Interview with language assistant Maria Benimeo.
Edited by Ilaria Taddeo, Margherita Marziali and Annarita Guidi
For the series of interviews with language assistants in the new column ‘Lettori per l’italiano‘ (Italian Language Assistants) on italiana, we are speaking with Maria Benimeo. After serving as a language assistant at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver from 2014 to 2017, Maria Benimeo was transferred ex officio to Vietnam, where she teaches at the Universities of Hanoi (Hanu) and Thang Long, while also collaborating with the Cultural Office of the Embassy of Italy in Hanoi.
The excellent results achieved in recent years make Vietnam the “leading” country for the study of our language in South East Asia. What expectations and motivations have you found among students interested in learning Italian?
Vietnam is a country with about 100 million inhabitants, in which economic, social and cultural development is highly differentiated, with urban areas that are globalized in terms of rhythms, customs and consumption, and rural villages that are poor and increasingly less populated – still very traditional. The official language is Vietnamese (spoken by 85% of citizens), while English is the most widespread foreign language today, since it is studied from the first grade and is essential for those who want to go to university. Chinese, Japanese and Korean are the favoured second languages (due to intense commercial relations), followed by French. Russian and other Slavic languages have been in decline for years, while German is gaining momentum (widespread availability of language courses and scholarships). In general, this is down to those who have the means to push their children to take private courses to obtain the necessary certifications to study abroad: many young people continue their university studies in Europe, in the USA or in Australia. This is due in part to the lack of Master’s or PhD courses in Vietnam. The range of Italian courses on offer forms a part of this landscape, with 2 Italian Studies university departments in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (Hanu and Ussh) with approximately 100 students graduating each year; second foreign language courses are available at 2 private universities (Thang Long and Phuong Dong); there are intensive courses for students wishing to continue their studies in Italy and for a general public (Uni-Italia, Ita-Centro) and a curricular second language course in a high school in Hanoi (FLSS).
There are a number of reasons for this success, for which Vietnam is the leader in South East Asia in terms of the number of students and the variety and quality of the educational programmes and experiences. First of all I believe that the establishment of Italian as a second foreign language course in 2002 at the University of Hanoi was the result of a brilliant insight: the country was opening up to the world, student intake was increasing, as were economic investments and trade. The commitment of the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation (MAECI), the collaboration with Italian universities and the opportunity to train in Italy, which was offered and taken up by many of the first enrollees, made it possible to have local teachers quickly, who supported the new departments with their commitment and care for the students. During these years, Italy’s support has been constant and decisive in interpreting and anticipating the needs: the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’s funding (for the courses, the purchase of materials, training, translations) together with the establishment of 2 language assistantships and the continuous support of the diplomatic representatives have guaranteed the stability and depth of the educational programmes.
Some of the students choose to study Italian because of their fascination with football and fashion, or the cuisine. A few of the more fortunate have been to Italy. Others know it partially from social networks. The majority of them are attracted by job opportunities in tourism. In fact, in the ten years prior to 2020, the number of Italians who chose to visit Vietnam increased steadily. They visited in all seasons, as part of organized trips, or in small groups and couples and always preferred an Italian-speaking guide. There were few Italian interpreters, compared to those working in English and French, and they were therefore well paid (in addition, I’m told, there was never a shortage of tips, and friendships were forged that have continued over the years). It should be noted that in their third year, students enrolled in the four-year degree course at the University of Hanoi can choose to focus on either tourism or interpretation/translation. The training also aims to be vocational through effective internships in tourism agencies and companies. There is, however, much less demand for interpreters and translators. But the new teachers that we are beginning to require may come from these students. Second language courses at other universities are chosen for a variety of reasons: some come from different degree programme and are required to take a second language exam; others want to continue their studies in Italy (design and architecture); still others are just curious – perhaps they love Italian fashion and cuisine. There are also some Italian companies for whom knowledge of our language is a preferable qualification for certain positions.
What strategies are you implementing to introduce Vietnamese students to those themes of Italian culture that are difficult to explain from an intercultural perspective?
