Interview with language assistant Vincenza Armiento
Edited by Annarita Guidi, Margherita Marziali and Ilaria Taddeo
For the series of interviews as part of the Lettori per l’italiano column, we are interviewing Vincenza Armiento. An expert in teaching Italian language and culture, she is currently a MAECI Lecturer in Chongqing and has been an Erasmus Ambassador for the training of Italian teachers and the dissemination of foreign languages.
We know that in China, for reasons related to both trade relations and cultural heritage, there is a growing demand for Italian language courses. This is also the case at university level, although Italian (for reasons related to the organization of the Chinese school system and the transition from secondary school to university) is not a curriculum subject in high schools. Given the linguistic distance, how do you approach the early stages of the teaching process with your students?
Why would a Chinese student who has never studied Italian decide to enrol in an Italian language course? Following a survey I carried out, it emerged that the choice made by Chinese students was due to their interest in the art, cultural heritage, music, literature, history, fashion and sport in Italy. There was no mention of economics or of continuing with economic or legal studies. The latter data point also confirms what emerged from a discussion with the Visa Office Manager of the Consulate General of Italy in Chongqing, who assesses the requests of Chinese students who seek to travel to Italy in order to study there. Three students also stated that their choice had been determined by their low marks in the ‘Gaokao’ exam [the Gaokao is the exam that students have to take at the end of high school in order to be admitted to the university; a national ranking is drawn up, and universities vary in terms of admission barriers based on the minimum Gaokao marks required; Italian as a foreign language is not currently a Gaokao subject and therefore does not require specific marks ed]. This suggests that there is a greater demand from Chinese students for the study of languages which are considered “major”, attendance of which requires a higher Gaokao exam score due to the higher demand.
Teaching Italian to a Chinese student who knows little or nothing about Italian, with a very different cultural background, requires extensive language teaching skills and knowledge of effective methodologies and strategies that cannot be improvised. Chinese students in the first year of the degree course in Italian Studies at SISU (Sichuan International Studies University) of Chongqing, since they are attending a university course and not simply a language course, find themselves having to achieve results that allow them to deal with the study of subjects involving complex language in Italian such as: history, literature, civilization and society, etc. From this, what emerges is the need to motivate students and to strengthen their ability to withstand the difficulties that Italian presents with the help of the teacher.
In the first year the basic vocabulary is also introduced by using objects, photographs, pictures, drawings, CD-ROMs and videos, task-based situations, contextualized role-playing and by using the new vocabulary in simple and gradually more complex structures. As far as phonetics is concerned, since the Italian phonetic system is simpler than the Chinese one, students do not face any particular problems. In fact, Chinese is a tonal language and variations in tone confer different meanings to apparently identical vowel or consonant groups, which is not the case in Italian. However, although Chinese students do not make any particular phonetic errors, the pronunciation of our “r” will present them with numerous difficulties, as well as the digraph “gl”. Other difficulties include the use of articles, which are not present in Chinese, or the difference between masculine and feminine nouns and adjectives, the plural and the conjugation of verbs.
How do you make sure that the interest young Chinese students have in Italian art and culture has a positive impact on their language learning process?
The student is always at the centre of the whole learning process and, even if Chinese students are used to a teaching style that I define as docentric, i.e. based around the teacher, I try, with results that are not always excellent but which are for the most part satisfactory, to make them the main focus of their learning process. I base my work on Carl Rogers’ humanistic-affective approach, using strategies that take into account specific moments relating to different issues: motivation (reviews, clarifying objectives, preparatory activities), pleasure (a playful approach), accessibility, functionality and accommodation.
Since this approach is centred on the individual, my teaching strategy therefore takes into account the learning methods of each student and the timing and features of my teaching, not ruling out instances of mnemonic learning, to which Chinese students are accustomed. The website I have built, where I periodically go to report on the content covered in class, caters to their need to constantly review what they have learned, which is what they are used to.
