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Tullio De Mauro, a Master of Science, of Life, of Love

An interview with Massimo Vedovelli, disciple of Tullio De Mauro, reflecting on the legacy of the greatest scholar of the Italian language

Maria D'Agostino, Direttrice della Scuola di lingua italiana (Università degli Studi di Palermo) presenta Massimo Vedovelli al Convegno Internazionale AATI. Dietro una immagine di Tullio De Mauro

At the recent AATI International Conference in Palermo, we interviewed Massimo Vedovelli, who spoke to us about his mentor: "De Mauro was not only a great scholar, he was also a great professor. He was clear, precise, engaging... but more importantly he loved his students: we felt that he loved us"

Welcoming participants from all over the world to the AATI 2017 International Conference, this summer held at the Università degli Studi di Palermo, was one of the symbols of weather in the Sicilian capital – the  Scirocco. Opening the conference with his equally warm keynote address (though much more pleasant), was a master of symbols, Professor Massimo Vedovelli. He remembered, with members of the American Association of Teachers of Italian, Professor Tullio De Mauro, who left us on January 5th, 2017. Vedovelli’s plenary session, “The Italian language today, in School and Society. Reflections dedicated to Tullio De Mauro,” reminded us of the great linguist and guru of standard Florentine Italian and all Italian languages, who is the inevitable point of reference for those wanting to deliberate general models of symbolic activity or concrete Italian cultural and linguistic issues, particularly the linguistic histories of Italian and Italians.

We spoke with professor Vedovelli – whose thesis director at the University of Rome “La Sapienza” was Tullio De Mauro – full professor of Linguistic education and Semiotics at l’ Università per Stranieri di Siena (the Foreigners University of Siena), where he was also President from 2004 to 2013. His copious and important publications that are held in high regard were inspired by De Mauro. Recent books include Italiano 2000. I pubblici e le motivazioni dell’italiano diffuso tra gli stranieri (2000, with Tullio De Mauro), Guida all’italiano per stranieri. Dal Quadro comune europeo per le lingue alla Sfida salutare (2010), e Che cos’è la linguistica educativa (2016, with Simone Casini), e “L’italiano degli stranieri, l’italiano fuori d’Italia (dall’Unità)” (2016).  He granted us this interview so we can better appreciate “a master, of science and of life” and to share future perspectives on the teaching of Italian.

What is your first memory of Tullio De Mauro?

“It’s when we students of the Department of Humanities and Philosophy, in the summer of 1974, had just learned that De Mauro was going to return to teach in Rome: the anticipation was electrifying us all; we felt very fortunate to be having a teacher of such great caliber. In addition to De Mauro, I remember Emilio Garroni’s classes, a professor of aesthetics and De Mauro’s friend. Yes, we felt and were quite fortunate.”

De Mauro was your thesis director and then a constant guide…you had unique educational and career opportunities. Was there an unforgettable lesson or a defining moment that marked your life?

“De Mauro was not only a great scholar, he was also a great professor. He was clear, precise, engaging; for every name he cited, he would write reference dates on the board; but more importantly he loved his students: we felt that he loved us. After I graduated, he decided to keep me by his side, initially to help with student finals: overnight, friends, with whom I spoke and studied just the day before, were sitting their exams with me as one of their proctors (they were oral exams, as is the tradition in Italy). De Mauro was directly involved in exams, seminars, research projects, and work with teachers. I was honored when he called me his disciple: truly a great honor, one that I don’t believe I could ever deserve.
He was a master of science and of life. His school was that of great projects in which he involved us. As soon as I graduated, he had me participate in a language and migration project, what is known today as: a project for the linguistic and professional formation of Italian emigrants in Germany. Next was the Vocabolario di Base dell’italiano (the basic vocabulary of Italian); then the first Lessico di Frequenza dell’Italiano parlato (LIP) – the word frequency dictionary of spoken Italian; then there was the rewriting of the bill for the national electricity utility (an attempt to ultimately defeat the anti-language about which Italo Calvino spoke); and still another, the planning of GRADIT – Grande dizionario italiano dell’uso (the definitive Italian dictionary of use). Finally, the great investigation of Italian in the world, Italian 2000, that he started before being nominated as Minister of Public Education.

tullio de mauro

Tullio De Mauro, Ferrara 2014 (Flickr/Foto di Francesca Leonardi)

He was not only a master of science: by getting us involved as equals in his projects, he provided us with a model as to how to conduct ourselves in those great undertakings, but also in daily university life (and then some). We learned how to freely and critically debate, without the fear of hierarchies; we understood the sense of commitment to enhance the linguistic and communicative competence levels of the Italian population; he made us assess the problems faced by teachers of schools at all types and levels, that is with those whose primary task it is to bring about concrete improvements to those competencies, daily with their hard work.
For me, Tulllio will always be an unattainable model; but, beyond this, and the undoubted difference of our personality types and traits, it seemed to me that that which united us was our desire to do, to be unafraid to tackle issues, new linguistic and cultural problems. I think we had a great connection, our attitude was always positive, always immune to preconceptions, and always open-minded.”

De Mauro published extensively in a number of impressive multifarious fields, and his works have been translated in many foreign languages, yet his propositions never achieved that level of international success that one would expect. How do you explain this? Is there something that wasn’t grasped abroad?

