Name: Han-luen Komline
Location of Study: Siena, Italy
Program of Study: Italian
Sponsor(s): Robert Berner
A brief personal bio:
Language learning and cultural exchange have shaped my identity in each phase of my life, as I communicated with family in English and Chinese growing up in Connecticut and New Jersey, pursued a philosophy major at Wheaton College in Illinois, taught English for a year at Yantai University in China, earned an MDiv at Princeton Theological Seminary, and spent a year researching in Tübingen before arriving at Notre Dame for doctoral work in early Christian theology. One of the things I love about my field is the occasions it provides to work in foreign languages. This summer I am delighted to be able to study Italian, a language especially important for research on Augustine, the figure on whom my doctoral dissertation focuses.
Why this summer language abroad opportunity is important to me:
While German and French remain vital research languages in early Christian studies, Italian scholarship is a growth area in which exciting research is taking place. The SLA grant I have received will equip me with the skills to engage this Italian work in my research as I embark on the second half of my dissertation. I hope, however, that this immersion experience will also continue to impact my research beyond this specific project, laying the foundations for a career of continued cross-cultural research and exchange.
What I hope to achieve as a result of this summer study abroad experience:
As a result of this grant, I hope to gain the skills necessary to make reading and engaging Italian secondary literature on topics relevant to my research a comfortable and efficient habit of my scholarly life. With practice, I hope turning to Italian literature in my research will become as natural as exploring the literature available in French, German or English. I also hope to be able to correspond with any friends I make in Italy and with colleagues in my field in Italian. Finally, I hope to establish a foundation in spoken Italian and an acquaintance with Italian culture that will facilitate future study and research in Italy and exchange with Italian scholars.
My specific learning goals for language and intercultural learning this summer:
- By the end of my stay in Italy, I will be able to read and comprehend the key points of Italian secondary literature relevant to my research without the use of a dictionary or other aid. With the use of such aids, I will be able to understand any nuances of argument that prove pertinent.
- By the end of my stay in Italy, I will be able to correspond with friends and colleagues in Italian.
- By the end of my stay in Italy, I will be able to converse in Italian at the intermediate level (according to ACTFL proficiency guidelines).
- While in Italy, I will strive to familiarize myself with Sienese, Tuscan, and Italian culture. By the end of my stay, I will be able to describe concrete distinctions between Italian culture, my own culture, and other European cultures with which I am familiar (German, French).
My plan for maximizing my international language learning experience:
In preparation for studying abroad, I have taken a summer course at Notre Dame that covers two semesters worth of material in an intensive seven-week format. When actually in Italy, I will build on what I have learned stateside by following a multifaceted curriculum at Dante Alighieri Siena that allows for an ideal combination of group instruction, individual tutoring, cultural events, and individual study. In the first week I will attend class for three hours a day in addition to attending the lectures and cultural events offered by the school. In the second through fourth weeks of my immersion experience, I will have four hours a week of one-on-one tutoring in the afternoons, in addition to group instruction in the morning. In my final two weeks in Italy, I will take the “Siena Magnifica” course, which includes field trips to, and lectures at, local points of interest in addition to cooking lessons offered by local Italian chefs, all in Italian. By taking a graduated approach, with increasingly challenging immersion experiences, I hope to sustain a steep learning curve for the entire duration of my stay in Siena.
Reflective Journal Entry 1: Siena’s Palio: The Fastest Minute and a Half in Sports (August 12-16, 2013)
The Palio lasts for about ninety seconds. Ten horses tear around Siena’s main square three times to thunderous cheering as their bareback riders, each representing a “contrada,” or neighborhood, urge them on to win the coveted prize: the “palio,” or standard depicting the Virgin Mary, after which the race is named. The palio goes to the contrada whose horse first crosses the finish line, with or without its jockey.
My first week in Siena coincided with the second Palio of the year, which was to take place on August 16th. Though the race itself was not until Friday, festivities began days in advance. On Tuesday a ceremony was held in the Piazza del Campo to assign horses to each contrada. Along with a group from my language school, I looked on impatiently under the merciless midday sun as names were drawn and solemnly announced. The contradas, equally impatient to hear the results, responded in turn with shouts of triumph (if the horse was expected to perform well) or crestfallen silence (if the prognosis was less favorable). Each contrada then escorted its horse out of the square with singing, bringing it back to the contrada where it would be kept under jealous watch, even during the night.
