. Southern Italian cuisine has many influences from Arab traders and Spanish rule, using rice, spices, and most importantly, the tomato. Also, due its greater dependency on the coasts for economic reasons, Southern Italy makes heavy use of fish.

Now if you’re like me, a vegetarian and a non-drinker, you may feel that your lifestyle is practically anathema to the Italian way of eating. Like most cuisines of the world, the Italian diet is largely meat, particularly fish. Just as in many other countries, fish is not considered meat, because it’s a separate dish entirely. To add onto that, Italians will almost never go a meal without a glass of fine wine. Thankfully, the latter is a reasonably forgivable (to them anyway) thing. Alcohol in Italy is a traditionally moderate practice, and public drunken-ness (AKA going to a bar and getting wasted) is highly frowned upon. If you’re getting a little tipsy at an Italian dinner, it would be well-mannered to either drink less or simply not drink at all for the rest of the meal.

As for vegetarianism, this is a little harder. According to Life in Italy‘s post, “Vegetarians in Italy” (linked here), vegetarianism is gaining more traction in Italy, and in many big cities, if you ask, restaurants are happy to oblige. That being said, you have to be careful, as there are certain dishes that are secretly meat-based, such as soups (it’s not a bad idea to ask if there’s fish broth) and a few antipasti. Fortunately, many dishes in Italian cuisine are vegetarian, including a wide variety of vegetable contorni and hearty pasta dishes with delicious sauces.

For other dietary restrictions, such as halal, halal meat is gaining more visibility in Italy, due to a recent influx of Muslim immigrants. Vegans will have the hardest time in Italy, as milk, cream, and cheese are popular ingredients that would be difficult to omit from dishes, even if you asked. But it never hurts to try and ask for accommodations.
I hope you found this post interesting, and please share this on Facebook and Tumblr!

“Italian Dialects” by fearlessinger

This piece was not written by me, but by a Tumblr user, whose express permission I have obtained to share this on my blog.

I was hoping to finish this in time for the celebration of the International Mother Language Day, but ended up being late. Well, here I go anyway.

So, I already talked at length about the fact that, contrary to popular belief, all of the Italian dialects are not, in fact, dialects of the Italian language (those also exist, they are more or less regional variations of Standard Italian), but fully realized languages that evolved from Latin of their own accord, each with their own peculiar history and literature.

Despite having lost a lot of ground to Italian over the course of the last century, the Italian dialects all survive to this day, some struggling, some thriving and still counting several millions of speakers (yes, you read that right, check it out).

The Italian dialects can be as different from one another (and from Italian) as French is from Spanish, and they are often not mutually intelligible.

Here’s a map, courtesy of Wikipedia, that shows more or less all of them:

Here’s another map:

If you are in one of the colored areas and are fluent in at least one of the dialects pertaining to that area, you might be able to more or less understand what’s going on when people speak dialect at you. Or not.

Probably not.

In truth, a couple hundred km are enough to screw you up. Prepare for worst case scenario, is what I’m saying (and I’ll be honest, even in a best case scenario, you’ll probably end up wearing a space suit at a toga party).

Now, it occurs to me that, to the English speakers visiting or planning to visit our country, the above might sound a bit daunting.
Don’t worry, international friends! The Game of Dialects is played only by Italians against other Italians. You’re safe! People will actually make the effort to communicate with you! If all else fails, we will mime the words for you! In fact, you might eventually find yourself wishing that you could just shut us up!

Besides, not many people realize this, but a good number of Italian dialects have a surprisingly large amount of words in common with the English language.

Skeptic? I’ll give you an example.

Let’s say you’re in the Langhe, touring a lovely farmers’ market, and you see some sweet, sweet artichokes that look like they’re just begging to be put in a risotto. Well, how would you say artichoke in Piedmontese?

That’s right, it’s the exact same word! You’re basically already speaking Piedmontese! Isn’t it neat?
Of course, it’s not always that easy. You see, while the words may be the same, the meanings don’t always align perfectly.

