Monday, October 17, 2011

Amanda Knox's tragic path to Italian

The language-learning world is not one that's prone for drama and high crimes, but the murder of Meredith Kercher created just that in a place that is surely close to the hearts of many readers of this blog: a study-abroad program. Meredith was spending a year abroad, studying Italian as an Erasmus scholar, when her life was abruptly cut short in a senseless tragedy, and the aftermath of that tragedy sent Amanda Knox down a multi-year language-learning path that I would wish upon no one, but nevertheless resulted in her fluency in the Italian language.

This post looks at Amanda's language-learning background, how her language abilities may have affected her interactions with Italian authorities, and finally how the long path from trial to conviction to acquittal ultimately led to her fluency in Italian.

Long before Amanda left for Europe in 2007, she seemed to have had the language bug. In high school, she learned Japanese, German, Italian and Latin, and dreamt of becoming an interpreter. She spent time in Japan working on her Japanese and had also spent time in Europe prior to 2007. At some point, Amanda even threw a fifth foreign language into the mix: Chinese.

She graduated from high school in 2005 and began studying at the University of Washington during fall of that year, where she studied Italian, German and creative writing. The genesis of her trip to Europe was in also being selected as an Erasmus scholar to study in Italy.

Blog posts copied here from her now-deleted MySpace page show that her studying abroad in Europe was intended to be a language twofer, with a month or so of German before diving into Italian.

Amanda left the States for Europe on August 14, 2007, with her first destination being Germany. Having studied German and with at least one of her parents being of German descent, her German was pretty good when she got there. She hung out with her German relatives, including her grandmother, and even had a brief internship in the German parliament. She read through Harry Potter in German, noting that she stopped to look up words in the first chapter but then just figured things out from context throughout the rest of the book, which gives a pretty good idea of her high German level. She made a quick trip down to Italy to scope out a place to live, but otherwise remained in Germany until the week of September 17, 2007, when she returned to Perugia to begin her Italian studies at the University for Foreigners.

She seemed to have had a decent grasp of Italian when she got there. During the trip down to Perugia, she met an Italian guy who couldn't speak English but nevertheless ended up hanging out with him, presumably communicating via her use of Italian, and she was checking out classified ads for apartments in Italian as well. That said, she also said that she bought Harry Potter in Italian but didn't know enough vocab to be able to make sense of it, so clearly her German was much stronger than her Italian.

She had been in Italy for about six weeks when Meredith Kercher's body was found on November 2. On November 6, she was arrested and questioned by police over a 53-hour period. It's unclear how much of this was in English and how much was in Italian, but the court later threw out statements made during this period because, in addition to no lawyer being present, no interpreter was present. The statements made during this period were those that led to her conviction on slander and also those that raised the most doubt about whether she was truly innocent. While various reasons have been cited by Amanda and others as to why those statements were made, I can't imagine that Amanda's limited Italian abilities and the language barrier that such abilities would have created didn't play some role in what took place.

Amanda was tried and, in the court of first instance, convicted of murder on December 6, 2007. Having already been placed under custody on November 6, 2007, she would remain in an Italian prison until being cleared of murder on October 3, 2011.

For that period of nearly four years, Amanda found herself in a language immersion environment that no textbook prepares you for: prison. Whether strictly for survival purposes or whether to make lemonade when handed lemons, Amanda's Italian abilities grew under this difficult situation that, perversely, provided an immersion environment that was conducive to language learning.

Amanda revealed her prison routine in a diary she wrote while in jail:
I do exercises, sing, write, read, sleep, eat, drink and think. I can go to the library. I have eight television channels I can watch in the cell, I have a bath and a lamp for reading.
And you can bet that much—and probably nearly all—of that was done in Italian. The library most likely had few if any books that weren't in Italian. Those eight television channels were all probably in Italian as well. She may or may not have used Italian when singing or writing, but, when speaking to others, I'd wager that it was also almost all in Italian, whether with other inmates or with prison officials. Indeed, her being excited to hear English from a reporter seems to indicate that she had little exposure to English, although her cellmate being an American for at least part of her imprisonment might have meant that she wasn't completely without English.

She also made some efforts to take up French while in prison with the help of her university's faculty, but it's unclear what became of these efforts.
By the end of the appellate trial that resulted in her acquittal, you can hear Amanda Knox addressing the court with a level of Italian that is clearly much improved from when she couldn't even understand Harry Potter:

Indeed, Italian became so ingrained that, since returning to the States, switching back to English has been a challenge. From ABC News:
Knox's father, Curt Knox, told "Good Morning America" today that his daughter out of habit occasionally slips back into Italian, a language she became fluent in during her four years in Capanne prison outside of Perugia while she battled charges that she murdered her roommate.
"It has become really almost her first language since she's been in prison so long…"

So, at the end of the day, for Amanda at least, the story has a silver lining. Her life may have taken a large and unwelcome detour due to a horrific crime that she was ultimately acquitted of, but she returns home a fluent Italian speaker.


  1. Hopefully after that experience she will still be able to enjoy her new language

  2. Great bit of reporting. Tragic case of immersion of course, but she seems to have a great handle on Italian.  

  3. Thanks for this slightly perverse language learning survey of Ms. Knox's Italian learning journey. I have one quibble though. I don't understand why many people discussing her case and the murder of Meredith Kercher tend to refer to her only as "Amanda" as if we were on first name terms with this young woman and knew her personally, which we don't.

  4. Can't speak for others, but I've just chosen to use first names throughout this blog generally, including for people I don't know personally (e.g., Steve).

    It would be odd if a publication generally used "Ms." but picked some single person to refer to by their first name.

  5. Fair enough on both your points. To my ears it just sounds off  when a personal mode of address is used when it isn't warranted.

  6. How would one achieve this same level of ability in one's own country? Would I need to gain this same level of ability without going to prison

  7. Thanks for sharing your experience with us. I have been studying to learn Italian language. I have gathered many useful recourse as well as taken various Italian courses such as Italian for dummies courses , pimsleur Comprehensive Italian Level 1, Level 2 , Level 3 etc to learn Italian language. If you want to know more information then you can take some advantage from this resources.