Interview with Matteo Santipolo

March 9, 2020 9:15 am

Interview Matteo SantipoloMMatteo Santipoloatteo Santipolo is Professor of Educational Linguistics at the University of Padua (Italy), Dipartimento di Studi Linguistici e Letterari.

Born in Rovigo, Italy, in 1971, he studied for some semesters at the Universities of Warwick (visiting student) and Reading (Erasmus student) in Great Britain and then graduated with high distinction in Foreign Languages and Literatures at the Ca’ Foscari University in Venice with a sociophonetic dissertation on London’s dialect. Part of the thesis has been published on the University’s journal Annali di Ca’ Foscari. At the same University, he also obtained the ITALS Master in education and promotion of the Italian language and culture to foreigners. He attended a PhD course in Linguistics at the University of Pisa, studying for long periods in South Africa, and between 2002 and 2005, he was researcher in modern language education at the University of Bari. He was associate professor in educational linguistics at the Department of Literary and Linguistic Studies at the University of Padua from 2008 to 2017, when he became full professor. At the University of Padua, he was coordinator of the International Relations Commission of the Faculty of Education between 2007 and 2012 during which period he promoted the signature of an International Memorandum of Understanding between the University of Padua and the University of KwaZulu Natal, Durban (South Africa). He is still responsible for the Erasmus Exchange Programme with about twenty Universities.

Since 1999 he has been collaborating with the ITALS Laboratory at Ca’ Foscari as trainer of teachers of Italian as a foreign language both in Italy and abroad. He was editorial director of the journal Rivista ITALS. Didattica e linguistica dell’italiano come lingua straniera from 2003 to 2012 (when the journal was closed) and is member of several scientific committees of Italian and international journals. In 2014, he became member of the Scientific Committee of the “Dante Alighieri” Society in Rome, founded in 1889, which coordinates some 500 schools of Italian for foreigners around the world. Since 2015, he has been member of the Board of Directors of DILLE (Italian Association of Educational Linguistics and Language Teaching Education) of which he is currently Vice-president. Since 2019, he has been Secretary-General of FIPLV Fédération Internationale des Professeurs de Langues Vivantes/International Federation of Language Teacher Associations. Since 2007, he has been member of Rovigo’s Accademia dei Concordi (Academy of Arts, Science and Fine Arts established in 1580).

Since 2017, he has been Director of RILA Rassegna Italiana di Lingusitica Applicata founded in 1969, one of the Italian most prestigious journals on applied linguistics and since 2019, he has been co-editor of the journal ISSA, Italian Studies in Southern Africa/Studi di italianistica nell’Africa australe. His main research interests revolve around foreign language education (in particular Italian, English and Spanish as second/foreign languages), the teaching of the sociolinguistic aspects of foreign languages, sociolinguistics and language policies and, recently, the relation between Folk Linguistics and language teaching. In this latter area, he is currently coordinating and International research group.


Could you please explain when did your interest in linguistics start and how did you come to be a linguist?

I first became aware of the existence of different languages when I was about six years old and I was attending my first year of Primary School. One day I received as a present a collection of notebooks which all had a different flag and the related currency as their cover (I distinctly remember the flags of Great Britain, Spain, France and Germany, but there must have been others in the series). They immediately caught my curiosity and, out of the blue, I asked my daddy what languages were spoken in those countries. By answering my question I think he sowed the seeds of a passion which has accompanied me ever since and that has literally (and very positively) marked my life. In those days, it was not so common in Italy to have the chance to be exposed to foreign languages at Primary School, but I was so lucky that my teacher brought us in class an English/French bilingual girl from Canada who was spending a year in my hometown and who gave us the rudiments of both languages. The move from languages to linguistics came some years later as I reached the first year of Secondary School. Mainly by listening to pop music I then realised that the English I was taught at school only represented one possible variant of the tongue and that there were actually many other ways of speaking it. Analysing with hindsight and scientific competence the process I was going through I may say that I then became “variation aware”. It was my English teacher, Angelo Morello, who fed and supported my interest in language variation by suggesting me to read a book that I would “devour”: A. C. Gimson’s An Introduction to the Pronunciation of English. Later on during my University years as a student in Venice at the Faculty of foreign languages and literatures (and for a couple of years in Britain as well) I began studying linguistics. This eventually led me, under the supervision of Professor Luciano Canepari (one of the best Italian phoneticians) to write my final degree thesis the title of which was: A Socio-phonetic Description of Some Varieties of South-eastern British English. One of my main resources for it was that very same book by Gimson my English teacher had recommended me several years earlier.