Let’s go back to that lovely farmers’ market in the Langhe. As beautiful as those artichokes are, you may think that the price is a bit much. You may then comment in a deceptively disinterested tone: “soon car, sea artichoke.” * There’s a 95% probability that the vendor, moved to tears by the sound of his own mother language, will give you a generous discount. You may then take the adorable baby artichokes into your arms and start caressing them, soothingly murmuring “soon may. May, may.” **  in a slightly Gollum-like voice.

* “these artichokes are expensive”
** “they’re mine. Mine, mine.”

To those of you who don’t like artichokes, first of all: WHAT THE HELL?
And secondly, since I’m an extremely open minded person, here’s a totally plausible situation I made up just for you. Let’s say you’re buying milk, or delicious piedmontese ravioli, in the middle of a very crowded, very loud area of the market, and you need to signal to the seller that you want more than what he’s giving you. You may do so by enthusiastically shouting: “pee light!” *, “pee a new lot!” ** in their general direction.

* “more milk!”
** “more piedmontese ravioli!”

And that concludes your very first Piedmontese lesson. I think we all need time to process what I just wrote.

If my fellow Italian tumblr users would be so kind as to offer their collaboration, I’d like to end this with a little challenge!

How about we all translate the infamous Game of Thrones quote into our respective dialects? It might be fun to compare. I’d suggest using the standard Italian spelling (if possible) so that we can all more or less figure out the sound of what we’re reading.

I’ll go first:

ENGLISH –  “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.”

ITALIAN – “Quando giochi al gioco del trono, o vinci o muori.”

PIEDMONTESE – “Quanch at’gieughi al gieugh adl tron, o t’gagni o t’meuiri.”

My Article From Italki: “How You Can Speed Up Your Language Learning”

Here’s the article that I wrote for Italki, and in case you’re interested, you can check out my teacher profile here: Merry Christmas to you all!

Many language learners have a great deal of difficulty trying to memorize hundreds upon hundreds of vocabulary words from the lists in their textbooks. Teaching experts call this stage of learning rote. This means that the information is remembered, word for word, and the very definition is burned into your brain. However, this information, while retained, is not understood. The goal of learning a language is to understand words and what a person is trying to say. The stage of learning that the ideal language learner should aspire to is called application. Application suggests that you comprehend and correlate acquired knowledge with new material, draws conclusions, and synthesizes information independently.

To apply this to language learning, we need to show that languages can be correlated. If you look at the linguistic map below, you can see the gradations of Romance languages throughout Europe. Ibero-Romance languages (in green), such as Portuguese and Spanish, have certain characteristics that distinguish them from other Romance languages. However, Catalan, spoken in northeastern Spain, is a Gallo-Romance language. It shares many features with Spanish, as well as with Occitan (a language spoken in southwestern France, near the border with Spain) and French. Here, we see green fade into the blue areas in France, signifying the correlation between languages in that area. And we see this in the languages themselves, too. 

In Spanish, the word for “language” is la lengua, in Catalan it’s la llengua, and in French, it’s la langue. Ignoring the fact that they sound alike (because, as we’ll see, that is not a reliable guide) Even more curious is that all three also happen to mean “tongue.” And to top it off, they’re all feminine nouns! So, with these clues in mind, we can reasonably conclude that these words are cognates, words of common origin and of similar meaning.

So, you may be wondering, “What does this all mean?” Well, it’s the key to accelerating your learning! You may not realize it, but when you start learning a language, your brain instantly tries to link it to ideas and concepts you already know, to be able to store it more easily. The first mistake that some people make is assuming that they have to start completely from scratch in order to learn a new language. But that cheats you out of an incredibly easy way to learn! Your brain recognizes that two words may mean the same thing, but are from different languages. This separates the two words in your long-term storage, especially if they sound different. I myself used my knowledge of Spanish to expedite my Italian learning, and that helped immensely in getting all the vocabulary down.

