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Five questions for Graziana Lazzarino

Retiring professor, Italian language, CU-Boulder

Graziana Lazzarino
Patrick Campbell/University of Colorado
Graziana Lazzarino
As a young girl growing up in Genoa, Italy, Graziana Lazzarino watched huge ocean liners moving in and out of the harbor and wondered if one day she, too, would journey to America like so many others.

Now decades later, she has wrapped up a teaching career that includes 46½ years at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Not only did she fulfill her dream of living in the United States, she has helped countless students (including the writer of this piece) with their desire to learn a foreign language. The Italian government knighted her for her success in spreading Italian language and culture to so many. She also has been honored with numerous other awards, including one from the American Association of Teachers of Italian, the Colorado Congress of Foreign Language Teachers, and teaching awards from both the Boulder faculty and students.

It's unlikely that this energetic woman will let retirement slow her down. She is known as an early riser (3 a.m.), favors Italian television programs she receives via satellite dish, and loves hiking. She especially loves to cook: Often, she would bake a cake and bring it to the university along with a sign that read, "Let them eat cake."

— Cynthia Pasquale

1. You taught Italian at several universities before coming to CU. Why did you choose CU and why have you stayed in Boulder for most of your career?

I did not choose CU, I discovered it. I was teaching in Massachusetts in the spring of 1960. I was in America on an exchange program and it was my last year because my Visa was expiring. I was reading the paper and saw an ad that said, "Come to the Rockies to study foreign languages." Without knowing anyone, I wrote and sent my CV and said, "You need me." And they answered back and they said, "Yes, we do. You're going to be director of our language program and in charge of teaching." I took the job and I fell in love with Boulder that moment.

Of course I had to go back to Italy. After the required two years of being in Italy, the University of Nebraska, where I had my first teaching assignment, offered me a job. I wasn't particularly excited about going back to Nebraska after seeing the beauty of Boulder, but I accepted because it meant getting a green card. I returned in 1963.

In 1964, I received a call from Boulder and they had a position and they offered it to me. I immediately accepted. To quote Caesar, "I came, I saw, I conquered," but I changed it to say "I came, I saw, I stayed." What I love about Boulder is the climate, the location, the mountains. I had a feeling I was on vacation all the time. I have a mountain cabin and I love to be with nature. I appreciate the serenity of being in an isolated place where you see nothing but trees and the wild animals.

The years went by, the decades. When I hit the age of 80 on Nov. 6 of 2010, I told myself that I had to stop (teaching) and leave room for the younger generation. I have the energy to continue; I just love teaching, but it's better for me to step down.

2. What are some of the biggest changes you've seen in the way language and culture is taught and in the students in your classrooms?

To my great satisfaction, Italian has become very popular as a language to be studied in the United States and in the world. Italian is now the No. 4 foreign language studied in the world (in most areas) behind English, Spanish and French. In some areas, German ranks No. 4.

Tourism helps a great deal. People go to Europe, go to Italy. They like the food and the people. They like the way they are accepted and welcomed and they want to go back knowing a little bit of the language. Traditionally, students studied Italian because they were interested in art, music and literature. And now that Italy is one of the big eight economic powers, people study Italian for more material reasons.

Every time I teach first-year Italian, I ask students why they want to learn the language. I list various possibilities. I say, for example, you need a language and you've had Spanish or French and you think "big deal," Italian belongs to the same family and it's going to be five hours for an easy A. Some people study it for art or because they are of Italian origin. Then there are those that had girlfriends or boyfriends from Italy. One day, I got the most original answer I've ever had. One student said, "Because my roommate is Italian and he talks in his sleep and I want to understand what he says."

These days in the classroom, we stress communication and not so much accuracy. When I began to teach, the focus was on grammar and translation. But it's no longer taught that way. More and more time is invested in people talking in pairs and in groups. No longer is the teacher the one to ask questions because the teacher can only talk to one person at a time and the others in the classroom are passive. Now we want noise and activity in classrooms.

3. You've written several Italian-language textbooks, including one of the most popular, "Prego." What are the keys to teaching and learning a language?

In the late '70s, I started writing textbooks. I was lucky. They came out at the right time when people wanted something fresh and different. For instance, I use cartoons in my chapters. It makes people curious about what it says and is a lesson on the sense of humor of the country. The exercises are lively and fun. All of my titles are in Italian. "Prego" means, "Please, won't you join me?" And it caught on. It's unbelievable that it's been so successful. It's been a best-seller for years. I just finished the eighth edition. The second-year book, which first came out in 1979 and is called "Da Capo," is now a sixth edition. There were several others, but the big successes were these two, which were used from Yale to Berkeley.

People ask why I don't write other things. I wish I could write a cookbook, which would be titled "Cooking With Grace," which is my name in Italian. Sometimes I wish I could write books about my experiences during the war in Italy. But I haven't had time; I've been kept pretty busy over the years.

To learn a language, you have to be very diligent. You don't learn by devoting a few hours, then stopping, then going back. It has to be a continuous effort. Students need to devote two hours a day to Italian. Of course when you are young, learning is easier.

Students love the idea that I'm a native speaker and that I can tell stories that they cannot find in textbooks. They love what I tell them about culture: the little things we believe in, the superstitions, what the old grandmothers tell us, the poems, the games we play. I tell them the origin of the words "cappuccino," or we talk about ice cream and the three top flavors here and in Italy.

4. Some people describe you as having a British, not Italian, accent. You also met Mussolini. How did each of these happen?

The British accent is mostly gone although it was thick when I came here because my teachers were either British or they learned English there. In those days, a great deal of importance was given to proper pronunciation. We wanted to sound like the BBC or the Queen of England. We were graded on pronunciation. Now I'm told pronunciation is not that important and they consider that accent rather phony. We tried so hard to sound British, but when I came to America, it was a shock because the pronunciation was so different.

Nobody can guess my nationality when they hear me talk. They take me for a German for some reason. Some say I am the spitting image of Doctor Ruth (the famed German television personality and sex therapist). I studied in Germany, too, so maybe my accent is a composite.

I was 7 when Mussolini came to Genoa. In Italy, you went to school Monday through Saturday and every Saturday afternoon we had a mandatory hour of what is called fascist culture. When Mussolini came, we were all sent to the main square in our uniforms and sat in the form of an "M."

Like everyone else, I was indoctrinated. It was quite a shock when we lost the war and the enemy became the ally and the ally became the enemy. It was music to our ears to be told that God had given Italy a mission – a mission of reconstructing the Roman Empire. We were told how great we were and how great the civilization was.

5. Do you have a favorite Italian phrase and what does it mean?

A tavola non si invecchia – "At the table, you don't get old," which means the time spent at the table does not count. So you can engage in a long dinner – two hours, three hours – talking and exchanging ideas because the clock stops.

Want to suggest a faculty or staff member for Five Questions? Please e-mail Jay.Dedrick@cu.edu

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