Teaching Italian as a foreign language

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Teaching methodology
Teaching methodology

Teaching Italian: Language teaching principles

Our Italian course programme is based on a communicative approach intended to activate the processes of learning and language acquisition in the four linguistic skills (listening, speaking, reading and writing). Following the acquisition learning hypotheses of  the Communicative language teaching (CLT) (linguists such as Noam Chomsky and Stephen Krashen who explore the need to act on two levels in order to develop language competences: acquisition (which develops our subconscious level) and learning (which develops our conscious level). The teaching of our Italian courses also takes into consideration Gardner’s Theory of multiple intelligences and suggestopedia meaning that our teachers present activities in class in order to accommodate different learning styles.

Study how a language is made or really use the language?

Today in contrast to traditional methods that are set to die in certain academic syllabi, linguists agree that we can distinguish between a learning phase (conscious phase) and an acquisitional one (subconscious phase) in the study of a foreign language.  Just think about how you learnt your own language: only by acquiring it subconsciously! A native speaker knows how to use the present, past, future, conditional, articles, prepositions, prepositions, etc. before their first day of school. And just how did we get to such an advanced level of the language? Only through a subconscious phase (acquisition) without any form of conscious thinking (learning). It’s fair to say that our mums and dads did not sit us down to study “grammar rules” before sending us off to school!

BABILONIA – Center for Italian language and culture has always wanted to balance this out and to equal the experience of learning with that of acquisition in order to optimize the processes of expansion of students’ interlanguage.

Learning a language is like learning to swim: you need to dive into the water!

Similarly, you need to dive into a “sea of Italian” to learn to use the language

For us a language is not a result of a series of grammar rules but the mirror of a culture and a way of seeing and interpreting the world around you and learning a language is therefore not a mechanical process.

It is a commitment that involves each person’s personal, intellectual and psychological sphere.

The pure and simple fact is that just because a student has come into contact with a specific grammatical element in a passive way, for us, it does not indicate linguistic acquisition.

What’s better,  rich or poor language?

We consider the use of authentic material fundamental in class, allowing students exposure to authentic language (the real language that you hear every day) instead of artificial language that has been created at a speed and in a simplified manner for a foreign student. Such language would not be the real language you would encounter every day in the country where the language is spoken, nor on television or in newspapers. Our students find great advantage in using authentic material because their daily use helps them to adapt more easily and efficiently in linguistic situations that they will inevitably experience outside school in real life.

A student, like a child, develops “rich” language if they are exposed to situations that are linguistically rich, but if they experience only situations that we could call linguistically “poor” (for example through the use of simplified materials), they will develop poor language!

Our course is a cake!

Just like the best cakes, our courses are made from many important ingredients!

Our standard course is divided into 2 parts:  language analysis sessions and communication activities.

During “language analysis”, all activities have the aim of trying to understand how the language works and what are the linguistic mechanisms of the language. This is an umbrella under which we find the concept of “grammar” but in an acceptation of “grammar”. The “grammar of the language” we consider with a textual approach, always experienced in context and in relation to other linguistic concepts within the text and not as a never-ending list of “grammar rules” which are useless alone and out of context. Paradoxically, we could say that grammar “rules” do not exist, only “regularities” which are a different thing. What is true is that for every “grammatical rule” numerous “exceptions” exist!

All of the activities of our language analysis sessions activate the learning process (conscious level) and their objective is to better understand how the language works by exploring the “mechanisms” that govern it. Language analysis activities include controlled speaking and writing activities and analytical listening and reading activities (morphosyntactic, semantic-lexical, functional).

In our “communication activities” sessions, all activities aim to improve communicative competences using productive skills (speaking and writing) via receptive (listening and reading), with a holistic, global, approach to the language. This is in contrast to the analysis of the particulars and the structure of the language that takes place in our “language analysis” session.

All of the activities used during our communication sessions activate the acquisition process (subconscious level) and include the holistic comprehension of listening and reading (for example, through repeated listening or reading activities) and activities that involve oral production and free writing.  These activities aim to increase the communicative competences of the student.

These are a few of the activities that we offer in class:

in “language analysis” which examines the mechanisms of the language and works on the “particulars” and “details”:

  • analytical listening
  • controlled speaking
  • analytical reading
  • controlled writing
  • language puzzle
  • conversation construction
  • conversation reconstruction
  • analytical relay
  • word treesduring “communication activities” that look at the language in its “global” and “holistic” aspects:
  • authentic listening
  • free speaking
  • authentic reading
  • free writing
  • roleplays
  • for and against
  • games

The student at the centre of the lesson or the teacher?

For us, every moment the teaching is speaking is a moment stolen from the student. This motto means that a lesson in which a teacher talks, talks, talks and leads their own show – is not a valid lesson. Our teachers already speak excellent Italian. . . it is the student who has to practise!

One thing you will never see at Babilonia, is a teacher who comes into class and starts by going to the board and explaining grammatical rules: We are sadists and we like to make you suffer by letting you discover the rules and meanings for yourselves! While we are obviously joking, we firmly believe that the process of learning is much more efficient if the student is involved in the learning process. By examining the material given to him by the teacher, a student can try to analyse the linguistic elements therein and can make hypotheses. Then he can discuss and debate different ideas with classmates trying to come to a conclusion. (problem solving). This is a form of active learning that runs much deeper and will not be forgotten for the rest of a person’s life. Whereas if a rule is passively explained to a student, the meaning of word or anything other idea, will easily be forgotten (though a quicker route to immediate understanding, it will not leave its mark!)

