An analysis of the linguistic phenomenon and of the bilingual teaching in the German-Italian schools in Berlin and Wolfsburg
edited by Raffaella Giampaola
For me, being bilingual, means being myself, neither one nor the other, but both and also something in between – Elisa
Bilingualism helps us to promote our interculturality, European identity and ‘global understanding’, that is, it probably makes it even easier to understand the other country – Valerie
What is bilingualism? These were the reponses from German-Italian students at the Albert-Einstein-Gymnasium in Berlin.
We spoke to Professor Anna Marzorati, who has a background as a teacher of literature, a language assistant at a North American university and a teacher of Italian language and culture in Berne and at a bilingual school in Zurich. She is currently a school director at the Embassy in Berlin, where she coordinates Italian teaching activities in the capital and in Hannover.
A few definitions
The first step is to clarify the scope of analysis: individual bilingualism is that which involves individuals, whereas social bilingualism characterizes an entire community, a region or even a nation.
“Sticking to the classical definition of individual bilingualism, the situation of balanced bilingualism is that rare ideal condition in which a person masters and uses two languages interchangeably as a native speaker.” This ability develops when the individual has been able to acquire the two language systems from early childhood – this is referred to as early bilingualism – and enables the child to switch naturally and effortlessly from one language code to another depending on who they are speaking to, the context or the situation.
“Other classic definitions of bilingualism consider the developmental stage in which the two languages are acquired: we therefore speak of infantile bilingualism from the age of three and school bilingualism when primary and secondary school education employs the two languages equally, using them both as subjects of study – studying the language – and as vehicles for other subjects – studying in the language. Late bilingualism, on the other hand, is defined as the acquisition of the two languages after puberty or in adulthood.”
But talking about bilingualism also means taking into account the social parameters, not only the time span of the acquisition of the two languages.
We speak of “diglossia when two language codes coexist, one of which (usually the native dialect) enjoys less prestige than the official language. There is also passive bilingualism, when you are unable to use the weaker language actively, and subtractive bilingualism when, in some extreme cases, schooling in the second language, combined with sporadic and imperfect acquisition of the native language, progressively subtracts from the capacity for self-expression, the ability to develop self-esteem and identity.”
Acquisition versus learning
A fundamental concept in approaching bilingualism theoretically and practically is that: “Language is not learned, but it is naturally acquired,” explains Professor Marzorati. “You are born with the faculty of language, i.e. with a natural predisposition to reproduce sounds and communicate in any language, what Noam Chomsky calls LAD – Language Acquisition Device – a characteristic inherent in the genetic make-up of the human species, the only species to possess a phonatory system sophisticated enough to articulate from 20 to 40 different phonemes.”
“Acquisition is a natural process of osmosis involving environmental stimuli and the people around us, and is always linked to a strong emotional component and the motivational drive to communicate.”
So what advice should be given to a parent who is bringing up a child in a bilingual environment? “The powerful emotional relationship between parent and child, combined with the continuous flow and variety, density and consistency of verbal stimuli, encouragement, positive feedback, respect for the child’s pace of development, a serene environment are the best recipe for maturing language skills without generating performance anxiety or filters that act as a barriers or inhibitors.”
Finally, it is very important never to neglect the harmonious consolidation of skills in the stronger language, the mother tongue, at any time during the child’s growth.
With regard to language education, it is worth remembering that, at least up until the 1960s, bilingualism was actually seen as a possible obstacle to the development of language and thought. “In recent decades it has been amply demonstrated through neuroscientific and psycholinguistic research that the early acquisition of two languages brings countless benefits and advantages to a person’s cognitive development. In fact, we speak of a bilingual advantage in reference to the early construction of a double reservoir of sounds, words and meanings to be drawn on from time to time. If two languages are acquired, the bilingual child is able to activate constantly selective functions with respect to environmental stimuli, with greater capacity of attention, intuition and concentration. This seems to be the reason why in bilingual people the degenerative processes of old-age appear on average 4-5 years later than in monolingual people.” Furthermore, “in an increasingly multicultural and cosmopolitan environment, bilingualism and multilingualism are today perceived as an added value specific to the most advanced societies that invest considerable resources in bilingual and bicultural education, as has been the case in the SESB schools in Berlin for decades .”
The context of the sections of the European State School in Berlin
SESB is the acronym for Staatliche Europa Schule Berlin (Berlin European State School), an educational model that has been developed since 1992 and based on teaching in two languages starting from the first grade of primary school.
The German-Italian SESB sections are part of a language immersion project whose statute foresees the joint teaching of Italian and German language and culture, also open to native German families, in a vertical pathway starting from the first grade of primary school and ending in the twelfth grade with the awarding of a diploma (Abitur).
The children are constantly exposed to both languages, growing up together and continuously exchanging with one another the roles of native and partner language. The native languages are taught separately in the respective language groups. Children come into contact with the partner culture and language while safeguarding their native linguistic and cultural identity.
Aware of the strong ties between language and culture, the SESB model strongly emphasises the exchange of experiences between schools of different language combinations (in Berlin there are nine possibilities), institutions and people from different countries, focusing on trips, internships abroad and taking part in lessons in twinned schools.
“One with the other, for each other and from the other” is the motto that sums up the SESB model, based on the mutual respect for and appreciation of cultural identity.
The Leonardo Da Vinci school in Wolfsburg
Another important example of bilingual education is the Leonardo Da Vinci Grund-und Gesamtschule in Wolfsburg, Lower Saxony.
As described by the Italian Teachers’ Board of the Institute, the main characteristic of the school is the fact that two classes per year, both in the primary and secondary section, are bilingual. Italian is taught alongside German from the first to the seventh grade and in the eighth-grade students can choose Italian as their first or second foreign language. Pupils can also choose to take Italian and History in Italian in their final exams, thus giving them opportunity to take two of the four written exams in Italian. This educational pathway aims to restore intrinsic and objective value to the pupils’ language background.
The history of the school itself bears witness to the efforts made to re-qualify and improve the teaching of Italian, with a view to a policy of integration. In the course of more than twenty years, the school has naturally undergone significant changes and has sought to adapt to the transformations of the social fabric of Wolfsburg. At the same time it has maintained its central role as a point of reference for the Italian community and for the many mixed families living in the city, as well as for many German families who for generations have considered Italianness a distinctive and integral part of the city’s culture. Today, it is still very evident that Italianness and the Italian language are a fundamental part of the school and create a particular bedrock for the construction of a shared supranational identity.