In my guides to Italian, Portuguese, and Catalan, which you can download at, I make frequent mention of parallels between Spanish, Italian, French, and other languages to help speed up learning. This is very helpful in the analytical part of my teaching method. By helping my students correlate things they already know, the information is retained in the long-term, and it makes language learning easier and more fun. Learning a language should not be a drag and endless trudging through vocabulary lists.

If you know Portuguese, and you’re learning Italian, exploit it. Not only are words similar, languages often have very similar structures. For example, in Portuguese, the imperfect subjunctive of the verb ser looks incredibly similar to those of the Italian verb essere. Take the phrase, “As if it were a dream.” Como se fosse um sonho (Portuguese) and Come se fosse un sogno (Italian) sound nearly identical.

I know you might be thinking that if you try to correlate words all the time and find cognates, you’ll start mixing up languages altogether. But there are a couple of things that you can use to to work against this. First, is that your brain, as mentioned before, instantly recognizes the similarities as well as the differences. All that’s left for you to do is to practice the vocabulary in context. Second, is practicing languages at different times. The temporal separation helps your brain process the languages separately, and keep them from mixing with each other. Study Italian at night, and Spanish in the daytime.

I hope that this was helpful in providing a strategy for learning a language! Remember: many languages are related, so you should exploit any links that your target language has to one that you already know.


Romance Languages in Europe in 20 C. AD. 2009. Wikimedia Commons. By Fert. Web. 16 Nov. 2014. <>.

Romance languages in Europe in 20 c. AD by Koryakov Yuri Serg!o, (CC BY-SA 3.0)

“Romance languages in Europe in 20 c. AD” links to:

CC BY-SA 3.0 links to:

The Stigma Against Europe in America

When I started learning Portuguese, I was surprised at how the Brazilian and European (also known as continental) versions are so different. However, I realized this wasn’t completely out of the question, considering that Latin American and European (also known as Castilian) Spanish are also somewhat different (though not to the degree that Brazilian and European Portuguese are). Old World powers that, back in the day, colonized abroad successfully, also transported their languages to these places as well. Words from indigenous languages, and words for things specific to the contexts in the New World came into being. The four most successful powers were Britain, Spain, France, and Portugal (poor little Italy didn’t have its act together yet). You might actually notice that the entirety of political North America is former colonial territory. Many of the colonies of these countries gained their independence from their European motherlands, except for France, which effectively had to give up Canada to Britain after the French and Indian War.

Given all this, the colonial versions of the languages of these countries had their own circumstances to develop within. In modern day America, where people from all over the world immigrate to, many people learn Spanish, Portuguese, and French. I realized this only much later, but people in America typically learn the colonial version of these languages. America had a particularly nasty relationship with Britain, and its relations with France were a bit strained, to say the least. Perhaps it’s only natural, then, that in America, many people have cultivated a distaste for European things (aside from wine that is).

Most people in America will learn Brazilian Portuguese, because people forget about Portugal entirely (Portugal kind of disappears after the colonial era in most history books), and also most Portuguese-speaking immigrants are likely to be Brazilian. Similarly, French speakers in America are likely to be French Canadian, and most Spanish speakers are likely to be from Latin America. Sure, you could argue that it’s just a matter of convenience, but I think there’s more to it than that. Canadians, Brazilians, and Latin Americans are well aware that there exist European counterparts to their languages, in a similar way to how Americans are aware of British English.

But I’m certain that there is some stigma against the European versions. You can see it everywhere, particularly in the media. Europeans, no matter where they’re from, are frequently depicted as pompous, heavily accented, and/or flamboyant. In English, to make someone sound like they’re very proper or uptight, we put on a British accent, for God’s sake!

Up until around my third year of Spanish, I knew virtually nothing about Spain or its particular brand of Spanish. People are often advised to learn the colonial variant because it’s easier to understand, which to a degree, is true. Speakers of Brazilian Portuguese tend to be very distinct when they speak Portuguese, whereas their European counterparts chop off the ends of words, and speak with what is called boca fechada, or “closed mouth.” The seseo, or ceceo (which is the Spanish word for the way you distinguish s, c, and z), of Spain, is often considered an impediment to comprehension when learning. This is because it is not discussed until the latter years of learning.

