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Should we teach Dialect to our Kids?
“E jamm bell, ja!” This is an expression my two children, Alexander (seven years old) and Rossella (four years old) often hear me say. They are bilingual—their first language is English, and their second language is Italian.
Yet, that one expression is neither English nor Italian. It’s Neapolitan dialect, which has been recently recognized as an official Romance language.
Naples, Southern Italy
I was born and raised in Naples, southern Italy. The name Naples comes from the Greek words Nea (new) Polis (city). Naples is a charming town embellished even more by the many myths and legends that date back to the Greek rule that preceded the Roman Empire.
In fact, Naples is also called Parthenope, who according to an ancient Greek legend was a siren. Parthenope fell in love with Odysseus and, when she was not able to seduce him and make his fall in love with her through her songs, committed suicide by drowning. Her body was found on the shores of what is now Naples and the town was called Parthenope to honor the siren.
Neapolitan people often call themselves Parthenopeans, meaning children of the siren Parthenope.
I spent my childhood being kissed by the warm sun that makes the Mediterranean Sea glitter, walking down the streets that have been there since the Roman empire, and eating delicious food in the one place on earth that can proudly call itself the birthplace of pizza.
Growing up, I was used to hearing two different languages being spoken both at home, in the streets, and even in school: Italian and Neapolitan.
Basically, I grew up bilingual without even realizing it.
History of the Neapolitan dialect and it’s negative repuatation
Neapolitan dialect, like most dialects, has always had a negative reputation. Considered to be the language of the poor and the uneducated because only those who went to school would learn Italian, Neapolitan dialect has been the underdog of the Romance languages.
At school, our teachers would only speak in Italian to students in the classroom, but they would speak Neapolitan among themselves.
My aunts and uncles would speak Neapolitan to me, especially those who were born during the Second World War or right after it. They didn’t have the chance to attend that many years of school as children, with most of them not even completing elementary school.
My parents would only speak Italian.
However, walking down the street, at the supermarket, and even in church, Neapolitan was the main language.
Where the Neapolitan Dialect Comes from
Neapolitan dialect, which is spoken by roughly eight million people, comes from Vulgar Latin—an umbrella term used to describe the vernacular dialects of Latin language spoken in the western part of the Roman Empire—but it also has roots in ancient Greek and Oscan language—the extinct Indo-European language spoken in southern Italy.
Just like languages evolve over time, so did Neapolitan dialect.
For example, during the Spanish rule that lasted about two centuries (from the 1500s to the 1700s), many Spanish words were adopted by the Neapolitan dialect, which is why still today Neapolitans use Spanish words on a daily basis when speaking dialect:
Neapolitan Dialect recognized by UNESCO as cultural heritage
Aside from Spanish words, Neapolitan dialect also has many French words such as bouteille which was adopted by Neapolitan dialect as butteglia.
It also has Arabic influences, such as the word paposcia that derives from the Arabic word babusc, meaning a typical oriental slipper with the curled-up tip.
It’s safe to say that Neapolitan dialect is a mirror of the rich history of the city of Naples, a melting pot of cultures, languages, flavors, and traditions.
As such, UNESCO has recognized the dialect not only as an official language but also as a great cultural heritage.
Yet, it is still not taught in schools and it is still considered the language of the poor and uneducated.
Given that Neapolitan dialect is mostly a spoken language with very little literature to show for, the social push that Neapolitans have faced to avoid speaking it is now threatening this dialect to become extinct.
It has been estimated that, by the end of the century, less than a third of young people will know how to speak it.
Importance of teaching dialect
As an expat—I live in the United States of America—and mother to two bilingual and bicultural children—my husband is American—I can’t help but feel how important it is to teach my children not only Italian, the official language of my home country, but also the dialect that is just as much a part of my cultural heritage.
Perhaps even more than the Italian language, the dialect tells the story of all the people and cultures that, over the course of many centuries, made my hometown of Naples what it is today.
And this is why I made the decision to incorporate Neapolitan expressions when I talk to my children.
Given the many different languages that have influenced it, Neapolitan dialect is musical, to say the least. It has an enticing cadence and rhythm to it, and I found it that my children enjoy its sound and smile and laugh when they hear it—not to mention, they love to repeat the expressions and words.
Neapolitan dialect, like many others, offers expressions that are hard to translate, thus adding to its charm, uniqueness, and appeal.
For example, the expression written at the beginning of this article, “E jamm bell, ja!” is impossible to translate in Italian or English as there is no such literal correspondent. Rather, it’s an expression often used to encourage people to do something in a hurry. Perhaps, in meaning it can be considered somewhat close to “hurry up!” although the translation doesn’t convey the urgency and emotions that the Neapolitan expression includes.
Another Neapolitan expression my children find funny to repeat is “aumm, aumm,” which means doing something in secret, hush hush, so that nobody will ever find out.
The responsibility of teaching dialect
Although speaking three different languages at home can be difficult at times, I have started seeing progress and results I never even thought possible.
My son, Alexander is able to fully comprehend Neapolitan dialect when we go visit my family back in Italy and he does tend to now use certain expressions in his daily vocabulary, which makes me smile.
My daughter, Rossella is studying Spanish language at preschool and I have noticed that she has been able to quickly pick up on the language.
Although Italian and Spanish are similar, I can’t help but think that perhaps speaking Neapolitan dialect to her has helped her even more in her ability to comprehend and absorb this new language so rapidly. Within only a few days from when she first began studying Spanish, she was able to count from zero to ten and within weeks, she was also able to count in three different languages without confusion.
I’ve always been a believer that bilingualism and biculturalism go hand in hand. You can’t teach a language without teaching the culture it represents.
Therefore, I don’t view teaching Neapolitan dialect to my children as a way to teach them the language of the poor and uneducated.
I see it as teaching them history, such as about the time when Naples was under Spanish rule.
I see it as teaching them folklore and customs—such as the typical Arabic footwear described above.
I see it as teaching them about my childhood and my ancestors. I see it as a way to share acceptance, laughter, and precious moments.
But I also see it as a responsibility toward the Neapolitan dialect, because as a daughter of its land and a fluent speaker, I have to prevent it from becoming extinct and I hope that one day my children will feel this reasoning as well.
Author: Brunella Costagliola is an award-winning author and editor. She is the owner and president of The Military Editor® Agency, LLC, a writing and editing company specializing in military-related manuscripts and catering to military authors. She is also a journalist and writes for many magazines, including Military Families Magazine and Reserve and National Guard Magazine. Brunella is mother to two children and a proud Air Force wife.