By that time linguistics and, more specifically (English) sociolinguistics had developed from an interest into a real passion, which I little by little extended to other languages that I happened to get in touch with (from my native Italian and its many dialects, to German and Spanish, to quote just a few). Educational Linguistics was the next step, which first saw me as a young researcher at the University of Bari and then as associate professor, all the way to full professorship at the University of Padua.

Could you please explain in simple terms what does a linguist do and what are the most crucial traits that a linguist has to possess nowadays?

Linguistics is a very “wide” and far-reaching science and what a linguist does, basically depends on the kind of branch he or she refers to. Morphology, syntax, semantics, phonetics and phonology, sociolinguistics, pragmatics, historical linguistics, theoretical and applied linguistics,  language acquisition and language teaching, language policy and language planning are but a few of the possible areas of investigation. Each of these has its own principles and methodologies,which may even vary a lot from one to another. In a nutshell, however, we may say that a linguist tries to describe language from many perspectives, both intrinsically and extrinsically, in order to understand how it works. The main trait a linguist has to possess is a deep curiosity for anything that has to do with language(s) and always needs to be willing and open to accept that not everything that regards language can be rationally explained, which is exactly what makes this job so fascinating.

“My wish is that linguistics (and more specifically educational linguistics, which includes language policy as well) will be consulted on a regular basis and more massively by the decision-makers in the future”

What are the main challenges in your day-to-day work? What do you enjoy the most about your work?

I think the most challenging aspect of my day-to-day work is to keep up with language change and variation, not just in terms of structures, but of the use people make of it and of the impact this has on language education. This is also what makes my work interesting and never monotonous. Another aspect I really enjoy is observe my students be taken aback by and appreciate the tiny little “secrets” about language I help them discover in my classes. Sometimes it’s as though they could really see for the first time things that had always been before their eyes but they had never been aware of: a little bit like in Edgar Allan Poe’s The Purloined Letter…, to make a literary comparison!  

What is special about linguistics work in Italy? Are there specific issues you focus on?

Currently there are in Italy several linguistic issues that, so to speak, “hit the headlines” every other day: the “uncontrolled” spread of anglicisms in Italian, the political (and often only demagogical) attempt to promote dialects (which are actually local full-fledged languages in Italy), the “death” of the subjunctive and other similar scientifically-ungrounded amenities, the low quality of foreign language teaching and knowledge. The main problem is that these issues and many more analogous ones, are often presented in the media by journalists, politicians, “influencers” (as they are called today) with little or no competence in the subject but that always have a strong (and mostly negative) impact on the public opinion. One of my “missions” is to “defuse” such nonsense by providing the scientifically grounded but still accessible tools to understand what is really going on. Not an easy task…

Could you give an overview of the role of linguistics in Italian educational system? How do you perceive its future?

In order to answer this question, I should first of all make a distinction between reality and my wish. Let’s start from the former. What seems to be missing in the Italian educational system as far as linguistic education is concerned today is a unitary vision of the matter. Italian, English, German, Spanish, French, Italian as a second language, even Latin and ancient Greek in the schools, where they are taught, to mention only the most popular languages, are all seen as separate entities, both horizontally and vertically. By this I mean that, on the one hand, there is generally little exchange, interaction and collaboration among the teachers of these languages at the same level of school (Nursery, Primary, Secondary). On the other hand, there is no continuity from one level to the next, so pupils have to start to study the language practically all over again from scratch at the beginning of every cycle. This is both a huge waste of time and of energy. Another big problem is the extremely variegated competence of the language teachers, both in relation to the language they teach and to their teaching preparation. My wish is that linguistics (and more specifically educational linguistics, which includes language policy as well) will be consulted on a regular basis and more massively by the decision-makers in the future.    

