English Teaching in Italian Schools

It is admirable that the Italian public school system now requires foreign-language classes (usually English) starting in first grade. Unfortunately, a shortage of teachers means that most kids don’t actually start til 3rd grade. And how much anyone really learns is very much open to question. Parents nowadays are frantic for their kids to speak English well, recognizing its importance in the world economy. They willingly pay for extra classes after school and summer study-abroad trips. Increasing numbers of kids go abroad for a high school junior year in an English-speaking country.

Part of the reason for the teacher shortage is that, at least until recently, you had to be a citizen of Italy to teach in public schools. This means that most foreign-language teachers are Italians, for whom the language they are teaching is at best a second language.

Recently, however, schools have begun to bring in “mother tongue” English speakers part-time, to give the kids exposure to native accents. I hope that this includes some American accents, as many Italians learn English from British teachers, and then have difficulty understanding Americans.

There is no flexibility in the Italian school system for a kid to test out of a subject he or she is already competent in, so Rossella has had to take English in school every year since third grade. Her Italian teachers of English have fallen into two categories: those who see Ross as a resource to be exploited for the benefit of the class, and those who feel threatened by a student who knows their subject better than they do.

Ross’ first English teacher, in elementary school, was probably the best she’s ever had. She would get Ross to tell the class stories or converse with her in English, so the other kids could hear a good accent. She even wanted to use Ross to talk in front of some older classes, but Ross was shy of the older kids.

In middle school, things were very different. There were two English-speakers in the class, Ross and an Italian girl growing up in the British Virgin Islands, where her parents own a restaurant. The English teacher was of the extremely threatened sort, who would correct the girls even when they were right. This woman’s pronunciation was epically wrong, including such gems as: “In England, it is traditional to eat a bowl of soap at the start of dinner.” And: “In England, pizza is pronounced pyza.” When Ross protested, the teacher said witheringly: “We are learning English, not American.”

This woman would insist that the kids memorize pages about English “civilization.” This could have been useful, both for reading English and learning about the culture of another country, except that her material was twenty years out of date. On one test she asked: “True or false: The English only drink wine on special occasions.” Rossella, having often visited her granddad and his wife in England, knew this to be false. Her answer was: “False. Why else would they have pubs?” The teacher disagreed and marked her down, even though Ross had been to England far more recently than she had.

I was even called in for a conference with this teacher once, because she was concerned about Ross’ performance! She was not interested in my suggestions that Ross was bored out of her mind and should be allowed to do something more challenging – that would have created extra work for herself. I’m not sure whether she was insulted or relieved that I conducted the conversation entirely in Italian.

Ross suffered through two years of this, then changed schools (for other reasons). I was impressed that the new English teacher immediately called me in to talk about what Ross should be doing, since it was an obvious waste of time for her to do the same elementary grammar exercises as the other kids. So Ross did some reading and writing in English, and helped the other kids. She spent a lot of time with a boy whom the teachers considered to be retarded. Ross knows something about learning disorders, and thought he was more likely dyslexic: he couldn’t read, but he could remember and work well with whatever she told him orally. The teachers were flabbergasted when Ross eventually got him to write something – in English, no less.

This year, the first year of high school, it’s bad news on the English teacher front again. Ross is forced to do the same stupid exercises as the other kids in the class, and, when she’s finished, she sits and twiddles her thumbs. She was warned in advance that this teacher is the touchy type, so at least she knew to keep her mouth shut. Ross’ friend Viola made a very good grade on the last English test, better than Ross herself (who was marked down for things like not putting a hyphen in ‘forty-nine’). Viola was so happy that she exclaimed excitedly to the teacher: “This is because I studied last night with Rossella!” Which was sooooo not what the teacher wanted to hear. Now Ross will be in demand to help all her classmates prepare for English tests; I guess she could earn some pocket money that way.

February, 2004: The current English teacher has had an epiphany. Some other classes and schools are paying 4000 euros (for the year) to bring in mother-tongue English speakers for conversation. This class doesn’t have to: they have Rossella, and the teacher has pointed out to the class that they should all be grateful for that.

6 thoughts on “English Teaching in Italian Schools

  1. Shannon Zell

    I understand the frustration. Acquiring a second language must be a natural experience. The best results use minimal memorization and a greater number of natural experiences. To be truly successful an additional language should be learned much as children learn their first language through play and practice.