Practice runs took place in the morning and evening on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, followed by outdoor dinners each night in the contradas. Thanks to a gift from my family, I was able to watch the Wednesday evening event from a balcony overlooking the square. Already for this race the crowds in the square would have made it difficult to get a good view from the center of the square, and every inch of space on the balcony was sold out. Behind my row of chairs another row of people squeezed in, standing. The balcony offered an excellent view of the start, so difficult to control in a bareback race yet so decisive for a race this short. At the trials, the jockeys could practice getting it right.
That evening we joined two teachers from Società Dante Alighieri for dinner in the Selva contrada. Volunteers cooked up a three course meal (simple, but tasty: bread and wine with 1. pasta al ragù, 2. sliced roast beef and peas, 3. gelato) for the hundreds in attendance while younger contradaioli ran to and fro from the kitchen to the rows of tables in the large courtyard outside with plates of food. Our hosts explained that this was all done “for love of the contrada”; the money raised from the event went to the contrada’s funds, not to the individuals working tirelessly to put on the event.
Thursday night we ate again with the same group for the banquet following the last trial. On Friday night, we were told, there would be no formal dinners in the contradas. Only the winner would have the heart for a feast after the big race, so no one bothered to organize one. The Selva held its pre-Palio banquet in the open air in a square behind the pink and white striped, “Sienese gothic” style baptistery of the cathedral. Due to the last minute decision of 300 American tourists to descend upon the Selva, known for hosting the most glamorous pre-race meal, it took much longer than usual, with tables and benches extending onto a side street, where we were seated. We were kept entertained, however. In between a salmon-arugula appetizer, pici pasta with pesto, roast chicken with herbs, and apple cinnamon cake, each course separated by half an hour or more, leaders of the contrada gave speeches in anticipation of the upcoming race, occasional songs broke out, and lively conversation filled the square. We were reluctant to see the evening draw to a close as one of our new acquaintances, a native of Siena, shared stories of the city’s history and traditions over dessert into the wee hours of the morning.
The next day each contrada took its horse and jockey to a local church to be blessed by a priest. (I later learned of another surprising custom: a “baptism” of babies into the contrada in addition to their ecclesial baptism.) Feeling like Zaccheus without a tree behind the crowds in the courtyard of the Santuario di Santa Caterina, I could hardly see the scene, but—in the reverent silence that fell upon the crowds as the jockey and his horse approached—heard the gentle clip-clop of horse hooves.
Just before the race, a historical parade showcasing the medieval clothing and flags of contradas past and present proceeded through the streets. This time I had arrived in advance to secure a spot from which to appreciate the detailed costumes, carefully reconstructed from paintings of everyday Sienese life like those I would later see on the covers of Siena’s financial record books, many of which are still preserved in the city’s archives. The historic Sienese devotion to the arts, extending even to the decoration of items as mundane as its financial records, has made possible its colorful life in the present, and the continued flow of cash into its coffers as tourists pour into the city to experience its traditions.
After the parade we joined a huge crowd of people hoping to enter the square through the last open gate. Relieved to have made it in before the last entrance was closed and to have found a spot in the shade, we were now “locked” in the Piazza del Campo, mere drops in the sea of spectators who would wait there for two hours for the fastest minute and a half in sports.
Reflective Journal Entry 2: Il Verna’olo Senese (August 27, 2013)
At the beginning of my third week in Siena, bells were still being rung energetically for an hour or so every evening around midnight in my neighborhood to celebrate the victory of the Onda contrada, in whose jurisdiction I was living. From Siena’s cobblestone alleyways to the Piazza del Campo, contrada members of all ages paraded around with pacifiers in their mouths to celebrate their contrada’s “rebirth,” achieved through its triumph at the palio.
