Skip to content
added to favourites
removed from favourites
Oops! Something went wrong. Try again
Your account is being created
Your account has been successfully created and you are now logged in
You are logged out.

We are Walcrucchi

German and Italian. The people of South Tyrol are acquainted with two languages. You could almost say that both languages characterise South Tyroleans.

How it is to switch between several languages. From a young age. Every day. Listen to former Museum Director Letizia Ragaglia’s passion for languages in the film portrait. And read the stories of Silvia and Valentina here.

When Silvia is angry, there’s only one language for her - it has to be Italian: “Several swear words spring to mind!” German is much too boring. She should know about all the differences between German and Italian expletives. After all, she has grown up with the two languages. In South Tyrol where the street signs are in at least two languages and the perfect espresso is just as important as the best dumpling recipe. Her mother Sara comes from Rome and her father Klaus from German-speaking South Tyrol. Silvia’s parents deliberately decided to bring up their children bilingual: Sara speaks Italian with her daughter and Klaus German. This puts them in a minority in South Tyrol, albeit a growing minority.

Multi-lingual children are like jugglers

More and more couples are crossing the language border and more and more parents are recognising the benefits of learning several languages at a young age. Rita Franceschini, linguist and Director of the Language Centre at the Free University of Bolzano, says: “Children who grow up with two or three languages are like jugglers tossing several balls. They are more practised, more flexible and more linguistically aware”. Using magnetic resonance technology, Franceschini also recently established that children who flit between languages from a young age stimulate that part of the brain which boosts decision-making skills.

Two normal teenagers

Discoveries which are still a long way from being taken as read, even in South Tyrol, as in other regions of Europe. There are still too many prejudiced ideas about having a bilingual upbringing: children would not learn either of the two languages properly, they would be overwhelmed and confused. Silvia does not seem confused. On the contrary: the 10 year old is open, bright and a normal teenager. Just like her friend, Valentina. The pair put their heads together and giggle, as girls do before puberty. When they go on holiday to southern Italy, they use German like a secret language. Very practical when they want to talk about boys! Silvia with her long, dark hair and big, brown eyes alongside blonde Valentina - together they are like the clichéd image of an Italian and a German girl. Or South Tyrolean-Germans.

South Tyroleans are not really German though

It’s hard to know what terms to use: South Tyroleans are not really German at all. South Tyrol’s connection with the north during its turbulent history was with Austria. When the residents of South Tyrol talk about their languages, they are referring to “German”, “Italian” and “Ladin”.

The journey to multiple languages is a deliberate mishmash

Valentina, who is more reserved than her lively friend Silvia, has also grown up bilingual: with an Italian-speaking father and a German-speaking mother. The girls are uninhibited at home and of course have grown up with both languages. Silvia’s first words were in Italian. The German words came later. “And then she said some funny words, mixed words,” Silvia’s mother recalls. Silvia still mixes her languages from time to time today, but deliberately.

Singing in Italian, talking in German, gymnastics in English

Language is rarely left to chance in South Tyrol’s schools. The children go to either a German or an Italian-speaking school. One exception are the areas where Ladin is spoken, in the Val Badia and Val Gardena valleys - here teaching is divided equally between several languages. A few Italian schools in Bolzano/Bozen have experimented with permitting multi-lingual lessons too. The Marcelline Sisters private institution plays a pioneering role in this. “Even at kindergarten, here we sing in Italian, talk in German and do gymnastics in English,” says Director Elisabetta Manzio.

When that is not possible, parents pressurise the system to change. Any given primary school class of 20 children in Bolzano is likely to contain only four children from a monolingual family. And in the upper classes, students are increasingly opting to undertake an exchange year in the other language. As explained by Federico Ferretti, an Italian student at a German-speaking secondary school: “I didn’t understand anything at the start because my fellow students only spoke in dialect”. Now Federico has mastered it too: South Tyrolean.

Who am I?

German and Italian. The languages are increasingly being mixed up in the families of South Tyrol. Despite this, there are no official statistics in South Tyrol as to how many multi-lingual families there actually are here. You have to piece things together. In 2012, as part of its Kolipsi project, the EURAC research institute asked 1,500 South Tyrolean youngsters at German and Italian-speaking schools about their language affiliation: 15 percent of those asked said they considered themselves bilingual and 4.5 percent said they belonged to other language groups. This is understandable for the head of the study, Andrea Abel: “Multilingualism in South Tyrol does not just relate to the classic “old” minorities and their languages; it encompasses “new” minorities too.

When will there be a school which speaks all the languages?

Silvia and Valentina attend a school where the lessons are taught in German. Italian is taught as a first foreign language and then English is added from the fourth year of schooling onwards. “The next step would certainly be to have a truly multi-lingual school,” says Silvia’s mother, Sara, with wishful thinking. A challenge which has not yet been conquered.

German, Italian and Ladin Or perhaps another language altogether? When South Tyroleans say “we”, it can be fairly complicated. But watching Silvia and Valentina, you gain the impression that the next generation will easily navigate this linguistic diversity - and sees it as an advantage: “When someone speaks German to me, I can answer. And when someone speaks Italian, I can also answer,” Valentin summarises the situation. Multilingualism can really be that simple.

Text: Gabriele Crepaz
Video: Andreas Pichler
Year of publication: 2014 - Stories from South Tyrol

Accommodation image
Finish your booking for
Accommodation name
0  room rooms Not selected No board Breakfast Half board Full board All inclusive
Total price: 0 €
(incl. VAT / excl. local tourism tax)