The World is My Oyster

“The world is my oyster.”

Imagine you are eighteen years old in the early 1960’s. You are the protected child of parents who fled the crime and dirt of 1950’s city life for suburban tranquility. Your first big solo adventure at eighteen is college. You are female and a student at one of the Seven Sisters—Radcliffe, Bryn Mawr, Wellesley, Barnard, Smith, Vassar, and Mount Holyoke. In those years, Mount Holyoke, for example, did not recognize her students as adults. The school imposed parietals, rules governing visits from members of the opposite sex to a dormitory; it acted in loco parentis and established other rules governing comportment and obligations while on or off campus. Naturally, some women were more independent than others and defied rules that they felt were irrelevant or onerous. You were not one of those women. You were a naive girl who did not especially like this college but attended it for its prestige and because your parents insisted. You did know you were eager to learn as many languages as possible, which the school offered, and so by the end of your sophomore year you applied for a Junior Year Abroad program to study in Italy.

At nineteen, you went off to Europe. You had your student visa, valid for the entire academic year. On arrival in your city, you received a student card, which allowed you numerous discounts on transportation, food, and museum admission. At first you lived at Villa Solaia, outside the Tuscan city of Siena. with 13 other women in your study abroad group from various women’s colleges across the country. That was the home of the renowned Vivante family of philosophers, artists, and writers. After six weeks, pairs of students began to live as paying guests with families in Florence where until the end of May they would attend University classes as well as custom sessions set up in a University classroom for the group.

Before arriving in Siena, the group had sailed through the Straits of Gibraltar to Naples, Italy on a now scuttled ocean liner named Cristoforo Colombo, the twin of the Andrea Doria, which later sank. You shared a cabin in the bowels of the ship with three other women in the group, but despite your abode in a very lower class deck, your cabin did have a steward who spoke only an incomprehensible Italian. To prepare for the year abroad, your parents had sent you to Middlebury College for the summer to strengthen your Italian language skills, but when attempting to impress your parents you tried to converse with the steward, you told them you understood not a word. Your father threw up his hands and said, “Why did we pay for your summer at Middlebury if you didn’t learn enough to understand this guy?” Apparently the steward got the gist of Dad’s rant because he said in halting English, “I from Navala, Napoli. We speak different.” His response mollified your father. After saying their anxious good-byes, your parents disembarked, and your solo adventure began.

From then until this day, you have considered the world your oyster, but not to exploit as Pistol implies in the Shakespearean comedy The Merry Wives of Windsor. When Sir John Falstaff plans to cheat two Windsor women out of their money and refuses to lend Pistol any of it, Pistol replies, “Why then the world’s mine oyster, which I with sword will open.” Your turn at opening the oyster did not involve a sword or pick. It began with an intense curiosity about the relationship of language to cultural perspectives. As your Italian fluency grew, you learned different ways of thinking about experience and the ways of the world. Changes in grammatical constructions changed the way you thought in that language. For example, a simple inversion of parts of speech in an Italian phrase alludes to mental processes different from what you intuit in English. You might say, “A press conference will follow;” Italians instead will say, “Seguirà una conferenza stampa” (it follows a conference press). Why does the verb precede the subject in Italian, while English speakers will begin with the subject? Why is there no preposition and/or article between conferenza and stampa in the Italian example as in conferenza di  or della stampa? Have these constructions developed to stress the most important part of the statement? What does that tell you about the speaker’s culture?

By the end of your academic year in Tuscany, you spoke Italian with ease and communicated with constructions and intonations that marked you as part of the younger generation, hip to change and to language’s contemporary nuances. Learning a new language and working toward fluency was an important part of your asserting independence and finding a path to maturity.

When you returned to the United States, you were eager to pursue your study of Romance Languages and were determined to preserve insights gained abroad. Your oyster was opening wide. Each language experience—in French, Italian, or Spanish—put your head in a different space, as your contemporaries used to say in the 60’s. Not only did you absorb linguistic nuances as they varied from culture to culture. Your awareness of cultural differences expanded your sense of self, of your place in the world, and both the value and risks inherent in those differences. You found a pearl in your oyster, a variety of experience as expressed at its core, through language, and in a broader sense symbolic behavior and expression.


2 thoughts on “The World is My Oyster

  1. In this well written and interesting essay, there is, indeed, a significant pearl of wisdom about the intersection of language and culture. The essay demonstrates the need to understand this truth — to really speak a language, not your mother tongue, requires immersion in that culture and understanding of the cultural impact on that language.


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