As I was encountering these peculiarities of Sienese culture on the streets, I had the occasion to attend a lecture on the Sienese vernacular, or “Il Verna’olo Senese” at the Società Dante Alighieri. The speaker had chosen this title advisedly. As he pointed out, the Italian spoken in Siena does not differ sufficiently from “standard” modern Italian (based on a Florentine version of “Italian”) to rise to the level of a distinct dialect. However, many Sienese of today speak in a “vernacular” with a typical set of linguistic quirks. The most outstanding feature of this vernacular, perhaps a residue from Spanish occupation of Siena following the Sienese republic’s surrender to Spain in the 16th century, is that after vowels, the consonants C, P, T and G tend to soften. Thus one says: “il cane (the dog)” but “la ‘o‘a‘ola (or “la hohahola,” for coca-cola),” “il tetto” but “la thegola (for la tegola),” and so on.
I had noticed in previous weeks that my language instructor often pronounced the word perhaps, “forse,” with a sharp t sound, “fortze.” Now I discovered that this was a typical feature of the Sienese vernacular. Following the lecture, I also began to notice the frequent omission of hard c sounds in everyday conversations. I could understand what I was hearing better, but I also began to hear more.
Reflective Journal Entry 3: Thought Experiments in Italian: Their Grammar and Content (August 29, 2013)
While the lecture on the Sienese vernacular impressed upon me the usefulness of deductive language learning, a grueling but productive two-hour individual lesson in the afternoon the same week reminded me of the importance of putting into practice the rules one “knows.” In my morning classes we had been learning the principles governing hypothetical sentences in various tenses: “If I had caught the train, I would have arrived earlier.” “If I catch the train, I will arrive earlier.” And so on. I wanted to practice applying these rules, so my tutor procured a set of conversation prompts targeting hypothetical sentences. She fired one question after another off at me: If you could choose a nationality other than your own, which would you choose and why? If you could change something about your past, what would you change and why? What would happen if everyone in the world were suddenly two centimeters tall? If you had a million dollars, what would you do with it?
I tried to answer each of these questions as if having a real conversation, rather than simply seizing on what was easiest to formulate in Italian, but this proved surprisingly difficult. Since this more complex grammar corresponded to more complex ideas, I had to do more than just apply a set of rules mechanically. I had to make these rules intuitive so that I could focus on the content of our conversation. At times I wondered if, for the time being, it would have been better just to answer mechanically in order to move more quickly towards internalizing the grammar I would need for conversations in the future. And so I had yet another opportunity to practice hypothetical sentences in Italian. Either way, I would have lots of opportunity for practice.
Reflective Journal Entry 4: A Brief Respite (September 5, 2013)
If part of the challenge of using complex grammar when speaking a foreign language is the fact that this grammar is often coupled with new subject matter, especially in immersion environments abroad, one way to reduce the difficulty of assimilating new grammar is to stick with known content. The next week I decided it was time to read an Italian article pertinent to my dissertation. Unencumbered by a dictionary or other aid, I forgot I was reading Italian and was borne along by the author’s argument, which took me back to familiar texts, questions and themes. I felt like an exhausted Odysseus crawling at last onto the shore of his homeland.
Reflective Journal Entry 5: A New Environment (September 14, 2013)
On the 9th I was assigned to a new class at the C1 level. There were only four students in the class: a Swiss engineer who had been coming to Italy annually for the last ten years to work on his Italian, a Belgian student about to embark on an exchange year in Siena, an American priest preparing to study at the Gregorianum in Rome, and myself. The teacher announced to us at the outset: “At your level you don’t need to learn anymore grammar. What you need is vocabulary.” While I was less than persuaded by the first point with respect to my own case, I knew he was right about the second. And vocabulary we did learn. Our theme for the week, dictated by our textbook, was the environment. We learned terms such as ora di punta (rush hour), giacimento petrolifero (oil field), and rifiuti tossici (toxic waste). We discussed the predicament of overpopulation, the overconsumption of natural resources and potential solutions for these issues. And we learned idioms, hand selected for maximal utility by our instructor. It is one thing, this intense week of class reminded me, to have command of the technical vocabulary of one’s own field, but something else to master the requisite vocabulary to discuss any subject that might come up in everyday conversation with appropriate specialized terminology. One of the benefits of participating in a group course like this one, and of an immersion experience more generally, was the opportunity to discuss topics in Italian that I might not have sought out on my own. This helped me to develop a well rounded vocabulary that would equip me to handle a variety of everyday situations in the language.