I have a friend with whom I practice Spanish, and I do try to use the Castilian accent, because I don’t get to hear or use it otherwise (I use the Latin American pronunciation in class, because that’s what’s expected). He doesn’t really mind, but he has said that he thinks that the Castilian accent sounds pretentious. I don’t really see how it’s pretentious, considering that everyone in Spain speaks that way. I’m also learning the European version of Portuguese as well, because it resembles Spanish more, and also because my particular book teaches the European form.

I’m further convinced by the conversations I’ve had with Latin American Spanish speakers and Brazilians that there is a distinctly American aversion to the European versions. Brazilians say that it’s kind of amusing to hear the European version in a conversation, but that’s mostly because they don’t hear it every day. Latin Americans don’t really care one way or another. Overall, they don’t really mind the European version of their language, even if it might be a little harder to understand. This could be because they are taught in school that this other version exists, and that it’s not worse or better than their own. Not that Americans are taught that their English is better than that of the British. In fact, when I was in elementary school, they didn’t even tell us that there was this other way of speaking English, and we only heard about it through TV and other media.

The point here is that in America, language classes should address the predominant forms of a language, especially when it comes to word choice, pronunciation, or even grammar. Language is inherently global, so it’s only fair that you learn about (though not necessarily learn entirely) the other versions. For example, I would say that it’s appropriate for a class to cover Brazilian and European Portuguese, but not for Swiss and Peninsular Italian. The latter two are not different enough to warrant extensive coverage on both, especially considering how close they are. Similarly, you cover Hindi and Urdu distinctly in the same class, but not two very similar varieties of Russian. You might say that Latin American Spanish and European Spanish aren’t different enough, because a Spaniard and Peruvian can understand each something like 90% of the time. But they are, considering pronunciation, word choice, and expressions (and the fact that two different versions of Disney and other movies exist for Latin America and Spain).

I hope you enjoyed reading this post, and I hope to get more out soon! Please leave some comments if you have any! Please note, that my statements about what Latin Americans and Brazilians say about their European counterparts are from personal experience. I’m only saying these things based on what I know, have read, and learned.

Americans and Their English

When I went to Italy last summer, and I went to get some water from a local grocery store in Rome for my mom (the tap water is disgusting), I overheard an American couple complaining about the lack of English speakers in Italy. Their reasons included the following:

“English is an international language, shouldn’t everyone speak it?”

“Italian is like Latin, right? Shouldn’t it be really easy for them to speak English?”

“Italians must hate Americans, or something.”

While I certainly didn’t get up in arms about this, it was mildly disturbing.  English speakers, for some reason specifically from America, expect that everyone in other countries speaks English. This is not at all reasonable for someone to expect. Now don’t get me wrong, this goes for ALL English speakers, not just Americans. Actually, for any speaker of any language expecting to find other people to speak his or her language.

Let me address the first complaint: English may be an international language, but that does not mean everyone can, are confident about speaking, or even want to use English. Italy is on the lower end of the English Proficiency Index (not that I expect people to know this) anyway. China, Japan, and Korea are noted in studies for having many students who academically do very well in English, but in practice are very reserved about using or don’t want to use English.  They have their reasons, and people should respect those reasons, however odd they may be.

Now for the second issue: Just because languages are at all similar doesn’t make it easy for people to learn or speak it. English only borrows from Latin, and was never a part of the Romance language family. It’s a Germanic language, so the only people who one can reasonably to expect to speak English easily are people from Germany and Northern Europe. Even then, one shouldn’t expect them to.

The last complaint I found completely and utterly preposterous. Most people I’ve met, and most that one is likely to meet, have the rationale not to arbitrarily dislike someone they’ve never met. Of course, there are racists and such. Some people in America think that people of other countries intrinsically hate Americans because America is overall a more powerful nation, with a higher standard of living, and a considerable amount of wealth. They might have deeper reasons, you never know. But meeting other people and having preconceived notions, especially that those people don’t like you, is a serious impediment to communication. I could easily assume that all white people look down on me because of the color of my skin, but I don’t, because not all white people are like that.