In your paper Dalla semidialettofonia di ritorno al bilinguismo consapevole: un’ipotesi di evoluzione sociolinguistica in Veneto, you mentioned the concept of “semi-dialettofonia (primaria e secondaria)”. Could you please explain it? What made you come up with this concept and its definition? Would you consider “semi-dialettofonia (primaria e secondaria)” a neologism?

I introduced the concept of semi-dialectophony starting from a self-analysis of my relationship with Italian and the Veneto dialect: semi-dialectophony is the condition of partial competence in a dialect on behalf of native speakers of other languages (Italian or else). Primary semi-dialectophony or compensatory semi-dialetophony is typical of autochthonous Italian native speakers; secondary semi-dialectophony is typical of immigrants coming from other Italian regions or from abroad. The latter can be further subdivided into two categories:  

  • internal secondary semi-dialectophony: typical of immigrants from other Italian regions and having another variety of Italian or another dialect as their mother tongue;
  • external secondary semi-dialectophony: typical of immigrants from abroad and not having any variety of Italian as their mother tongue.

I would classify myself as a member of the primary semi-dialectophony group.

The term is undoubtedly a linguistic neologism.

In a world led by technology and social networks, how do linguists address the growing number of neologisms?

There is absolutely nothing wrong with neologisms: they are part of the way all languages have always evolved to describe the changes taking place in society and affecting our everyday life. If they hadn’t done so, if they didn’t do so, they would (have) become of little or no use at all. Nowadays it is mainly English that contributes to the growth of neologisms (technology almost exclusively speaks English, no matter either as native or non native!) and different languages may choose different ways to get hold of them (basically adapting or adopting them). Nevertheless, in the past other languages played a similar role: Latin, French, Italian, etc. Nobody can say for sure today, what is going to happen in the years to come. We can only make hypotheses based on what we can see and understand now.

“These are all very clear examples of how language is more than just a means of communication: it is a mark of identity”

Could you please explain what does “surplus comunicativo” mean in the article mentioned above? Could you make some concrete examples showing why the knowledge of Veneto’s dialect is fundamental to benefit from an effective integration in Veneto’s socio-cultural environment and why the use of Italian language is not enough?

As a linguistics student, I once went to a restaurant not far from Piazza San Marco in Venice and pretended to be a tourist who couldn’t speak Italian. I then returned to the same restaurant after some weeks speaking Italian but with a non-Venetian accent and lastly I went there again after some more time speaking alternatively Italian and the Veneto dialect. Every time I ordered exactly the same things, but every time the bill I received was lower… This is something that happens everywhere worldwide. You only have to think about one of the reasons why Cockney (and in particular its rhyming slang, which is technically not a slang but a proper cant!) was born in the East End of London, or of French “verlan” and of “verse” in Lunfardo (Argentinian Spanish). These are all very clear examples of how language is more than just a means of communication: it is a mark of identity (or “communicative surplus”). Not only do we choose what to say, but, by choosing how to say it, we also declare who we are or who we aspire to be as members of a certain peer group.

According to your paper, nowadays, in Veneto, parents are more likely to speak and share dialect with their children since they know that their kids manage the right tools to distinguish between Italian and dialect uses. What do you think the linguistic scenario will be in one generation, i.e. at the time of today kids’ children?

Over the last three of four decades, dialects in Italy have lost ground to the national language. This process seems to be destined to continue. Nonetheless, I believe dialects will not disappear: they will definitely change in their corpus becoming more “italianised” (as, after all, they have already done), but their status (although hardly ever official) will be more and more that of a cant, a tool to signify and express one’s sense of identity and belonging to a specific (speech) community. 

Talking about terms, does it happen to you to use IATE term base? If yes, in which occasions?

Although I know and I really appreciate the IATE term base I rarely have the need to use it.

Written by Elisa Callegari

Terminology trainee at the Terminology Coordination Unit of the European Parliament in Luxembourg. She holds a BA in Translation and Interpretation from the SSML University of Turin and a MA in Translation Studies from Paul-Valéry University of Montpellier. She studied Italian, English, French and Russian. Linguistics is her great passion and she has some experience in terminology, translation and formation of neologisms.

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