Many people wish they spoke a second language. They might cite the business or cultural needs of a more globalised world. Having a bit of French or getting by in Spanish is one thing, but being bilingual is something quite different. The ability to use one language as effortlessly and eloquently as the other is something quite rare in a person and immediately opens up many, sometimes simplistic, questions from those monolinguals that encounter them. “What language do you think in?” or “Do you dream in such-and-such language ?” These questions are often hard to answer. But this same intrigue presents itself when looking at an area or region that is supposedly bilingual.
The South Tyrol region of Italy stands unique in a land of exceptions and bewildering geographic variety. Being part of Austro-Hungarian Empire until 1918, the current autonomous province constitutes the southern chunk of what was once a much larger Austrian Tyrol. German and Italian are both official languages and, on paper at least, South Tyrol is as bilingual as you can be. The place names, street signs, newspapers, and TV stations are all duplicated. Bolzano/Bozen or Merano/Meran or Brixen/Bressanone. But visually the region does not suffer from this linguistic tussle. Whether in high gothic or bold roman, the typesets and noticeboards of South Tyrol mesh well.
The actual spoken bilingualism of the area is perhaps harder to locate than the two-way signs that abound. South Tyrol is majority German speaking, at around 70 per cent, and yet in the larger towns and cities of the region Italian is spoken more. In the capital Bolzano/Bozen, 73 per cent of the population speaks Italian as a first language. However, hard statistics cant express a unique culture that varies from valley to valle (or tal) and from street to strasse (or via). A third language also exists, called Ladin, which is spoken by a considerable minority. In South Tyrol it’s quite feasible to be trilingual.
Tourists and journalists might be struck at the relative lack of English spoken in South Tyrol. It straddles two linguistic heavyweights: north to Innsbruck, Vienna and the German-speaking world beyond, and south to Trento, Verona and then Rome. There hardly seems space for any other cultural invasion. A chef, maternal Italian, will break into German with gusto as he explains his favourite dishes. German-speaking Tyroleans might just as easily sing out buonasera or buongiorno to greet you. Studies have gone as far as showing the advantages of the bilingual way of life. Bilinguals tend to have a heightened ability to monitor their environments (that might explain how clean everything is). A recent Spanish study comparing German-Italian bilinguals with Italian monolinguals found that the bilinguals could perform certain tasks with less brain effort.
Efficiency and charm – despite a slight, almost welcome lack of English – make the South Tyrol region what it is. In reality a minority of its residents are bilingual in the true sense of the word; attachment to German or Italian mother tongues is very strong and hard to supplement. However, a fluid attitude exists to language in these parts. You could ask a South Tyroler what language he dreams in, although he might just reply buonanotte/gute nacht!
David Plaisant is a researcher for Monocle 24.