Field research conducted by educational and cultural institutions
edited by Raffaella Giampaola
Bilingualism is an interesting field of research for linguists and teachers because of the many aspects involved in the parallel adoption of two different language codes.
Professor Maria Concetta Di Giaimo gives us an account of a research project carried out in Córdoba, Argentina. A teacher in Italian high schools with dual training in philosophy and music, with experience as a concert musician, she has collaborated with the Italian Cultural Institute of Córdoba in various areas of language and cultural research and for several editions of the Week of the Italian Language in the World.
‘During my stay in Argentina I had the opportunity to participate in various research projects on bilingualism. This research involved the collaboration of many important local educational and cultural institutions, including the Italian Cultural Institute, the Faculty of Languages of the National University and the Società Dante Alighieri’ says Maria Di Giaimo. The Study Days that feature in the programme of the Fiera del Libro, held annually in the city in September, offer a valuable opportunity for research and analysis. ‘Another important scientific project is the field research that began in 2008 in collaboration with La Sapienza University of Rome, under the guidance of Professor Maria Antonietta Pinto, student and successor of the studies started in the mid-1980s by the psychologist and educationalist Renzo Titone.’ The results were published in Volume IV (2013) of the journal ‘Estudios italianos/Studi italiani’, published by the Italian Cultural Institute and the National University of Córdoba, dedicated to the issue of bilingualism.
The ‘Dante Alighieri’ school in Córdoba
The field of investigation chosen by the team of researchers and teachers was the state-authorised private ‘Dante Alighieri’ bilingual-bicultural school in Córdoba.
Created in the 1960s to meet the growing needs of the Italian community in Córdoba, over time the school has seen a substantial expansion of its educational offering with the introduction of all school grades and the improvement of bilingual and bicultural training. The main objective of the school is to promote the exchange of meaningful creative and cultural experiences between Italians and Argentinians. ‘The researchers therefore focused their attention on the context of learning Italian in the ‘Dante Alighieri’ school precisely because of its vertical path of education from nursery to Liceo, alongside the educational path in Spanish, with exposure to both languages from an early age.’ It is important to emphasise that ‘the research examined the phenomenon not only from an educational point of view, but also from the psychological and linguistic perspective. Scientific research has in fact long demonstrated that early bilingualism, far from being an obstacle to the consolidation of the native language in children, due to the limited interference that it can generate between the languages that come into contact, actually promotes the development of advanced skills both in the area of metalinguistic awareness, that is, in the child’s ability to reflect on the languages used in communication, and in the understanding of metaphors, an activity that brings into play cognitive aspects of great interest from a psychological and intercultural point of view.’
Metalinguistic awareness and metaphors: definition and tool for research
‘Metalinguistic awareness’, explains Professor Di Giaimo, ‘means the ability to reflect on and manipulate the structural features of language, treating it as an object of thought, as opposed to simply using the language system to understand and produce sentences.’
For the linguistic-cognitive approach, metaphor represents a way of thinking, which influences the organization of experience into categories. It is defined by George Lakoff as a cognitive process that maps (i.e. creates a series of correspondent relationships between) two domains, the source (e.g. the concept ‘to see’) and the target (e.g. the concepts ‘to know, to understand’: think of the meaning of metaphorical expressions such as ‘to see clearly’, ‘to be in the dark’). It is therefore an extremely interesting phenomenon for the analysis of processes of understanding.
The study of these language management and projection skills formed the core of the research conducted by La Sapienza University and the team of linguists and teachers.
‘During her psycholinguistic studies, Professor Pinto has developed several instruments for analysing the skills of bilingual children and young people, including the TAM 1, TAM 2 and TAM 3 metalinguistic awareness tests, as well as the TCM tests on the understanding of metaphors.’
The TAMs – Metalinguistic Awareness Tests – cover different aspects of language, from morphology to syntax, from phonetics to vocabulary and are designed and calibrated depending on the age of the child: ‘TAM 1 tests are designed for the 4 to 6 year age bracket, TAM 2 tests are for 9 to 14 year olds, and TAM 3 tests cover the age range from late adolescence to adulthood.’ Professor Di Giaimo explains: ‘TAM 1s, which were administered to pupils at the bilingual-bicultural school in Córdoba, consist of several tests involving activities such as reordering incorrectly constructed sentences, assessing word length and lexical segmentation. The rhyming test is particularly interesting, where the child is asked, for example, to choose the word that best fits alongside ‘gatto, matto and fatto’.’
The TCM – Metaphor Comprehension Test – highlights other metalinguistic abilities, which allow you to understand language as an object of reflection, not just a tool of communication. ‘Metaphors requires belonging to one or more cultures, to one or more systems of reference and perception of the world. ‘Rosso d’uovo’ in Italian or ‘jaune d’oeuf’ in French or ‘yema’ in Spanish are different ways of describing the same object, egg yolk, using a metaphorical image. The child taking the TAM is asked, for example, to understand metaphors such as ‘that man is a volcano’ or ‘friendship is a cloak’, indicating the right option out of multiple choices. Bilingual children tend to understand the meaning of metaphors not only in their native language, but often also in a second language, more easily than monolingual children, precisely because of their early exposure to two different language systems and two horizons of meaning and experience.’
The operational phases of the research included administering the TAMs to a large sample of pupils from the school in Córdoba and to a control group of children attending a monolingual public school in the same city. Ms. Di Giaimo points out that the final results ‘confirmed the greater capacity of bilingual pupils to reflect on language and on logical, syntactic and lexical functions.’
‘Bilingualism therefore seems to improve the pupils’ logical functions, especially early bilingualism and practised at school. The focus on the greater mental elasticity and cognitive resources of bilingual children and young people therefore calls for language policies that promote the early study of several languages starting in primary school.’ She concludes: ‘This is another reason to promote Italian in various countries around the world, both in those with long-established Italian immigration and in those where interest in our language has been motivated by more recent cultural and economic relationships.’