I suppose my point is that English speakers shouldn’t feel entitled to being able to talk to others in their own language away from home. English speakers should learn to speak other languages, because the native speakers of the language are likely to appreciate it much more if you speak to them in their language. I appreciate the effort Italians made to speak to me in English, but I spoke in Italian, because that’s what they’re more comfortable using. It’s rather like adhering to another person’s rules in their house.

Language Barriers

I’ve often been asked about why I think foreign language education is important. While I could certainly come up with quite a few reasons, I think one of the more prominent ones is when you encounter language barriers. This can be in person, over the internet, or in signs and other written situations. Human experience is defined by what we take in and what we understand, and so we should aim to understand as much as we can. Besides, you are bound to end up in a situation where you need to use foreign language, because the other person can’t understand you or you need some vital information that’s on a sign written in an another language. Whether it’s business negotiations, diplomacy, or simply communicating as a tourist, learning a foreign language is a huge asset. Overcoming the language barrier is the first step. In this post, I’m going to talk about the places where language barriers the least and most prevalent. I won’t be discussing the rural areas of certain countries, because that’s simply a given.

1) China, Japan and Korea: Greatest Language Barrier

Surprisingly, even though these countries have rapidly progressed in their political structures and economies, the practice of using English, or for that matter any other language, is not very widespread. The education system does require English-language instruction in these nations, but many people prefer to speak their native language due to not feeling confident in their ability to speak English and as a simple matter of preference. English instruction in these nations, from what I’ve heard, is very traditional. In other words, people in China, Japan, and Korea are as inclined to use English as much as people in the United States are inclined to use French.

2) The Nations of Scandinavia and Germany/Austria/The Netherlands: The Weakest Language Barrier

When it comes to going abroad in Europe, Scandinavia is the best when it comes using English with foreigners. With top-notch education systems (which is not to say Japan and Korea don’t have good ones), students in Scandinavian countries, generally speaking, come out of schooling speaking decent if not perfect English. The same goes for Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands. This can probably be accounted for by the fact that German and the Scandinavian languages have a common history with English.  Surprisingly, France, Spain, and Italy are not as well-versed in English, shown in statistics. This is probably because Iberian/Arabic influences (Spanish), Gallic influence (French), and Italic influences (Italian) have caused the parent language (Latin, specifically Vulgar Latin) to diverge more significantly, and therefore farther from English, which borrows more from Germanic, Greek, and classical Latin roots.

3) India: The Weakest Language Barrier in Asia

Unlike the East Asian countries, such as China, Korea, Japan, or Vietnam, India has come to use English extensively. Signs are  written in English, sometimes not even as a translation of the state language. The education system mandates the learning of English from first grade all the way to twelfth grade. In addition, people must take yet another foreign language to graduate from college. Most people in India speak English and are perfectly willing to communicate in English, although they will use their own language at other times. Gotta keep your secrets, you know?

4) Latin America: The Biggest Language Barrier in the Americas

Ironically, even though Spain is pretty good about its people knowing English (although certainly not as much as other European countries), getting around without knowing Spanish (or Portuguese in Brazil) is hard in Latin America. Many Latin American countries are in the Low Proficiency bracket on the EF English Proficiency Index. So I highly suggest hitting the books on Spanish if you go to Latin America without knowing any first.

5) The Middle East: The Biggest Language Barrier

For some, this may not come as a surprise. The EF English Proficiency Index shows that several Middle Eastern countries, including Qatar, Kuwait, Iran, and Egypt are in the Low or Very Low Proficiency brackets. Saudi Arabia and Iraq are at the very bottom of the list in the Very Low Proficiency bracket. This is why it is all the more imperative that people learn to speak Arabic and/or Farsi.

So, that’s my say on this topic. I’ll probably have something again this week, so I hope you look forward to it.