In addition to the hours of language teaching, I teach History of Italian Literature, Geography and Civilization, and also, from this year, History of Italian Art. I imagine it is quite obvious that certain fundamental concepts related to social and political, historical, philosophical and religious affairs cannot be taken for granted, even if the audience is composed of university students that have been globalized by the internet. There is often a need for simplification, which is not always effective: it is necessary to find, to the extent possible, a “corresponding” Vietnamese concept. Most of my students, fortunately, are proficient in English, so some of the content is already partially familiar, even if not consciously so. To overcome this problem, I start with similarities, even very general ones, between the two countries, and then introduce the differences when possible. I make extensive use of examples I draw from Vietnamese literature or movies and, after years of being here, from observing and talking to locals. Getting in touch with human experience is the starting point that always seems to work. This is also the approach used in the cultural initiatives from the Embassy of Italy: combining the Italian content with a talk from local experts, a parallelism with the local context to arouse greater curiosity and facilitate understanding.
To return to teaching and provide an example: during the History of Literature course, which is mandatory for all students, I include a new project every year, tailoring it to the needs, interests and potential that I identify in the individual classes. In 2019, I offered an unabridged reading aloud of ‘Marcovaldo’ by Italo Calvino. This is not a simple text in terms of vocabulary and syntax, especially for learners at a B2 level. But, before the pandemic, Vietnam had been booming economically for a few years, and many were moving from rural villages to the outskirts of Hanoi to work in factories. They were living in conditions that were not so different from Marcovaldo’s. Starting from the story of what was happening around them, I was able to involve the students in the reading. I had the additional help of Marco Paolini’s recordings and Nanni Loi’s television adaptation, which was my ace in the hole. Far away in space and time, his Marcovaldo made it possible to understand not only the text, but also the related historical and economic concepts. Each student then made their own rewrite, Vietnamese translation, adaptation, illustration and comic book about their favourite story. One group even captioned an episode of the series so freshmen could understand it.
Which projects involved the figure of Dante in particular, in the 700th anniversary of his death?
2021 was a year full of engagements and initiatives, despite restrictions due to Covid-19, and which were almost completely dedicated to Dante celebrations in collaboration with local and foreign institutions. We opened on 25 March, Dantedì (‘Dante Day’), with the multimedia installation Inferno V at Casa Italia, which was conceived by the MTM Project and promoted by the MAECI. The texts were translated into Vietnamese to make it easier for the local audience to access. Among other things, I was able to conduct an in-person lecture for my students and for the Italian language students of the Uni-Italia courses. Since April, students of the Italian Departments of the University of Hanoi and Malaya University in Kuala Lumpur, led by their colleague Tamara Boscia, have been working together on the theme of ‘Dante, Love and Malay and Vietnamese poets’. The project involved collecting and producing materials on a blog, and concluded, during the 21st Week of the Italian Language in the World (WILW), with a live Zoom event in which Dante, Italian, young people and their languages were the main focus. In June, on the occasion of Italian Republic Day, the national radio station VOV (Voice of Vietnam) dedicated a special slot to Dante Alighieri as part of a weekly programme on poetry. After the introduction by Ambassador Alessandro and the contributions from both Italian and local experts, the Embassy staff read some verses from the Inferno in Vietnamese language. The programme, which was recorded, has been replayed and is still available. The Embassy of Italy has sponsored the reprint of Dante’s Inferno, in Nguyen Van Hoan’s translation, enriched with an introduction by Ambassador Alessandro and articles by local scholars. The publication was launched in person and live on Facebook during the 21st WILW, together with contributions from Italian and local scholars published in the October 2021 issue of the journal ‘Literary Studies’, during an event organized with the Institute of Literature and the Social Sciences Publishing House (both part of the VASS – Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences). The Department of Italian at the University of Hanoi organized a workshop for Vietnamese teachers on Dante. This work produced will result in an informational publication in Vietnamese for use by university students, sponsored by the Embassy of Italy. Finally, during the ‘Dante in 3” event, the Italian and Italian-speaking community contributed to celebrating the poet by sharing school memories, original works of art inspired by his writing, video clips, advertisements and readings of sonnets.
In addition to coordinating with the Embassy, which other organizations do you collaborate with to promote Italian language and culture?
Naturally, the primary and most consistent collaboration is with all the universities and schools that have implemented an Italian language or culture course in Hanoi and Vietnam: I participate in cultural events and activities, I recommend teaching materials and coordinate training schemes online. In terms of diligence and commitment, the collaboration with EUNIC (European Union National Institutes for Culture) Vietnam certainly stands out. The cluster is very active, and meets at least once a month, creating interesting projects that are always different, some of which are financed within the framework of EUNIC Houses of Culture, formerly EUNIC Global.
