I’ve always found foreign songs to be a helpful way of reinforcing one’s memory of new words in other languages. For example, as a first year French student in ninth grade, I listened to the original French concept album of Les Misérables over and over again. In anticipation of teaching English to middle schoolers in Italy, I turned to The Light in the Piazza for guidance. I had already gleaned several useful phrases from the Italian sprinkled throughout the score of the 2004 award winning musical. I knew that “aiuta me” meant “help me”, “cara” meant “dear” and that “passeggiata” was the name given to the Italian tradition of taking long walks.
Upon a more in depth examination of the Italian lyrics, I learned Italian grammar as well as vocabulary. In Italian, “in” and “the” are technically two separate words (in and il/la/i/le respectively, depending upon the gender and quantity of the noun in question) but when the words appear one after the other in a sentence, they merge to become nel/nella/nei/nelle (again depending upon the gender and quantity of the noun). The word piazza is feminine. Therefore in Italian, the show’s title phrase “the light in the piazza” translates to “la lucé nella piazza”. Thanks to that reference, I have never once forgotten how to use in/the in a singular feminine context, and I’ve found it much easier to remember other merged preposition/article words such as from the (della) and on the (sulla) in a feminine singular context as well.
Fabrizio, the romantic male lead, taught me about past tense in Italian too. In his big love aria, he sings about how “il mondo era vuoto” or “the world was empty” before he met Clara, his American love interest. This is the form of the imperfect past tense that refers to a formerly continuous state. Many Italians use “era” to talk about when a now grown child was little, for example. If Fabrizio had wanted to imply something such as “the world has been empty” at a more fixed time in the more recent past, then he likely would have used the past simple form “è stato” instead.
Not only did Fabrizio’s Italian help me to learn Italian; he helped me to teach Italian students too. The mistakes Fabrizio made when he spoke English gave me insight into and empathy for the thought process behind my students’ errors.
For example, when Fabrizio asks Clara out on a passeggiata, he primarily communicates with her in English. He invites her “to make” and then immediately tries to correct himself “to walking…on the road in a circle”. The reason Fabrizio initially asks Clara if she wants “to make” a walk with him instead of “to go on a walk or simply “to walk “ is likely because in Italian, the phrase is “fare una passeggiata” which literally translates as “to make a passeggiata” or “to do a passeggiata”. He then clearly remembers that in English the turn of phrase is different and tries to ask her to walk with him. However, he uses the wrong form of the verb “walking” instead of “walk”. I noticed many of my students having trouble identifying when a present tense verb is in the present simple (such as “walk”) or a present continuous gerund (such as “walking”). The trick of course is that you have to look for whether there is an “ing” or not at the end, just as in the Italian form of the continuous gerund you have to look for an “ando” or “endo” at the end.
Later on in the song, when Fabrizio tries to compliment Clara’s complexion, he does not know the word for skin. Instead, he sings, “is like milk” and indicates, “is here” on Clara’s body to show what he means. Clara figures out that he is referring to her skin and Fabrizio is then able to triumphantly tell her “your skin is like milk”. It is common in Italian for the subject of a sentence to be left off, which means, in this case, dropping the “it” in “it is like milk” or “it is here”. Since the verb is usually specifically tailored to the gender and quantity of the subject, it is much easier to identify the subject from the context of the sentence. For example, if an English sentence starts with “go to school”, it is not clear whether I go to school, you go to school, we go to school, you all go to school or they go to school. In Italian, the sentence would be “vado a scuola” which can only refer to I as the subject. My students would often need reminders to include subjects in English sentences because, like Fabrizio, their natural tendency was often to leave them off, assuming that the ensuing verb would sufficiently clarify the context.
I spent a lot of time writing deliberately silly examples on the board to help them understand the importance of including a subject at the beginning of an English sentence. In turn, I’ve remembered that it is not always necessary to include the subject in Italian. Discovering why my students (and Fabrizio) struggle with certain literal Italian to English translations has made such a strong impression on me that it has helped me to remember the proper phrasing for that grammar in Italian.
Clearly lyrics can have value even beyond their original storytelling purpose. Lyrics can help people learn and remember new languages; they can even provide insight into the verbal thought process of a foreign culture.