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‘I’ll continue to sing wherever the Lord wants’

A cheery Catholic nun clinched an Italian television talent singing contest on Friday after winning millions of followers with her lively dance act and soulful renditions of pop classics.

'I'll continue to sing wherever the Lord wants'
Sister Cristina, the winner of The Voice of Italy. Photo: Marco Bertorello/AFP

Wearing her habit and a crucifix around her neck, Sister Cristina immediately thanked God for her victory in The Voice of Italy and recited an "Our Father" prayer to puzzlement among the organisers.

"I want Jesus to come in here!" said the wholesome 25-year-old with a self-effacing manner, who was dressed in the sensible black shoes and ankle-length black skirt she has worn throughout.

"My presence here is not up to me, it's thanks to the man upstairs!" said Sister Cristina after winning out against a 28-year-old long-haired hard rocker who had just performed "Stairway to Heaven".

Watch her sing Beautiful That Way,  a song from the Oscar-winning La Vita è Bella (Life is Beautiful) in last night's final:

Sister Cristina, a reformed rebel from Sicily who now lives with her order in Milan, has won a record contract with Universal although she has hinted she does not want a musical career.

"I'm not here to start a career but because I want to impart a message," said the soul sister, adding that she was following Pope Francis's calls for a Catholic Church that is closer to ordinary people.

She shot to fame in recent months in this predominantly Catholic country with her versions of songs like "Girls Just Want To Have Fun" and "Time of My Life" from the film "Dirty Dancing".

It was a performance of Alicia Keys's "No One" that first drew attention in March and she sang it again on Friday to cheers from an audience that included nuns from her Ursuline Order.

There was some confusion when one panel judge — rock star Pier Pelu – joked she was the "devil incarnate", prompting the host to quickly step in saying this was intended with "maximum irony".

The talent show was also apparently being followed in the Vatican corridors of power, with top culture official Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi tweeting a quote from a Roman thinker: "If we commit injustice, God will leave us without music."

Sister Cristina has already sung alongside Kylie Minogue and Ricky Martin and Keys defined as "pure energy" Suor Cristina's performance, which received more than 50 million YouTube hits.

She has also received an endorsement from actress Whoopi Goldberg – the star of the 1990s comedy "Sister Act" where she is a singer playing a nun.

But Sister Cristina still defined herself as a "humble servant" and ascribed her sudden success to a "thirst for joy" among television viewers.

"Since Pope Francis talks of a bible of joy I think I'm on the right track," she said on Wednesday in the run-up to the showdown.

 'Mysterious and special force'

Fame has brought media scrutiny to her past, including interviews with an ex-boyfriend and with Claudia Koll, the director of the musical academy where she trained – herself an ex-starlet who is now a lay sister.

"Cristina's personal journey has brought her to maturity and artistic fullness thanks to a mysterious and special force. By giving herself to the Lord, she has enriched her art," Koll said in a recent interview.

Sister Cristina has said she used to rebel against religion when she sang in a band but was inspired to be a nun when she auditioned for a part in a musical about the founder of the Ursuline Order, Saint Angela Merici.

She became a novice in 2009 and worked for two years with poor children in Brazil before formally joining the order and still has to take her final vows.

She may have won audience hearts but her popularity is not universal, even in Italy and critics have ascribed her success more to novelty value than to genuine talent.

Singer Emma Marrone, who represented Italy in this year's Eurovision song contest, said the sensation surrounding the nun was "an insult to showbusiness".

Sister Cristina herself has hinted she might prefer a return to a "normal life" with her community in Milan, singing "with young people in church and in schools".

"I will continue to sing wherever the Lord wants," she said.

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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

IN MAPS: A brief introduction to Italy’s many local ‘dialects’

Are the Italians around you speaking a completely different language? Why are local dialects often so far removed from modern Italian? Here's what you need to know.

IN MAPS: A brief introduction to Italy's many local 'dialects'
A man wearing a t-shirt reading ''100% Venetian''. Photo: Marco Bertorello/AFP

It's the problem italian language learners have faced for as long as anyone can remember. You've diligently studied your Italian grammar, and carefully practiced your phrases ahead of your first visit to Italy, only to realise upon arrival that the Italians around you seem to be speaking a different language entirely.

READ ALSO: Ten of the most common Italian language mistakes you should avoid

Italy's dialects are far more than just heavily-accented Italian. They seem like totally different languages because, in fact, that's exactly what they are.

It's not quite correct to call them “dialects”, which are actually variants on a standard language. These are different languages which evolved separately from Latin – or, in some cases, other languages.

And even when they switch to Italian, speakers of these dialects or languages often speak with a heavy accent, much to the dismay of anyone still getting to grips with with basic Italian. Even in a big city like Florence or Rome, Italian spoken in a thick local accent can be hard to decipher – even for native Italian speakers from other areas.

As the map below shows, every region and often province has its own local language. Some have more than one, and each town may also have a variation.

Many of these are part of language “families” and some are more closely related to Italian, or to Latin, than others.

The map below classifies them further and also shows how languages in different regions are connected.

Map: Antonio Ciccolella/Wikimedia Commons

This might look complicated, but anyone who lives in a small italian town will no doubt still be thinking that a more detailed map is needed, as there are actually many more, smaller variations within these categories.

Do people in Italy really still speak all of these dialects?

The language we call Standard Italian derives from 13th-century Florentine. Until then, there had been no written rules, and the languages of what is now Italy had mainly evolved by being spoken.

When Italy was unified in 1861, only 2.5 percent of the population could actually speak the Italian language. All spoke their regional languages. Now, that figure is in the high 90s, though around five percent still speak only or predominantly in their regional language.

 
While you might imagine that these dialects or languages are mainly used by older people and are slowly dying out, that's not usually the case. 
 
While they'll also speak standard Italian, you'll find young Italians proudly speaking their local lingo everywhere from central Naples to the valleys of South Tyrol.
 
Some are far more widely used than others. In fact the most widely spoken is Neapolitan, with over five million speakers today.
 
The least widely-used is Croato. This dialect is used by an ethnic minority from a region corresponding to present-day Croatia and is spoken in the southern region of Molise. Today it only around 1,000 speakers.
 
In the southernmost parts of Italy, such as Salento and Calabria, Griko dialects are thought to derive from ancient Greek.
 
Meanwhile, Sardinian is classified as an “endangered” language by Unesco,  Like Italian, Sardinian has roots in Latin – in fact, some linguists argue that, of all the modern Romance languages, Sardinian is the closest to Latin – but it also displays much older influences. Today, particularly younger people on the island speak a mix of both languages, a sort of “Sarditalian”.
 
For more details, here are our guides to getting started with some of Italy's regional languages:

 

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