The Challenges To Teaching English In Italian Public Schools

Why the disparity between the levels of communication skills in English acquired by Italian students and their European counterparts? At the risk of over-simplifying, we can focus on a few, clear reasons.

Teaching English in Italy Public Schools
In this article we address the limits and potential of present approaches to teaching English at all levels of Italian schools by mainly non-native teachers. Photo by Joshua Hanks.

Addressing the limits and potential of present approaches to teaching English at all levels of Italian schools by mainly non-native teachers.

Italy has long been playing catch-up with other EU states in the field of proficiency in foreign languages. Efforts are starting to pay off. The Italian Department of Education is now avant-guard in investment and experiments in English learning. Looking back to 2008, Silvio Berlusconi as head of the Forza Italia Party refocused on the three ‘Is’ of his first mandate: impresa, informatica and inglese. The then government invested as best it could in the three sectors at a time when the Italian economy was in dire straits. Subsequent governments have continued this focus. So, too, have Italian pedagogical experts. Language textbooks are on a par with the best there are.

Why, then, the disparity between the levels of communication skills in English acquired by Italian 18-year-old scuola superiore graduates and their European counterparts? Italy is very much down the scale particularly in the area of fluency. At the risk of over-simplifying, we can focus on a few reasons.

Italian media and English

The responsability of Italian media in keeping English learning at a minimum. The dubbing industry in Italy is very powerful. The national broadcaster RAI and the commercial channels transmit only a fraction of films, documentaries or news bulletins in English. The opposite happens in most EU countries. However, thanks to travel and the Web, young people are leading the demand for non-dubbed material and Netflix and other channels are satisfying this demand. This may force televsion channels to offer users the alternative to dubbing, albeit to perfection.

Linguistic diversity in Italy

In some areas, standard Italian is itself a second language after the local or regional dialects. This may mean that many people, especially the older generations, are simply not interested in a language that they consider nowhere on a par with the richness of Italian and the charm of its many dialects.

Economy and language skills

The bulk of Italian businesses are sole traders, and small or medium sized companies. Therefore, most commercial activities are geared to the internal market. There is a sufficient supply of professionals to satisfy the demand for English competency in the larger international companies. Indeed, a hybrid language has emerged where people learn what they need to know and manage to communicate with non-Italian speakers. They will often have “un meeting per un briefing sul business plan.”

Teaching English in Italy

When primary schools introduced English as a second language in 2003, it was hailed as a much needed reform. Sadly, the norm was redundant in planning and financing. The much-loved maestre (primary school teachers) volunteered to take a 500-hour crash course to revise their own English and learn language teaching methodology. They then relied on their basic teaching skills. Ironically, the least qualified language teachers were teaching in the schools where fluency is essential and the child’s learning capacity is at its highest.

At the time, a teacher had to have a recognized teaching qualification and Italian citizenship so the supply of native English speakers who were also qualified came nowhere near meeting demand. A missed opportunity. Since then, teacher turnover has favoured language learning. Younger teachers have better English so levels are gradually improving. Parents are also more demanding and often turn to private tuition even at an early age. This leads to another dilemma for the poor maestra — how to teach a class of mixed ability children.

Aspects of English teaching common to primary, middle and secondary schools

Teachers themselves were usually taught by Italians who learned the language as they did the classical subjects. They concentrated on language theory rather than the application of content in real-life settings. Even today, teachers have relatively little exposure to native speakers and tend to code-switch a lot. They use Italian to explain a concept. If, for example, I ask a student in Italian about the position of adjectives in English, she may well tell me that adjectives are invariable and always precede the noun. Perfect. Ten minutes later, in answer to a question relating to a photo, the same student may say “the girl tall is wearing shorts whites.” Can I be sure that the students understand the theory? If not, I, as a teacher, must leave my comfort zone and try a fresh approach.

The onus on the teacher to apply language teaching methodology can be daunting. One solution may be the so-called flipped classroom. Go to the students’ level and learn together. Teach the students to be each other’s teachers and to be generous in sharing what they know. Use age-appropriate situations and tap into the pupil’s knowledge in his/her first language. I was once horrified to watch twelve-year-olds lilting Heads, shoulders, knees and toes as an activity to learn the human body lexis. We must always remember that the learners’ difficulty is often due to frustration. Their inability to communicate opinions or ideas that they could articulate perfectly in their first language can be humiliating.

Formal and informal classroom language

Keep classroom instructions or informal classroom language clear and simple and in English. Children are very intuitive and foxy. If they know the explanation is forthcoming in Italian they will wait for it. Otherwise they will try to grasp the concept by following their peers and by reading the teacher’s body language. When they’ve heard: “Please listen carefully and repeat slowly” three times, accompanied by relevant body language, the message will be clear.

Speaking of listening, this is a fundamental drill. We speak to the new-born for a whole year before we expect any language production. The teacher must recognize and respect the different time scales for language production. Unless at a very early age, avoid mechanical drill, repeat, drill, repeat, exercises that are not content-related. For example, when teaching ordinal numbers it’s more fun and rewarding for the student to be asked to reply to the order “Hands up those who were born on the third month of the year” or “Was anybody born on the first day of the month?” rather than the “Come si dice terzo in inglese?” still too much in use. When the pupils hear the jingle repeated in context they won’t be bored by the repetition.

It does take good lesson planning but the same lessons can be recycled and improved as the teacher’s own classroom language improves. It’s simply a matter of keeping students listening to real English. Read and coax them to use what little they know. Encourage and reward them for their effort. Never humiliate them for their incapacity to grasp. Limit rote learning of grammatical structures. Children will memorize and recite the present tense of whatever verb the teacher wants them to. It will end there unless they use it unconsciously to communicate something authentic.

Teachers as language learners

To conclude, I’d like to tell an anecdote related to my own teacher-trainer experience. I once did an experiment with a group of Italian-speaking  primary school teachers about to start English in their classes. To help them grasp the intricacies of introducing a completely unknown language, I decided to teach them the basics of Gaelic. I speak this language and it’s still used in Ireland and taught in schools there from day one. I also used about 50% Gaelic as the language of communication. We covered classroom objects, some verbs and repetition drills. They were totally absorbed and took part in the post-lesson test with a child-like competitive spirit.

Our discussion then centred on how to transfer what they’d learned into their own classroom setting. Although they all started at zero, some achieved more than others even in one lesson. Some were completely inhibited about repeating unfamiliar sounds. Others found the same sounds fascinating. A few insisted on translating and writing the Italian equivalent of the words stuck in Gaelic on door, window, desk and so on. Some mentally photographed the words and when the prompts were removed could easily point to the object without any need for the translation prop. It was an eye-opener. Each learner is unique. There is no ‘one size fits all’ technique.

However, the main lesson they learned was collaboration. When studying a language in a classroom or group setting, this may be the most valid guideline: Teach each other and learn from each other.   

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  1. Many thanks for your interesting article. I’ve had 3 children go through the Italian system and like you have wondered why the teaching of foreign languages here is so abysmal.
    Until that is I happened to read the requirements for language teachers, which includes a degree in the LITERATURE of the language to be taught. No requirement to be able to actually teach it as a second language!
    This explains why many Italians are able to recite pages of Shakespeare from memory but aren’t capable of holding a conversation after many years of study. It also explains the large numbers going to Ireland each summer to study English, while Germans, Dutch or Swedish students are nowhere to be seen.

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