Innovative programmes and best practices in New York, Chicago and San Francisco.
edited by Annarita Guidi
The United States has historically been an interesting context for the study of bilingualism. After the two migratory processes of 1880-1927 and 1950-1970, the Italian American community is composite and stratified on a socio-cultural and linguistic level; for the third or fourth generation of descendants born in the USA, knowledge of Italian is often limited to oral comprehension.
It is in the 21st century that a new interest in the Italian language is emerging among the younger generations: it is a search for their own roots and a discovery of Italian culture. In addition, there are Italian citizens, who relocated for professional reasons, who are interested in their children learning Italian so that they can keep their mother tongue within the curriculum.
Even in a period which has not made it easy to popularize foreign languages (firstly because of the introduction of regulations affecting the obligation to study one, then because of the Covid-19 pandemic), Italian numbers in schools have remained stable. Italian investment in the Advanced Placement Programme continues to take priority over the goal of keeping Italian among the top foreign languages in the US.
We talked about this reality with head teachers Marina Lenza and Maria Fusco. Marina Lenza, at the Consulate of Italy in Chicago, is in charge of initiatives for the diffusion of the Italian language and culture in local schools that promote Italian programmes for the areas belonging to the Consular Districts of Chicago and Detroit. Maria Fusco has been the director of the School Office of the Italian Embassy in Washington since 2016, with the mission of promoting the Italian language and culture in the USA through the coordination of the school offices in Boston, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Miami and San Francisco.
Bilingualism, cognitive function and academic success
‘Neuroscience has shown that being bilingual can have a profound effect on the brain, improving cognitive abilities’ explains Professor Lenza. ‘This view is different from the dominant view for much of the 20th century, which saw the second language as an obstacle to intellectual development and academic success. Scientific evidence suggests, however, that the bilingual experience improves the executive function of the brain, which directs the attention processes we use to plan, solve problems and perform various tasks. Studies such as those by the National Center for Biotechnology Information show that bilingual adults have better executive brain function than adults who speak only one language. According to research conducted at the University of San Diego, bilingual experience has positive effects on the brain from childhood to old age (in counteracting and slowing down degenerative processes in brain function). These effects are also found for those who learn a second language later in life’.
In terms of academic success, executive brain function is fundamental: ‘From birth, children are endowed with a brain plasticity that can handle two or more languages simultaneously and learn their sounds‘ Professor Lenza continues. ‘This predisposition decreases and weakens with time, so it is important to cultivate it from very early childhood. Of course, learning a language by immersion is different from learning it in a classroom. For a child to grow up bilingual, he or she needs to be exposed to the second language sufficiently and diversely, in a context where learning takes place in a positive climate and through daily relationships’.
Innovative programmes and best practices in New York, Chicago and San Francisco
Given the growing interest in the Italian language in US public and public schools, what are the opportunities in the Tri-State area (New York, New Jersey and Connecticut)? ‘In general, Italian teaching is intensified in the early years of pre-school and primary school, then gradually decreases to ensure compatibility with the requirements of the local system for the purpose of acquiring school diplomas at the various levels. The Tri-State school system includes the New York City public school system, which is based on innovative principles, such as multiculturalism and the promotion of early bilingualism. This is where there has been a growth in bilingual programmes at primary and secondary school level, supported by the city’s Department of Education (DOENYC). The Italian language has access to this programme, which is growing all the time’ says Professor Fusco. ‘In Manhattan, the Italian bilingual programme also continues at PS242, the only public school with an International Baccalaureate at elementary level in the city. It is a primary school where Italian is taught through science, maths, music, singing and sport‘.
Important opportunities are then offered by Italian schools abroad. ‘The Guglielmo Marconi bilingual state-authorized private school in New York offers the whole cycle of education, from kindergarten to high school science’ continues Professor Fusco. ‘It is an academically oriented school, preparing students for the best Italian and European universities, developing perfect bilingualism and biculturalism. The majority of students are of Italian or Italian-American origin, but the school is also attended by students with no Italian heritage. As of 2018/19, educational parity was also granted to La Scuola school in San Francisco, for nursery and primary. It brings together several elements of interest, such as the teaching of Italian and the adoption of the Reggio Emilia approach, together with the Primary Years programme of the International Baccalaureate’ explains Professor Fusco.
In areas of the country such as the Midwest, good practices are also emerging that could be extended to other states. In the Chicago Consular District, in fact, there are a number of entities that are very active in Italian programmes: ‘Victory School in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, has established full immersion (all subjects taught in Italian) programmes for nursery and primary levels, and partial immersion (50% of subjects taught in Italian) programmes in the remaining years. It is the only public school in the USA that provides the opportunity to learn Italian free of charge for all the children in the city. In Chicago, the Enrico Fermi Italian school, which has an international vocation, offers a bilingual (English/Italian) course for children, which has reached the last year of the nursery school and which is planned to be extended to the primary school,” continues Professor Fusco.
‘Of particular interest is the recent signing of two Memoranda of Understanding. The agreement with the Michigan Department of Education facilitates the recruitment of qualified Italian teachers, by recognising qualifications obtained in Italy, also with a view to encouraging the launch of a bilingual school in the Detroit metropolitan area, where the number of Italian expatriate families with school-age children is steadily rising. In addition, the Memorandum of Understanding between the Embassy, the Philadelphia Consulate and the Maryland Department of Education has opened up the possibility of hiring qualified teachers directly from Italy, should the need arise’.