The motivation for learning is a very important factor in education, as is communication, which is practised in a real-world context and starting from communicative needs related to precise situations that might arise and in which students are asked to interact with each other, as might happen in a real life situation. The students therefore learn to introduce themselves, to talk about themselves, to ask for more and more complex information, to exchange information and to make assumptions. Communication is the basis of my teaching method and the creation of storyboards allows students not only to use the communicative concepts and the vocabulary learned, but also to create stories and search for information for the construction of the story to be presented.
In my two years spent with Chinese students, I have also learned that theatrical activities are very successful and every year I write scripts for them and direct all the stages of the performances, some of which are rewrites of famous Italian plays. On the occasion of Week of the Italian Language in the World 2021, we performed a modern version of Dante’s Inferno in Italian, which was a great success and will soon be performed in Chinese as well.
In addition to spoken language I also teach writing, modern and contemporary poetry, literature, mythology, rhetoric and I have also taught a course in philosophy and history. I had the students participate in some literary competitions to make them feel part of our huge Italian literary community and the participation of SISU students in ‘#200infinito’, on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of Leopardi’s ‘L’infinito’, an initiative launched by the Casa Recanati and the MIUR (now MI and MUR) was a great success, as reported in many Italian newspapers.
Compared to the six-month lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic (January-July 2020), how would you assess the use of ICT for educational purposes?
During the lockdown period, since I was stuck in Italy, I had to do my lessons online, using the DAD. For this I made use of the IT skills I had developed as an Etwinning Ambassador in the Erasmus campaign, in the various Etwinning and Erasmus projects carried out with many European schools and in the training courses I had given to teachers of Italian schools. The greatest difficulty was in finding a working platform in China because, as we know, the Great Firewall blocks many sites on the internet, especially those linked to Google, WordPress and even portals used for teaching. After much research and constantly swapping notes with students via WeChat (a Chinese communication platform similar to WhatsApp but with more functions), I decided to use Weschool’s platform, which works perfectly in China without a VPN.
With the switch to the new technology, I have noticed that certain differences have arisen in terms of relationships, compared with the form of communication that is normally established between teacher and student in face-to-face lessons. Using chat technology, students feel more inclined to get involved and ask for a lot often clarifications, always with a respectful and polite attitude. On the other hand I have noticed a drop in the students’ performance in conversation lessons, but I am not particularly surprised by this. In fact, it is well known that speaking is an imitative act, and when a communicative function is taught, it is not only taught through phrases and words, but it is the mimetic message that becomes the privileged means of accessing the understanding and use of the word.
Among the many challenges in the Chinese context are the cultural differences that are reflected in teaching. For example, self-evaluation – as is practised in Europe – is not found in the Chinese system. How did you approach this issue?
I create portfolio pages, through which students can evaluate their own learning process, what they have learned and their linguistic strengths and weaknesses. The data emerging from the analysis of the answers given to the various forms show, more often than not, a general attitude of distrust towards their own abilities and potential. For this reason, it is important to work on building a shared learning pathway that encourages them to cultivate self-esteem and strengthen metacognition, becoming aware of their own progress.
On the other hand, what are the elements of Chinese culture which you have been able to draw from significantly in your work?
Chinese schools are very competitive and students are used to showing off their skills, being assessed and being recognized as excellent. One anecdote that made me think a lot was when I had to assign a particular role in a theatre performance. Two students were competing for the same character and one of them asked me to compare their skills so I that could choose who to put forward. If I had accepted the suggestion, one of them would have been excluded. Instead, I made it clear that I was interested in the group improving their linguistic competence and the more students taking part, the more the group would benefit. So I created another character, similar to the first one, so that both students could take part in the performance. Usually, in every activity, I prefer group participation over individual excellence and I set up tutors to support the weakest, as the humanistic-affective approach dictates.
This way of working has also strengthened the spirit of solidarity between them, and we Western teachers know that we work best when the whole group participates and no one is made to feel inadequate. Allowing everyone to participate guarantees that nobody is excluded, avoiding any failures. My task as a MAECI reader is aimed at spreading the language and culture, and therefore at the success of many who like small seeds that grow up to become plants, appreciate, value and use, our culture, which is so greatly admired the world over.