The Path to Italian begins with Inspiration

Dante said, 'From a little spark may burst a flame', andhe was right! If he was to return in a time capsule to the present day, he might be quite delighted to find young students

The path to Italian begins with inspiration

by Teresa De Fazio


According to Ethnologue in 2019 (an annual reference publication of SIL International which provides data on languages), Italian is one of the most studied languages in the world; indeed, the fourth.  Of course, data shifts a little each year; however, it has remained in the top six for many years now.

The popularity of Italian as a studied language results from the 'spark' ignited through Dante's rebellious choice, at the time. He deviated from using Latin, as was customary during his times, in writing La Divina Commedia(The Divine Comedy). A choice condemned at the time by his contemporaries, he would find that now people around the world are all using an Italian language that evolved and developed as the standard language of the country -the spark that became the flame.

Given the popularity of the language, it is not surprising that Italian is often found in school curriculums across the world. What might be surprising is the way it is taught. One of the more recent schools to launch a bilingual program in Victoria (Australia) is Footscray Primary School. Here students learn reading, writing, verbal communication, various aspects of maths, science, art and theatre in Italian and also learn reading, writing, speaking and listening, numbers, history, civics, STEM  and physical education in English. Through this model students focus on content while language becomes 'the vehicle' for communicating, for instance, how to do subtractions or examine the planetary system.

Interestingly, Jen Briggs (the principal) and her team of dedicated teachers and staff at the school were undeterred by the pandemic and started the bilingual program in 2020. Strong learning outcomes are already evident as a result of the bilingual approach. Ms. Biggs explains, "“It is easier for a learner to make progress in Italian relative to other languages because it is close to English". The sense of achievement motivates young learners to remain engaged and enjoy their learning experiences.

Of course, for Footscray Primary School, commencing the program during a time of mainly online delivery was challenging; however; there were advantages. Ms Briggsex plains that due to home schooling, parents were able to view their child's learning and found themselves being 'schooled' by their children -in Italian:

They were blown away with how much Italian their children knew -while their children understood the language the teacher was using, they didn't. Parents were surprised at how quickly the children picked it up. For the children, the language itself isn't an issue.

This does not surprise Emeritus Professor Joseph Lo Bianco at all. An expert in the field of languages, he explains that the bilingual model is "“key to language success. It provides an immersive experience ensuring strong outcomes. The more common approach of one to two hours a week provides only limited progress".

As Footscray Primary School is situated in a multicultural hub in the west of Melbourne, the students reflect recent migrant settlement patterns to Australia.  Jacqueline Robertson, the professional learning team leader and learning specialist, explains that most of the students are of Vietnamese, Bengali, Sri Lankan, Indian and African backgrounds

This is why their parents understand the importance of being bilingual. They know the value of languages in unlocking many doors and so are very supportive of the program. They understand the cognitive advantage to being bi-lingual, that being able to think and communicate in various languages creates a 'healthy brain'. It also helps students develop an intercultural mindset, accepting that there are many perspectives and experiences in the world.

The first Victorian Italian bilingual school, Brunswick South Primary School, started its successful program in 2019. The model at this school is similar; in fact, the staff at the two schools work collegially, sharing ideas, resources and strategies to ensure that the language programs are engaging and provide strong learning results.

Apart from experiencing Italian language study at school, there are many paths that bring individuals to the study of Italian at some time in their lives. If Dante were to look around, he would find a Dante Alighieri (DA) Society in many countries across the world. This organisation has been formed to both celebrate and study his works and provide opportunities for the study of Italian.  Flavia Berucci, the vice-president of the Auckland(New Zealand) DA Society, explains that for those with Italian somewhere in their DNA, the study of the language and culture often provides an opportunity to understand more about their background and fill that void that is linked to notions of identity and human connection. Her colleague, Sandra Fresia, director of the Italian language program, points out that Italian is popular because it is phonetic and an easy language to master comparatively, "“It has many words embedded in English and other languages; the language provides a soft entry to being plurilingual for adults as well as young people".

Domenic Barbaro, the president of the Melbourne DA Society, reminds us that Italian is the language of music, the arts, science, and literature, and this plays a big part in its popularity. The Melbourne DA Society works closely with Italian language school programs around the state of Victoria to hold an annual Dante Alighieri Poetry Recital Competition. Teachers find that the poetry competition helps students focus on the musicality of the language as much as the interpretation of the content. Mother and daughter team Ester and Mary Marcuccio oversee the popular, and rather competitive, event, when students from many different cultural and linguistic backgrounds have the chance to compete for prizes and show off their learning.

Dante would be taken aback at what he started. Indeed, there is more to the experience and opportunities of learning Italian -this article offers just a glimpse. But if any of this was to puzzle Dante, we might just remind him of his very own words: Do not be afraid, our fate cannot be taken from us: It is a gift. And it was Dante who provided us with this gift.