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, soÂ 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 (forÂ 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.