    I have been a certified ESL instructor for nearly 15 years and taken many Master courses on teaching English to Non-native Speakers. Along with that, I have a minor in Spanish. I remember the most effective instruction in my acquiring a new language involved interaction. Mimicking and memorizing was the least beneficial. The more authentic the lesson the more natural the progression.

    Keeping language acquisition real and making learning the language fun is the key.

    Do you know of any schools in Italy that would welcome this form of language learning? I understand that Native English speakers who are experienced and certified ESL teachers do not need TESOL, TEFL or any additional requirements.

    Shannon Zell

  2. Meg

    “I hope that this includes some American accents, as many Italians learn English from British teachers, and then have difficulty understanding Americans.”…Not being able to talk to Americans? We can’t have that now can we because Americans are obviously so much more important.

  3. Deirdre Straughan Post author

    If you are going to speak English with people from a variety of countries (presumably the point of Italians learning English), it’s useful to be able to understand spoken English in a wide range of accents – British, American, Australian, South African, Indian, and also those of others for whom English is a second language. Being taught that there is only one “correct” accent (the British one, in this case) is NOT helpful.

  4. Caree

    Regarding Meg’s comment, if it’s important to learn a new language in order to increase the number of people you can communicate with – there are many, many millions more native speakers of English with “American” accents than speakers with “Queen’s English” or “Received Pronunciation” or “BBC” British English accents. Speakers in the UK still have a huge number of regional accents for such a small island country; the majority do not speak “BBC English”. In the US, we have regional accents but these are being slowly replaced by the type of American accent one hears on the news, for example. Personally, I enjoy hearing all the accents of English, the South African, Nigerian, Indian and Glaswegian being particular favorites.
    Even British linguists recognize that since the middle of the 20th century, American style English is now the more widespread in social, cultural and business settings worldwide. Another example of “choice of accent” would be Spanish – if you learn from Central and South American speakers you will have an easier time communicating with the majority of Spanish speakers, rather than the Castilian, used by a minority of Spanish speakers worldwide. BTW, I actually mean not only accent but dialect.
    If you don’t like American style English, you can learn to speak with one of the other accents, if you prefer. Whether or when it is replaced with some other English accent, or by some other language, as the current predominant world language, time will tell. Latin and Ancient Greek were once as close to “world languages” as one could get in antiquity. Both are dead now (Modern Greek is different from Ancient Greek). English and American style English may one day fall into disuse. But for now, it’s the most widely spoken and understood.

  5. Eddie

    I’m an English Language Assistant in a school in Rome and I find that the kids actually understand an American accent better because those that want to learn English often watch American TV and movies and most frequently listen to American songs. If the kids want to speak with an American accent then I don’t correct them, the only thing I ask is that they’re consistent. It would sound weird if I jumped between accents so it would sound weird if they did it! Furthermore, I spell some words differently, so I teach them both spellings of the word and, again, tell them that if they want to spell colour or color then they have to pick one spelling and stick to it!
    Also, a great article you’ve written and a nice insight into what it’s like for the kids that are already fluent. Really made me think, thanks.

  6. Tina

    When I was younger I went through the same problems as Ross! The Italian school system is completely outdated.. Its syllabus is old and repetitive consisting in studying endless facts rather than focusing on real practical work. So when it gets down to teaching English, it’s a downward spiral of horror! I’ve met few passionate English teachers that have knowledge of the language and try to add some spice to their lessons. However, I have also met quite a lot of English teachers who were completely lost and had no clue what they were teaching. These so-called teachers had never been to an English speaking country, so they lacked basic speaking skills. This is an every day drama that goes on in lots of schools in Italy.. The sad part is that it’s difficult to fire state school teachers , even though their incompetence is widely recognized. As a result students are stuck with some terrible English teachers, learning a broken English! The saddest part is that some of these teacher are often touchy, arrogant and down right ignorant in matter, especially when confronted with someone who knows more than them..I guess you lack dignity when you don’t realize the damage you do to students by teaching poorly.. .. Until the Italian government does not realize they must invest and change school programs, things will probably get worse. Nevertheless a great start would be hiring teachers that at least know what they are teaching.
    Under a cultural point of view, I think Italians love to complicate things and quarrel about anything rather than finding simple, practical solutions and take responsibility for their actions. No wonder there’s a brain drain from a once great and powerful country to a ridiculed one as today…

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