The forms and morphosyntactic and/or lexical structures are presented in a deductive way (by deductive we mean that the students are encouraged to “deduce” the solution by observing grammatical or linguistic elements in context through the analysis of a spoken or written text. Without any anticipation on the part of the teacher of the forms and structures that are to be considered during the lesson, the students are encouraged to first reflect and then form a hypothesis as to arrive at the solution to the problem” (or at the “discovery” of a new grammatical, syntactic or lexical element). Feedback follows, with the students in order for the teacher to check the hypotheses of the students (with pair or group work) and therefore the teacher is involved only at the end of a process of analysis and reflection. A teaching philosophy that sees the student at the centre of the learning process and that doesn’t ever see the lesson done in a traditional way (the type of lesson that sees the teacher at the centre of the lesson).

During the course, the morphosyntactic and/or lexical forms are presented and analysed in order of their complexity and the frequency in which that are used.

Text book or no text book?

At Babilonia we choose not to adopt a text book as there is no one better to assess and respond to the needs of our students than our teachers, (or rather, facilitators) so we leave it to them. We prefer to select the material we bring into class from the entire library of books at school available to our teachers. And, most importantly all of our teachers are trained in the teaching of authentic materials creating their own teaching units for their lessons. Therefore, the material that they choose to bring into class, will always be “fresh” and current and will be appropriate to the needs of each and every class and student. At the end of the course students have a collection of texts and materials which they have worked on over the course, to take home with them.

Correction: to be corrected or not to be corrected?

One of the main worries of a student is correction and linguistic perfection and traditional approaches have always fixated more on formal correction and much less on the improvement of the communicative capacity of the student. We often meet students who are good at doing “grammar exercises” but are incapable of asking for a glass of water at a bar or to answer simple questions. Posing the question – ‘What’s the use in this kind of study? What’s the point in perfectly conjugating the past simple tenses if you can’t say what you did yesterday?

A teacher’s pedantic correction often creates anxiety for students and the more anxious we become, the more our receptive channels close down and freeze our minds. If we refer to the natural acquisition of the language and we look at children as an example; a child who is continually interrupted when they try to communicate, will become annoyed and unresponsive, forgetting what they were trying to say, just as a student who from a linguistically speaking is still, a “child”.

For us, at Scuola Babilonia, there is a time for correction (or better said collective error reflection), during our “language analysis” sessions, and there is a ‘freer’ time, during our communication activities sessions. We consider these a gym where you can practise without fear of getting it wrong. While your message is getting across and communication is continuing, our aim is being met. As with children, time and practise refine your formal error correction (for more on correction, read Humphris)

With regards to students’ progression during the course, students who have not yet reached the acquisition of the structures covered in language analysis will be offered the opportunity to repeat the level or wait the necessary time before proceeding to the next level, enabling them to perfect some of those structures. Continuation to the next level takes place based only on the abilities of each individual student. This is the fundamental principle on which we base our courses, activities and classes.

Quality standard in teaching italian as a foreign language

Our Italian school for foreigners is accredited and recognised by numerous “third parties” who have inspected and certified the reliability and the professionalism of our school and teachers.

All of our teachers, as well as having a degree, have also gained certification in “Teaching Italian as a Foreign Language” at a second level (DILS II) from the University per Stranieri di Perugia which is a specific certification guaranteeing the essential teaching knowledge and competences to carry out in an efficient way with wider knowledge of the profession of an Italian teacher to foreigners. Many of our teachers have also gained the DITALS qualification from the University per Stranieri of Siena and a few have the Master ITALS qualification from the University Ca’ Foscari of Venice. You can be sure of one thing: we know what we are doing!

Our courses are structured to conform to European standards for language learning and in particular follow the CEFR – Common European Framework of Reference for Languages and  ALTE.

The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages divides learners’ levels into three broad divisions (“Basic User”, “Independent User” and “Proficient User”), that can themselves be divided into two levels, making a total of 6 levels. They are used to describe in detail what an individual is capable of doing in the said language at each level and in the different abilities: written comprehension, oral comprehension, written production and spoken production. Read here to find out more about  CEFR – Common European Framework of Reference for Languages.

At our school, in order to offer our students the correct class and more efficient learning, the levels of our programmes are divided as follows:

  • Absolute Beginners
  • A1 pre-elementary
  • A1 elementary
  • A2 pre-intermediate
  • A2 pre-intermediate +
  • B1 intermediate
  • B1 intermediate +
  • B2 superior
  • B2 superior +
  • C1 advanced
  • C2 advanced +

Teachers rotation:  just like in real life,  the voices around us change.

Our classes aim to be a laboratory of life, a way of reproducing real life everyday linguistic situations and it is for this that during the course that every week we offer you a rotation of  teachers. We wish to offer our students the opportunity to hear different voices with different tones, rhythms and intonations and to deal with various personalities and styles during their linguistic journey. Just like in real life, you have to get used to hearing different voices and accents, it is all too easy to get used to your teacher’s voice but struggle to understand anyone else.

Course duration and entrance test

You can enrol on a course for the number of weeks of your choice, depending on the time and willingness you have available. On the first day of school, you will take a brief entrance test (written and spoken) from which we will establish the appropriate class level for you.

Continual monitoring of progress in class

In class, your learning progress and acquisition are constantly monitored by your teachers during a weekly teacher’s meeting in which all teachers meet up to discuss the classes they have been teaching, the activities and teaching path activated and new ideas, in order to guarantee every student the correct learning and acquisition process and a class that is ideal to your own linguistic abilities.

The low number of students in each class guarantees active involvement of the students and communication in class and gives each student the opportunity to be the star of the lesson.