Retired geologist Tom Loretto had a whole trip to Italy planned for himself and his kids this August, but coronavirus wiped it out. Instead of visiting the country known for the Leaning Tower of Pisa, loads of homemade pasta, and fairytale-esque small towns, he’s spending his summer in quarantine learning Italian, his grandfather’s native language. He suspects his last name comes from a town of the same name. But he never spoke it growing up, and it has been 44 years since he took an Italian class.
“Italian was gonna happen with equal enthusiasm, quarantine or not,” he said.
Loretto, who relocated to the Twin Cities area in 2015 after living in Saudi Arabia for nearly 20 years, signed up for a beginning class at the Italian Cultural Center in Minneapolis. When teaching moved to Zoom, he quickly adjusted and dove in.
Era destino. It was meant to be.
Minnesotans are learning new languages in quarantine for fun or familial purposes. For some, a new language offers more opportunities to connect with friends abroad. For others, it’s a way to concentrate on something else during this stressful time, or to become closer with a partner through their native language.
Diana Schutter of Mendota Heights is re-entering her German phase. She first studied the language in the early 1980s at the University of Minnesota after she and her husband took their first trip to Germany. Schutter and her husband, William, who died in 2004, visited Germany 10 times. He has relatives there, and they both made many friends on their visits.
“Whenever I was there and would make a few attempts, they would applaud,” she said. “I always felt like I really should do this.”
Schutter planned to go to Germany this April and take language classes. After the pandemic canceled her plans, she enrolled in classes at the Germanic American Institute in St. Paul.
“Being of retirement age, I don’t retain things like I used to,” she said. “It is good for me to be taking a language course because it’s a way to really exercise your memory.”
Focusing on learning a new language is also helping her concentrate during an intense time.
“It is like a nice escape from the media barrage that otherwise consumed me all day long,” she said. “When you sit down and have to do this, it’s good for your emotional health.”
Parker Hoffman decided to jump back into Chinese before the coronavirus hit. He started lessons with Luke Wang, a Chinese tutor in the Twin Cities.
Before returning to the United States a few years ago, he lived in a small town near Beijing where he taught English and also got his Chinese to a beginning level by the time he left.
“It’s ironic with coronavirus beginning in China,” he said. “Travel [there] doesn’t look good for the next couple of years.”
Twenty-eight-year-old Reeve Johnson’s interest in finally learning Finnish is a direct result of quarantine. The pandemic has disproportionately affected elderly people, and it made him think of his grandfather’s Finnish background and language abilities.
Two weeks ago, Johnson threw himself into Duolingo, spending 30-to-60 minutes per day on the language-learning app. Soon he discovered that a co-worker speaks Finnish fluently, so they have a standing date. Although he knows only basic phrases, he’s motivated to keep going for reasons beyond his own ancestry.
“I was reading a book about how racist ideas came to be in America and I thought a lot about what’s been imported from Europe as far as the standards of operating in America,” he said. “I thought about how English is the expected language [here], and how there are so many different languages that could be part of the American experience.”
He also wants to incorporate some Finnish words into his plays, which are about the intersection of queerness and mathematics. He’s considering taking a Finnish class at the American Swedish Institute. Finnish could take over his life.
“I won’t count out living in Finland, maybe that will happen, but for now it’s more the learning of the language and ability to connect with ancestry and my grandfather,” he said.
For Sarah Connor, quarantine gave her a chance to finally start learning Arabic. Her fiancé is Palestinian and a native Arabic speaker. They were meant to go to the Middle East this summer, but the trip was postponed. She started a beginning Arabic class through Mizna, a St. Paul-based Arab arts organization.
For her, Arabic is about discovering family.
“I want to speak Arabic so we’re able to pass it on to our future children, and also to prevent them from having conversations about me in Arabic that I don’t understand,” she said.
Ironically, Arabic is a language of which Loretto is also familiar. He met his wife, Najwa, while living in Saudi Arabia. Although she passed away a few years ago, his older son is fluent and his daughter is nearly fluent. (His younger son, who moved back to the states at a young age, didn’t have a chance to learn it.) Loretto’s Arabic is decent, and he uses Duolingo to keep it up. But it was Italian that kept nagging at him.
During a vacation last summer, he picked up an Italian dictionary from a used bookstore. His brother questioned his motives, suggesting that since he was married to an Arabic-speaking woman and it was also his kids’ and family’s culture, shouldn’t he focus on improving his Arabic instead of pursuing Italian?
“Italian is something that I would say is in me, that wants to come out,” Loretto explained. “Even my family in the Middle East has an appreciation for it. My wife had a fondness for it, she loved the sound of it.”