Each year I actively participate in organizing and putting on recurrent events (The Day of European Languages, The Days of European Literature, The Vietnamese and European Documentary Festival), but also projects of wider scope and duration. I will give two examples here that differ in terms of content and target audience. The first project, announced by the local cluster in 2018, was called the ‘European Characters in Vietnam Contest’, an individual and group drawing competition for children on characters from European literature translated into Vietnamese. After choosing the Italian character, Medardo, Italo Calvino’s ‘Visconte Dimezzato’ (Halved Viscount), I taught two introductory lessons to students aged 11 to 16. I then helped to select the finalist drawings from among the 1570 received, dedicated to the 9 characters proposed by the participating countries. The project ended with the opening of the exhibition, hosted in succession by the French and German Cultural Institutes, and with the prize ceremony for the 3 winners. The enthusiasm, the participation and also the coverage given to the event by the press were pleasantly surprising. The second project, selected and funded by EUNIC Global 2019, ‘Training for Vietnamese translators of Social Sciences and Humanities‘, aimed to train translators specialized in the social sciences. Preparing the work was challenging. I was the only non-Vietnamese person in the group and, among other things, I had to select the materials to be translated for the exercises, invite the Italian expert, and review the drafts of the final product, which was a basic glossary of the most common psychology terms in 5 languages. Again, the experience was positive and allowed me to get to know the different players in the publishing industry.
The other notable collaboration is with local publishing houses. I am in direct contact with the main publishers who publish translated Italian works and who participate in the annual calls for funding and awards from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Culture. I point them towards the most interesting articles in New Italian Books and the winners of literary awards and I answer their questions. I have organized presentations of Italian books translated into Vietnamese at Casa Italia and I have been a guest of the publishing houses at public events, including, for example, the 2019 Book Fair or the day dedicated to Gianni Rodari at the headquarters of Kim Đồng Publishing House.
What impact has the pandemic had on education in a highly technologized country like Vietnam?
From a technical standpoint, we had no problems: there is fast internet in most parts of the country, and coverage is generally good. There was an initial period of confusion in February 2020, so teaching was officially interrupted for 2 weeks (but upon request, I was granted permission to open my virtual classroom). By March, all educational institutions of all levels had equipped themselves with their own platforms or subscriptions to Gclass, Teams and Zoom. We then proceeded with classes online and at the university. No particular problems emerged given the prevalence of smartphones and laptops.
Regarding the fallout and effects of distance learning on students, I would like to point out that in Vietnam we are now experiencing the longest period of being away from classes. In 2020, in fact, we had an initial suspension from February to April, and then we returned to in-person classes with very short periods online until April 2021. Since then we have returned to distance learning and the reopening has not yet been announced, but it is not expected to be before next January. Here again, less affluent students, elementary and middle school students, and for us, freshmen, are penalized. They have totally missed the period of exploration and orientation and the creation of new interpersonal relationships with classmates and faculty. Some students are facing serious economic problems. Many had part-time jobs that they ended up losing. Others are in crisis because the job opportunities in tourism that they saw as being attainable are now at the very least postponed. Still others, those who are less motivated, have allowed their attention to wander and are experiencing increasing difficulties. In contrast, those studying abroad, who are usually from countries that are not that far away but are rural and poorly connected to Hanoi, say they are very happy to be at home. In any case, we are continuing with business as usual, meeting deadlines, implementing schedules, taking written and oral tests online, experiencing the same issues faced all over the world and with increasingly exhausted and less focused students. In Vietnam, many teachers had no prior experience with online courses, even as users, so there were, as everywhere, initial difficulties. For teaching Italian in particular, however, it was possible to promptly modify the contents of the refresher courses that had already been planned and financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation. These were conducted by the teachers of UniPisa, UniStraPg and Ca’ Foscari, and became useful training resources for distance learning.
Nonetheless, online teaching has encouraged the attendance of Italian language courses by people who do not live in urban centres, who cannot move away from home for health reasons and/or family commitments. The possibilities of recording the lesson and studying it asynchronously are particularly appreciated by the adult audience. For example, an Italian language course for Vietnamese police officers, organized by Uni-Italia Vietnam, has just begun. The experience gained in the management of technologies and different teaching schedules, the materials produced and the practice of distance learning will therefore continue to be a resource. Even after returning to the classroom, they will be useful to spread Italian language and culture online, satisfying the needs of groups that are limited in number, interested, for example, in acquiring language skills in specific sectors.