At exactly the same time, 25-year-old Bosnian linguist Amila Omanović started giving online Italian language classes from her home in the central Bosnian town of Visoko. Amila, who is a teacher of Italian and French with a diploma from the University of Bologna, was about to move back home to Italy when the pandemic started. The crisis heavily disrupted her plans, her job at the time, and her everyday life, as all countries in the Balkans shut down non-essential businesses and restricted movement between March and May last year.
“I didn’t know what to do with myself, everything looked so grey at that moment,” Amila says.
To help herself and others, she advertised her free classes in a popular student-focused Facebook group, not expecting more than 10 to 15 interested candidates. However, about 1,000 young people immediately signed up. The group collected the money between themselves to pay for a video communication platform with an unlimited number of participants. At the beginning, there were about 300 people attending her lessons — something that was hardly manageable, but that also showed Amila how many young people from the region are curious about Italian and how much they are eager to keep their minds busy during the lockdown.
Dušica Kovačević, a 24-year-old Bosnian pharmacy student, is one of them. Dušica, who currently lives in Austria, has been wanting to study Italian for a long time, but she could never find enough money and time to enrol in a course. Then, one day she saw the advert for Amila’s free online classes.
“That’s exactly what I’ve been waiting for years — to finally start learning the language I adored — with someone who studied Italian and who teaches it online. It was something of crucial importance at that particular moment,” Dušica says.
In May last year, when strict epidemiological measures in the Balkans were lifted and when people began to go back to their jobs and their studies, the very large group of students decreased to about 40 young Bosnians, Serbians, Croatians and Montenegrins. Amila was, in the meantime, offered logistical support by a local association promoting non-formal education, sport and youth entrepreneurship, BRAVO – Bosnian Representative Association for Valuable Opportunities.
“I really appreciate people who strive to make a change,” says head of BRAVO Ismail Šehić. “Not knowing she was unemployed, I offered her our Zoom license for as long as she needed it for teaching.” Amila got a job at BRAVO and continued offering Italian language courses of different levels throughout the year, charging 10 to 15€ per month.
Thanks to Amila’s classes, Dušica went from a total beginner level (A1) of knowledge of Italian language to the intermediate one (B2). But more than the knowledge she gained, she appreciated the virtual socialization the classes offered during a particularly difficult year.
“Our Italian course with Amila was an escape from all these problems,” Dušica says. Her friends and family have seen it as an “unnecessary obligation and burden” for Dušica, who already has a lot on her plate as a student and as an employee in a pharmacy, but she calls it her “anti-stress therapy.” “I’ve met many interesting and different people, who, the same as me, are eager to learn something new and get to know a new culture through language,” she adds.
Ema Kunić, a 22-year-old IT student living in the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo, is one of Amila’s students and is currently enrolled in a B1 course. She hasn’t been to Italy yet. “I fell in love with the Italian language, music and literature and I can’t wait to visit Italy,” Ema says. “That happened thanks to the wonderful atmosphere and the great quality of learning [at Amila’s classes].”
“I really, really love Italy,” Amila says. “I think it’s hard not to see it and to ignore it.” She often incorporates multimedia content about Italy into her classes and likes to chat about Italian history and traditions. The affection she has for Italy has ‘infected’ many of her students.
Like Dušica and Ema, Maja Krstić from Serbia also began studying Italian with Amila in March last year, during the lockdown. That was the first time that Maja, who already speaks English, French and Norwegian, attended an online course. Having experience in teaching Norwegian language, she believes that online learning is much more challenging than of the offline one.
“Humans are social beings by nature and they need the real, material presence of other people for a sense of belonging,” says Maja who is a professional psychologist. “The atmosphere, non-verbal communication and spontaneity that entail interaction between people is what’s missing in online learning.”
However, Maja thinks that Amila is successful in overcoming the struggles of online teaching.
“I think that Amila softened it in many ways with the strength of her personality. The gap between the real and the imaginary was simply imperceptible, the physical distance between us seemed to be erased,” Maja adds.
Besides classes, Amila and her students interact with each other in a private Facebook group, where they share tips about Italian movies worth watching or links to their favorite Italian music, and laugh over memes and jokes related to Italy. A week ago, Amila wished happy holidays to her students with a post in the group saying that the last year — albeit difficult — was one of the best of her life.
For Amila and her students, 2020 was the worst of times and the best of times, thanks to their virtual hangouts. Whatever this year may be like, they will keep meeting online to learn about Italy through its language.
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