Reflective Journal Entry 6: Siena Magnifica: City of the Arts (September 21, 2013)
In the last two weeks of my time in Siena, I took Dante Alighieri’s “Siena Magnifica,” a cultural course that included on-site lectures at local points of interest as well as cooking classes. It lived up to its name.
We visited the Museo Civico, with Simone Martini’s gleaming Maestà and Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s cautionary Allegory of Good and Bad Government; a series of medieval Sienese fountains around the city, which brought water to the city’s population from a network of underground waterways; the Museo Santa Maria della Scala, onetime receiving place for pilgrims, orphanage, and, until recently, hospital, and constant artistic center of the city; Siena’s archaeological museum, with vast collections of Etruscan artifacts and tombs; and the city’s cathedral, whose floor, decorated with marble inlaid panels that remain covered for most of the year, was—for a brief time—open to view.
Looking down upon entering the cathedral, one sees a panel designed by Pintoricchio displaying an “Allegory of Virtue.” At the end of a steep ascent, on the cusp of attaining the virtue he seeks, the philosopher Crates empties a chest of treasure into the sea. “What will you give up for the pearl of great price?” the work asks the cathedral’s visitor. Along the outer walls sibyls proclaim the future birth of Christ. Moving forward toward the front of the cathedral one encounters familiar biblical images. In a set of panels devoted to the Elijah cycle, one finds a pair of hungry dogs licking Ahab’s blood from his chariot, while he shields his eyes with one arm. An adjacent panel shows Elijah being borne heavenward in a chariot surrounded by blood red leaping flames, arms stretched out eagerly before him. The lives of Ahab and Elijah, the artist seems to warn, like the chariots that bear them, lead in two very different directions. Elsewhere one finds the massacre of the innocents and the story of Judith.
Getting even closer to the altar, scenes from the life of Moses come into view. In one enormous chiaroscuro panel, the Israelites, impatient for Moses’ return, melt down their treasure to make a golden calf as he receives the law on Mt. Sinai. Keen to get quick results, they show little care for the “virtue” available at the top of the mountain. Toward the center water comes forth from a rock as Moses strikes it. King David is featured in another panel, and Absolom, his beloved Son, hanging dead upon a tree, in yet another. Immediately before the altar, Abraham raises his knife to sacrifice Isaac, only to be provided with a ram to take the place of his son.
Notably absent amid this plethora of figures is Christ. In fact, hardly any images of him are to be found in the whole church, excepting Nicola Pisano’s intricately carved pulpit, devoted to scenes from his life. Yet these panels point to Christ indirectly as Fulfillment of the law, Rock, Root of David, Beloved Son, and Sacrificial Lamb; they are spiritual as well as literal stepping-stones leading to the altar.
On the few afternoons I had free, I explored other parts of the cathedral museum complex: the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, with Duccio di Buoninsegna’s Maestà altarpiece and its minutely detailed reverse side, depicting the life of the Virgin and life of Christ; the Crypt, whose colorful frescoes of biblical scenes were buried for years under layers of earth and stone until their accidental rediscovery; and the baptistery of John the Baptist, with its cycle of frescoeson the creed (a theme unusual in western art, I was told, that shows up in a number of places in Siena) and a baptismal font with bronze bas-relief panelsby Donatello and Ghiberti, among others. In Ghiberti’s panel of Christ’s baptism, strikingly similar in composition to Botticelli’s Birth of Venus from half a century later, Christ stood in the center with undulating clouds above and waves below, the other figures in the painting arranged gracefully around him.
Another day I visited the Pinacoteca. It was so sparsely attended that it could only afford to staff one of its two floors at a time. But it was brimming with more Sienese masterpieces by the likes of Ambrogio Lorenzetti and Simone Martini. Here one could also see the huge drawings from the life of Moses that served as the prototypes for the stone-workers who carved them into the marble on the floor of the cathedral.
From the Palio to the Duomo, the Siena I encountered was a city of startling combinations: horses in churches, baptisms in contradas, pacifiers in the mouths of adults, jockeys fallen on the racetrack, church bells in the middle of the night, artwork on the floor, sibyls in the cathedral, paintings on record books, and almost no tourists in the Pinacoteca. Not everyone who flocks to Siena to see its sights is lucky enough to be one of the reborn contradaioli. But Siena’s stunning art reaches out to all its viewers, inviting them to experience, not just the Renaissance as they think they know it, but also spiritual rebirth.
