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Creating a sense of place through language

 SoniaSonia Bertolissi says being the daughter of Italian Immigrants made her life richer but also left a gap where cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents would have been. 

Every few years the Canadian contingent of the Bertolissi family would travel back to Italy to visit  family. On these trips, the Bertolissi children experienced a world so different from their own. In this world, lively Fruilian conversations were the soundtrack, but as Canadian children their interactions were limited to “sì,” “no,” and with the odd shoulder  shrug mixed in. These experiences with the Fruilian language, one that is unique to the Friuli Venezia Giulia region in the northeast of Italy, planted the seeds for a life-long passion for the Italian language and culture.

Bertolissi studied French and Italian while an undergraduate student at the University of Calgary. Since this time she has maintained relationships with Valeria Sestieri Lee and Emilia Spoldi, and still talks about Glen Campbell, who organized a group study trip to the Université Paul Valéry in Montpellier, France, in her third year. 

For Bertolissi, studying French and Italian language meant travel and study opportunities overseas. It also led to employment prospects across Canada, such as getting the chance to work with the National Archives in Quebec and as a translator for the federal government in Ottawa. Bertolissi credits both her opportunities abroad and the skills learned in her undergraduate degree for giving her the confidence to take on these opportunities and grow as an individual.

Back in Calgary today, Bertolissi has taken this passion and become a leader in the Italian community. As president of Fogolâr Furlan di Calgary, she works with the organization to provide opportunities to those who have made the journey from the homeland and future generations of Friulian-Canadians, to connect with the culture, language and history of this unique region.

In celebration of this Italian-Calgary organization’s 50th anniversary,  in tandem with the University of Calgary’s 50th celebrations, the group made a donation of $50,000 to the Faculty of Arts. From this generous donation, $10,000 went to support the School of Creative and Performing Arts’ (SCPA) production of Six Characters in Search of An Author by Italian playwright Luigi Pirandello during the 2016-17 season. The remaining $40,000 of the gift established an endowment to support a fourth-year student majoring in Italian in the new School of Languages, Linguistics, Literatures and Cultures (SLLLC).

“The Fogolâr Furlan di Calgary is honoured to make these gifts in support of Italian language learning, the University of Calgary and the Italian community in Calgary. This is our legacy and we are pleased that it will help strengthen the Italian community even further,” says Bertolissi.

Following her undergraduate experience, equipped with multiple languages and an undergraduate degree, Bertolissi returned to Friuli, where she studied at the Università degli Studi di Udine and at the Società Filologica Friulana. She learned to speak Friulian and was proud of the moment when monosyllabic responses and gestures were no longer her primary conversation tools. She recalls the deep connection to the area her ancestors called home, admitting “in many ways, that year felt like a homecoming.”