Strictly Language Learning with the Stars: Bruno Tonioli on communicating in different languages

Lauren Ward

Bruno Tonioli is an Italian-born dancer and choreographer and has worked with artists as diverse as Tina Turner and the Rolling Stones; starred in films such as Ella Enchanted; and appeared on countless US talk shows. But arguably, he became the household name he is today thanks to his colourful judging style on the UK’s Strictly Come Dancing and Dancing with the Stars in America. Cambridge’s Lauren Ward caught up with Bruno to talk about why he’s a passionate advocate for the ‘always learning’ approach when it comes to language … and why English is his favourite!

I’ve heard that you can speak five languages fluently …

Well at the moment it’s English, Italian and French. Spanish is a bit rusty – the secret to languages is conversation and I haven’t conversed in Spanish for a while. And German, the only one I actually learned at school, I’ve almost forgotten. But funny enough once you’ve learnt it, if you’re not too self-aware, it’s almost like muscle memory. Once you make the effort and converse with people in another language it’s like connections in your brain reignite. But for now it’s just French, Italian and English that I’m fluent in … well I hope that I am fluent and sound eloquent anyway.

What was your motivation for learning all of these languages? You said you learnt German in school, what about the others?

Well it’s a question of necessity – I learned German in school but my first job was in Paris. I was working in France, with a French company, and if you really want to be part of a society and learn all the subtlety of different cultures, you can only do so by speaking their language. Even when you translate – as good as a translation is – it kind of lacks the colour. It lacks the innuendo. It lacks the general things of description that different cultures use.

I’ll give you an example: opera. When you translate opera from French or Italian into English, although the general sense is similar, the nuance and the emotional impact is different.

Bruno Tonioli on the Lorraine Kelly showAnd it helps a lot when you are in the country. The fact that you can converse and express yourself in the language, people love you for that because it shows that you actually have an interest in their culture. You’re not just walking through it and taking pictures. This really helps in business, at any level culturally, you really get to know the people … and you get better service!

It was the same thing when I came to England. I came here and I loved the country, London, the art world. I decided to stay here and so I had to teach myself English. It’s what I wanted to do, I wanted to learn: the subtleties of how people express themselves; their sense of humour; the arts; the theatre; the music. When you close yourself into your own cultural spectrum, you’re missing 75% of the beauty of this world.

So if someone has gone to a country and wants to immerse themselves in the culture, what advice would you give them?

I think in the English-speaking world in particular we’re becoming a bit lazy. English has become the international language of the moment so we just don’t make the effort. I say ‘we’ because I’ve lived and worked here such a long time, I myself sometimes get a bit lazy – I go to Italy and speak in English, and then think, I should be speaking Italian! It’s madness. People will appreciate you so much more if you make an effort to be part of their culture. But people have this self-awareness where they don’t want to make fools of themselves. So they kind of don’t try. Even if you’re not perfect, people appreciate you putting the effort in. Don’t be self-conscious about it, and make mistakes – you have got to try and converse. And now there are so many tools you can use. Start at home but then when you go abroad, talk. Just try to speak their language. Don’t be self-aware!

Was there an opportunity in your life that would never have happened if you hadn’t learnt these extra languages?

Well, the whole of my career! I mean, I wouldn’t be here now, would I? I think for me it’s absolutely a necessity. I always have a book on the go because I still feel that I’m at a disadvantage culturally. My Anglo-Saxon education didn’t start until I was 20 so I have a lot to catch up on. I wish, I wish, I wish I could have been at Cambridge studying grammar. That would have been my dream! But it’s a never-ending process and I think it’s what keeps your brain alive. In that respect, you never actually achieve anything. You always find out there’s more out there, much more still to learn. Each language and each culture is a whole new world to discover.

Has there ever been an occasion when you have faced a language barrier in your career or personal life?

Well I always did initially. When I came to England, you know the only thing I could say was ‘yes’? And I didn’t understand a word. So that soon puts you into trouble … I learnt quickly to say ‘no’ anyway, I’ll tell you that!

But you have to make mistakes and then you learn from it and move on. But it is hard initially and people get a little bit … disheartened. But don’t do that; just keep motivating yourself.

Bruno TonioliYou have a very exuberant communication style when it comes to Dancing with the Stars and Strictly Come Dancing. Do you find that this style helps you to communicate better with the contestants and audience?

Well it’s a very Latin thing. Italians, Spanish, Greeks … we tend to use a little bit more of our body to express ourselves (but not naturally to the extreme that you see on television). It’s like you’re in a theatre, and you do it in a way that you imagine yourself as a narrator at the Colosseum, and you’re trying to put your point across in front of 11 million people. So you push it a bit further … or I do anyway!

So you’re saying that’s not how you order a pint down the pub?

Oh! Absolutely not! The way I speak is the way I speak to you now. Not to say that that’s not really me as well, but it’s an enhanced version of myself.

So we’ve come to the end our interview, but before you go‑of all the languages you’ve learnt, which is your favourite and why?

I love English – it’s the one that I discovered last, but it’s the one that’s given me more opportunities. And it can be very effective in a practical way, but it has many subtleties. It’s not as obviously romantic as Italian, and it’s not as fluid as French, but you can make points in such brilliant ways. The use of a word in English is completely different to the way that you would use it in Italian or French: using the same words in different tonality, it’s really fascinating.

If you liked finding out about Bruno’s learning language journey, make sure to read Jonny Wilkinson’s language experience after moving to an international rugby team.

  • Iain MacKay

    Thank you very much for sharing these results, they are very interesting and should be salutory for those who prepare curriculum content.
    It would be good to be able to cite these results – unfortunately though the link to full results only shows an infographic – there is nothing for instance about sampling methodology (indeed even the exact sample size is not in the infographic), or the exact question wording – so I wouldn’t be able to respond to someone challenging the results. Is there a paper with some more authoritative report of the survey results?

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