Reflection on my language learning and intercultural gains:
My first week in Siena was the most challenging, as I worked to pick up the cultural and linguistic basics to which I was being exposed for the first time in an authentic immersion environment. Though I had taken an excellent seven-week intensive Italian course during the summer at Notre Dame to prepare for studying Italian in Siena, actually being immersed in the everyday “on the ground” reality of language and culture in Siena brought new demands. Gaining familiarity with these rhythms of everyday Italian communication over an extended six-week period was, in my mind, a huge benefit of my experience studying Italian in Siena. Before being given this opportunity, I had only learned and utilized Italian in controlled, and hence inevitably somewhat artificial, environments in the U.S.
Upon arrival at Dante Alighieri in Siena, I took a placement test, which put me into a class at the intermediate level. I met with this class every morning, Monday through Friday, for three hours of instruction focusing on grammar and conversation. In my first week there were ten students in the class, a number fairly typical of class sizes at language schools like the Goethe-Institut or the Alliance française, but after that the class size dropped to four students, which made for an exceptional learning environment.
In the afternoons I attended the two lectures a week offered at the school. These were valuable occasions to gain further practice with comprehending spoken Italian and engaging in discussion in Italian, but also opportunities to learn fascinating facts about Sienese and Italian culture. Lectures on the finances of medieval Sienese city government and the works of art commissioned to commemorate the city’s economic life at half-year intervals, Sienese painting, teenage slang in Italy, and pronunciation workshops were just a sampling of the occasions I had to broaden my knowledge of the Italian language and culture and to practice my comprehension and speaking skills.
During private tutoring sessions I not only had the opportunity to converse one on one for two-hour intervals with a diverse set of native speakers, but also the occasion to learn more, through our discussions, about Italian culture. In these tutoring sessions I learned about everything from politics (common Italian attitudes toward Germany and toward immigrants from eastern Europe and Africa), social issues (the falling birth rate that has affected Italy since the 1970s; the challenges facing working women in Italy, who make up only 3 out of every 10 Italian women, despite Italy’s low birth rate), cultural values (the role of family in Italian culture, the importance of friendship), and religion (attitudes toward Catholicism and Pope Francis, Protestantism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Islam in Italy). Tutoring gave me a chance to practice spontaneous conversation with native speakers, but also the time to discuss a wide cross section of cultural issues. These conversations have been instrumental in helping me to grow in my understanding of Italian cultures and identities.
Reflection on my summer language abroad experience overall:
Outside of class I worked to solidify and build upon what I learned in formal lessons at the school. Activities that I would normally do in English at home, I did in Italian (grocery shopping, asking for directions, all the communications part of daily life in a community, journal writing, movie-watching). The school offered cultural activities in which I almost always participated, such as wine-tastings and tours of local Tuscan towns like San Gimignano or Montepulciano and visits to local museums guided by a teacher from the school in Italian.
In San Gimignano I had the chance to see first hand a famous cycle of frescoes on the life of Augustine by Benozzo Gozzoli. Since Augustine is the figure on whom I am writing my dissertation, I had often come across reproductions of these frescoes, but now I was able to see them for myself. Upon viewing the work in the original, I was able to appreciate how each of these frescoes, which I had only seen reproduced individually, fits together as part of a single work, moving forward chronologically from left to right and from the bottom upwards. From this perspective, I could see how the entire work depicts Augustine’s life as a journey upward to God.
Language learning, like spiritual growth, is a gradual process. Yet certain events and opportunities can prove decisive in moving a person from one stage to the next. Augustine tells us in the Confessions of how everyday events, like hearing a young child’s voice singing in a garden or even a trip to Milan, dramatically altered his life. For me, as for Augustine, living in an Italian city, for however brief a time, has established new cultural points of contact that will change how I do things going forward.
How I plan to use my language and intercultural competences in the future:
As I was able to begin doing in Italy this summer, I plan to continue to read Italian literature and use it in my research, to correspond in Italian, and to converse with new and old acquaintances. I see this experience not as an endpoint but as opening the door to new opportunities, new relationships and, I hope, many more years of continued learning from the Italian language and people.