“On a scale of popularity, of prestige that comes from scholarly trends, perhaps De Mauro achieved less success than others, more well-known and above all tied to research systems that are dominant in today’s world. If we consider, however, the content, the results of the research, De Mauro is a primary point of reference for those in Italy and in the world who investigate the Italian language. His two basic vocabularies of Italian (Vocabolari di Base); his frequency dictionary of spoken Italian (Lessico di Frequenza dell’italiano parlato); his GRADIT dictionary, they are all indispensible tools for anyone who works with the Italian language. His very refined philological and structural analyses are equally important resources. His edition of Ferdinand de Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics was translated to French. The problem, then, is not what De Mauro did but the model of language sciences and of symbolic systems that he proposed and presented: too distant from the ‘neonaturalist’ or formalized models that still today mark stronger internationalized approaches. It’s sad to see how in certain countries – including the USA – they continue to speak of Saussure as if De Mauro and his critical edition had not existed: what is the value of this science that allows itself to ignore fundamental contributions simply because it has chosen a path that seeks only to cite works in bibliographies? De Mauro published in very prestigious positions internationally, but he also wrote very important papers in educational periodicals, teaching journals, newspapers and weekly publications: all textual genres that would not be weighted in the faculty evaluation process of research universities today in Italy!”

Cover of the latest issue of the AATI journal dedicated to Tullio De Mauro

De Mauro was passionate about language and migration. How does this phenomenon fall within the academic framework of linguistics?

“Since his seminal publication, Storia linguistica dell’Italia unita (the linguistic history of a unified Italy) from 1963, De Mauro considers migration experiences as central to the process of Italianization or at the very least to the linguistic dynamic of the unified Italian State. Why this? Be it as an undeniable need to account for how much actually happened to people and their linguistic uses, be it because his general theoretical model of language and speech is founded on the centrality – of language and its linguistic uses – of factors such as openness, variation, sensitivity to context: all themes that have been central to sociolinguistics and language migration theory. In the past few years, De Mauro has also paid close attention to the linguistic consequences that foreign immigration in Italy will have on our linguistic space.”

In the last months of his life, De Mauro launched a new study on the condition of Italian in the world: is this research continuing? What is the position of Italian in the “global market of languages”?

Yes, fortunately, the new study will carry on, thanks to the Roman Institute, Istituto di Studi Politici San Pio V di Roma. They created a scientific committee (to which I am honored to belong, together with other gifted colleagues) and a group of young researchers. In a few months, our work will be concluded. De Mauro said that the quantitative data are easily obtainable and available, and it must now undergo a qualitative analysis of the forms of the Italian language present in the world. It also underscored the role of Latin, as the language of the ruling class of diverse countries, in supporting this dissemination. Tullio did not love slogans, he was very critical and cautious even on this subject: the loud statements of politicians or certain newspapers bothered him. He preferred precise analysis, aware of the subject’s complexity and variations. He knew very well that the Italian Republic did not have true linguistic politics, understood as a project of the ruling class for real expressive, linguistic, and communicative growth within society as a whole; even on this topic, progress was bottom-up. It was part of the very first ministerial commission for the promotion of Italian language and culture in the world, resulting from the first big conference of our Institutions at the beginning of the Eighties: he left quickly when he saw the Minister did not attend the meetings of Commission… He had been brought to the group by Mauro Barni in the restructuring of the then Scuola di lingua e cultura italiana per stranieri di Siena (which is celebrating its Centenary this year) to its transformation to the Foreigners University of Siena: other academic groups, however, impeded Tullio from being part of the instituting committee. Little Italian stories…”

To the point of Italian as a foreign language, it continues to be one of the most studied languages. Twenty-five percent of those who study Italian do it for employment-related reasons (a significant increase from the 7% reported in the past).  In an interview with Annamaria Testa, she tells us “The second certain thing [we know about Italian] is that it is not studied for business reasons.” Are things changing from a business perspective?

“Tullio and I have always and continue to have a more optimistic vision because it’s more realistic and based on data. In India or Vietnam, the Italian is studied almost exclusively for employment-related reasons: Hanoi graduates 200 majors in Italian yearly, and this is only because the Vietnam office of Piaggio, our important motorcycle company, is there. Italian has a multi-faceted presence in the world: it is the language of centuries-old tradition of intellectual culture, but also of a rich and varied material culture which today is a worldwide point of reference. De Mauro knew that foreigners and communities of Italian origin around the world can bridge the gap between tradition and modernity: an article of Italian clothing is purchased because it is paradigmatically beautiful, that is because it incarnates in the here and now all those aesthetic values of our artistic history.  The language of good taste and of taste in general is today Italian: from fashion to food to mechatronics to the wood industry, there are many sectors in which the Italian language is the symbolic brand of a system of positive values. Values not an alternative, yet complementary and integrative to those approved by the global world.”

The future of the teaching Italian?

“In Italy, it has only been from 2000 that there are specialized university programs that prepare teachers and other professional roles to teach Italian as an L2: only a few years, but important for initiative that I believe are significant. Competency certifications; syllabi modelled on the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages; digital experimentation (I cite the Italian L2 MOOC of the Foreigners University of Siena, that in four months had 70,000 registered students!): well, all these will complement even more the new profile of teachers. What is needed now is a close dialogue between teacher training programs in Italy and foreign experiences in the field. To this end, the annual international conference of the AATI has a primary importance: an opportunity for dialogue, for comparison, for mutual growth. Not a small undertaking, as I feel these values too are profoundly demaurian.”

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