By Melanie Sharif
Sabina Perrino is reluctant to say exactly how many languages she’s fluent in — that’s just how many languages she speaks.
“Sometimes, it is difficult to give a number,” said Perrino, who is a new assistant professor of anthropology from Padua, Italy — a city in the northern Italian region of Veneto, which is also home to Venice. “I have always had a strong passion for language.”
Motivated by both enthusiasm and obligation, Perrino has been multilingual for most of her life.
“In Europe, children are socialized with more than one language because we have to be. Italy is such a small boot,” said Perrino, who now holds a doctorate in linguistic anthropology. “First, my mother taught me Italian, then my dialects. French was my first love, then English, German and then Spanish. I have also studied Portuguese.”
In Italy, each individual region is culturally distinct. Most areas have their own languages, which are sometimes referred to as dialects. Growing up, children are taught their regional language alongside traditional Italian. As Perrino was born in Veneto, she is fluent in Venetian and other dialects, along with other languages from across the globe.
Before Perrino obtained her doctorate and began her academic career, she worked as a linguist in Italy.
“There is a big difference between ‘linguist’ and ‘linguistic anthropologist.’ In Italy, I was aware of all of the dialects, but I was more interested in French, German and Spanish as other languages,” Perrino said. “Italians are so familiar with dialects that we don’t even know that we already speak more than one language. So for me, it was interesting to study French. Then I started with German, which is such a different language, and I had the courage to fall in love with German.”
Perrino went on from there, learning more languages and studying linguistic scholars such as Noam Chomsky and Michael Halliday to complement her fluencies. She studied on her own and at a specialized school for linguistics in Trieste, Italy, all while working as a language tutor and traveling Europe with friends from the program.
“I got really passionate,” she said.
But she didn’t stop there. Perrino decided she wanted more out of languages than just the knowledge of how to use them.
“I felt that something was missing in my life, and that was because all of those studies were so abstract,” she said. “There was no context. All these things I was studying had sentences made for explaining a certain notion, but not the sentences actually being said by native speakers.”
Following her schooling, Perrino began research with a former professor in Senegal, West Africa, where she studied interpersonal greetings and picked up a few African languages. It was here where she realized how much she enjoyed linguistic anthropology. It prompted her to apply to doctorate programs in America, and start her own research.
“The first time I went to Senegal, I just fell in love with the place, the people and the way they were welcoming us — ‘westerners’ — in a way that we didn’t feel culture shock at all,” Perrino said.
Perrino was accepted to multiple programs, but chose the University of Pennsylvania for its strong African studies program. She continued her own field-work in Senegal, and upon completion, moved to the United States to work as a professor and continue her research.
Her current work focuses on Senegalese migrants in northern Italy — particularly how language becomes racialized in every-day activities.
In search of a place where she could connect more with her students, Perrino worked at universities in cities such as Irvine, Calif., Ann Arbor, Mich., and Washington, D.C. and a few others, before choosing Binghamton University.
A proponent of discussion-based classes and generally smaller class sizes, Perrino has already established a cozy atmosphere in her classes that helps both her and her students feel at home.
“In my class, we have discussions every day, based on questions [my students] create or on videos I present,” she said.
In the spring 2016 semester, Perrino is looking forward to picking up a graduate seminar and a class called Intercultural Communication and Conflict in addition to her existing classes. As her schedule grows, she will continue to take an interest in what her students have to say.
“I like knowing my students and I like students coming to my office hours,” she said. “I like knowing what the student perspective is because it is through that perspective that I can improve my teaching.”
Last Updated: 3/1/17