I often hear Italian Americans lament they weren’t taught the Italian language. Being stripped of ancestral language feels like a wound that will never heal. That's partly because when you lose the language of your ancestors, you start to lose the culture as well. Like a bad phone connection, communication becomes difficult. There are many reasons we lose our ancestral languages, but the major one is assimilation. Generations of immigrants, wanting to fit into American culture, wanting their children to be seen as American, with little hint of their ethnicity, insisted they speak English only. How could these ancestors know that somewhere down the line, millions of us would feel a hole, an emptiness? I’m fortunate to understand and speak not only Italian, but the ancestral dialect of my family. But I have my own wounds. I never feel like I speak either well enough. It causes me a great amount of turmoil. Sometimes I wonder if I'll spend the rest of my life feeling this way, or if there's some day on the horizon where it will click, and I will speak Italian as effortlessly and eloquently as I speak English. Being able to understand the language allows me entrance others lack, yes, but not having the same command I have with English also keeps me at arm’s length; or at least that’s how it feels, no matter how many Italians tell me I speak very well and that my accent—extremely important when it comes to a romance language like Italian—is terrific. I know enough to know how much I don't know. But one thing I've been doing lately, to help anchor myself during the fear generated by the pandemic, is pray in Italian. Prayer is meditation on a deep level. When we pray, we tap into the intangible, and when we pray in the language those who came before us prayed in, we’re tapping into something ancient, resonant. Our words are like fingers plucking harp strings, bringing up notes that have waited dormant inside our bones. We take our place among those who came before us and claim our right to stand beside them. We feel we belong, and in this is a form of protection. We activate a deep part of our psyches, strengthening and fortifying our spirits with the words our ancestors used to fortify their own.
But what if you don't know your ancestral language? Here are some tips to learn how to pray in the language of your #Majesty (your lineage and family stories) even if you never learned it.
1. Start with a short prayer in the religious tradition of your ancestors. For example, if your ancestors were Catholic, you can use the "Glory Be," which is only a few lines in length.
2. Write your own prayer. Jot down a few words that express what you want to ask for.
3. You can use Google translate to not only translate the words into your ancestral language, but once the word is translated, you can press the audio button to hear how to pronounce it.
4. A quick google search ("Glory Be" in German) will bring up cleaner translations than Google Translate might give you. You can also enter what you find into Translate, and in this way practice the pronunciation.
5. Use a proverb if prayer is not your thing. Many cultures have a vibrant proverb tradition. For instance, one of my favorites among the Neapolitan proverbs I was raised with, which is helping me right now, is Chi pensa troppo, more ambress'. He who thinks too much, dies early. I repeat that to myself when my mind starts to wander into the future, and I begin to worry about the what ifs—what if the economy never recovers, what if someone I love gets sick, what if we all lose our jobs, etc. The proverb, said in my native dialect, brings me back and anchors me. It also connects me to the humor and light spirit of my ancestors.