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Speaking German in Italy? A story of linguistic minorities

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sudtirol mountains
Photo credit: frantischeck/pixabay cc0 public domain.

America is a weird country. On one hand, the United States is represented by almost every ethnic group on earth. On the other hand, relatively few people can speak more than one language. According to Gallup, only one out of four Americans have enough skill to have a conversation in two or more languages.

When somebody visits America from another country, we tend to assume that everyone in a specific country speaks the same language. For example, we falsely think that all Chinese speak Chinese , or that every Mexican can speak Spanish .

This is called assumption. While making an assumption can be helpful at times, it also pretends as if minorities don’t exist.

Let’s pick one example today.

Italy is one of the more famous countries of Europe. You might be thinking of pizza, or maybe historic cities such as Venice (Venezia), Naples (Napoli), and Rome (Roma). Oh, the Pope actually doesn’t live in Italy. He has a separate country all on his own!

If you drive all the way up to the northern edge of Italy, though, people don’t speak Italian (sure, they can speak Italian but it’s not part of their culture) but German.

In the Autonomous Province of Bozen-Südtirol, German is the official language and schools are taught in German, although it is part of Italy. Sixty-two percent of the population speaks German, while 23.4 percent are Italian-speakers.

If you look at the map of Europe, you can see that Bozen-Südtirol is a little bump at the top of Italy that sticks up to Austria. Austria is also a predominantly German-speaking country (this is where actor and former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger was born ). To the west, Switzerland is a multilingual nation with four official languages: German, Italian, French, and Romansh. Bozen-Südtirol is in the Alps mountains just like Switzerland and parts of Austria.

According to the history of the province, it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until 1918. During World War I, Italian troops invaded this part of what was Austria and it became part of Italy in 1919.

Italy tried to wipe out the German language from Bozen-Südtirol.

The fascist government of Benito Mussolini banned German in schools and public offices. When Hitler and Mussolini became closer, Mussolini arranged German-speaking people living in Bozen-Südtirol to be relocated to Nazi Germany.

After the end of World War II, Italy and new Austrian government agreed that Bozen-Südtirol will remain part of Italy but it will become an autonomous, bilingual region where German is once again spoken.

The boundaries of nations are very often arbitrary and reflect changes over historic events such as wars. People, however, carry on and generally, they would not go away (or, sometimes, a government or an army can forcibly move people of certain ethnicity or language to another place—this is called ethnic cleansing and the United Nations considers it a serious violation of human rights). As such, one’s nationality or citizenship isn’t always an indicator of what language she speaks.

Categories languages, geography


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