Anyone lucky enough to have travelled to the southern island will have noticed that the Sicilian language varies radically from standard Italian and draws on Greek, Arab, Spanish, French and Norman influences, to name a few.
In fact, Sicilian is classified as a language in itself, consisting of multiple dialects spoken across the island.
Due to the dominance of the Italian language, Sicilian is now classified as an endangered language by UNESCO: Sicily has a population of 5 million and current trends indicate that by the end of the 21st century, only one-third of the island will be able to speak the traditional tongue.
Robert Garofalo is a proud Italo-Australian dedicated to ensuring the survival of his grandparents’ mother tongue.
In his quest to preserve and promote Sicilian, Mr Garofalo founded Learn Sicilian, an app which teaches the language using a combination of fun and interactive lessons and games.
Learn Sicilian was conceived in early 2017, when Mr Garofalo was researching for the creation of a basic mobile app and stumbled across Eleonora Nicosia, a language teacher living in Catania who taught Sicilian on an online language platform.
Mr Garofalo began taking online lessons with Ms Nicosia and the pair developed a relationship which soon transformed into a collaboration.
“I decided to build a website instead of a mobile app,” Mr Garofalo said.
“I put together a full presentation of my ideas and presented it to Eleonora in the hopes of sparking her interest; she was impressed and immediately agreed to collaborate on the project.”
The duo went on to create the website and launch it in June 2017.
Learn Sicilian was immediately well received by the online community, gaining more than 1000 followers on Facebook and 250 registered users within three months.
Despite this positive feedback, Mr Garofalo was unsatisfied with the website as he felt it didn’t meet his expectations.
Working for his family’s construction business, he realised he needed the helping hand of an expert in web development to create the fun and engaging website he desired.
This is where Melbourne-based web developer Adrian Cassimaty comes in.
With Mr Cassimaty’s expertise, Mr Garofalo was able to create a “demo” web app, known as a beta app, to be released at the end of February.
“Adrian and his team members in Melbourne and Ukraine are responsible for the app development and social media marketing, Eleonora is providing the course content and learning structure and I act as the bridge between the two groups, translating between Italian and English while coordinating and leading them towards Learn Sicilian’s goals,” Mr Garofalo explained.
“What’s made this even more special is the fact that Adrian’s mum is from Sicily, so the three of us have connections to the island.”
The beta app will be a “lean” version of the real thing, consisting of two courses, each course with four stages, which in turn consist of around 20 quizzes.
As a user progresses through each stage, points are gained to reflect their skill level.
At the end of the courses, users will be invited to give feedback on their thoughts, what they’d like to see in the app and what could be improved.
Since Learn Sicilian’s social media campaign began at the start of this year, the project has almost 1000 registered users and 2000 followers on Facebook.
During this short time, it’s become evident that Learn Sicilian is destined to evolve into something much more than just a tool for learning about the language and culture of Sicily.
“We’ve come up with an idea that will be the world’s first online hub which we’re calling the Sicilian Hub Online,” Mr Garofalo said.
“The plan for this hub is to facilitate all things Sicilian, such as language education, history, community, businesses, events and more.”
This “hub” will include a directory for companies and business with a connection to Sicily, whether they sell Sicilian products or are owned by a Sicilian family.
“We want our users to not only learn the Sicilian language for free, but to also have the opportunity to be immersed in the Sicilian culture in their area,” Mr Garofalo said.
“Our aim is to unite and create one big Sicilian community.”
Mr Garofalo explained that this app is unique in the sense that one standard Sicilian language that all Sicilian’s speak doesn’t exist, making it difficult to teach.
“Learn Sicilian’s aim is to teach one variation or dialect from the city of Catania which will provide students with the foundation of the Sicilian language and the opportunity for them to build on their knowledge if they choose to explore other variations on the island,” he added.
Mr Garofalo hopes that one day Learn Sicilian can help give back to the island and its people, perhaps by providing employment for native Sicilians online or setting up scholarship programs for new start-ups or schools.
“This is our way of showing appreciation to the families who were forced to leave this beautiful island and make the necessary sacrifices for their families,” he said.
“On a personal note, this is also my way of saying thank you to my nonno, who passed away five years ago, for the sacrifices he made for our family and the love and care he had for us.”
With a mother hailing from Floridia, a town on the eastern side of the island, and a father born in Australia to migrants also from Floridia, Mr Garofalo is driven to pursue this project by an innate love for his family’s home.
“I think it’s important that the Sicilian language is preserved as it’s been a language of the Sicilian people for such a long time and to lose it would be a significant loss to their culture and identity,” he concluded.
“It would be a shame to lose the language that my parents, my grandparents and my ancestors once spoke.”