Interview with Italian Language Assistant Marco Paoli Legler.
Edited by Margherita Marziali, Ilaria Taddeo and Annarita Guidi
Since 2016, Marco Paoli Legler has been teaching Italian at the Department of Translation and Philology at the State University of World Languages in Tashkent, where he is in charge of the Italian Language Certification Centre’s exams in collaboration with the University for Foreigners of Perugia. He specialises in intercultural, playfully-cooperative and network teaching.
Uzbekistan is a young country – considering both when the country was founded and its population’s average age – and is constantly growing economically. What role does Italian play in the country’s development process?
Significant contributions from the made with Italy range go, for example, from the renovation of a Soviet-era steel plant by the company Danieli, to the production of new-generation domestic gas meters by the company Fiorentini which, together with Terranova, also provides comprehensive support for the digitisation of the network.
After having built an upper secondary school, the Politecnico di Torino is currently trying to expand on a primary school level, where two Italian courses for Russian-speaking children taught by a former student of mine have already started, thus contributing to the dissemination of Italian in that school system as well. Furthermore, since last year there have been no less than 15 Italian courses for primary and secondary school pupils at the International School Al Beruniy, where another former student of the State University of World Languages teaches. I mentor both of the young teachers in my role as tutor, supporting them through providing teaching materials and advice on conducting lessons.
In addition to the Tashkent State University of World Languages (which is the largest in Uzbekistan with a catchment area that extends throughout the entire country, the only one that trains teachers and is a CELI Centre for the whole of Central Asia), Italian is also taught in the city at the University of World Economy and Diplomacy as an optional language, and at the Politecnico di Torino campus in the capital. In the country, it is also taught at the Higher Institute of Foreign Languages in Samarkand and at the Institute of Entrepreneurship and Pedagogy in Denov.
How do Uzbekistan’s multilingualism and the multicultural nature of the capital Tashkent influence the learning of the Italian language?
Officially, the national language is Uzbek, although, for historical reasons related to the country’s Soviet past, Russian is widely spoken in the cities, and is widely used in the workplace and for completing paperwork. Above all else, multilingualism characterises the cities where minorities of different ethnic groups coexist peacefully, from the Tajik minority, concentrated mainly in Samarkand and Bukara, to the Karakalpa minority in Karakalpakstan, and the Tatar, Korean, Chinese, Kyrgyz, Basque and Kazakh minorities found mainly in the capital, Tashkent. In recent years, the study of English has been made compulsory throughout all school levels, therefore meaning English is getting mastered especially by younger generations.
Multilingualism characterises almost the entire population within which, paradoxically, university students sometimes communicate in English in cases where, for example in mixed groups, communicating in Uzbek or Russian is not an option. Especially in such situations, ‘translanguaging’ is constantly practised and not only to make the teacher’s instructions and the contents of the lesson clearer. It proves to be an effective resource for inclusive teaching that involves classroom interaction between students on a collaborative basis, whilst appreciating each student’s linguistic and cultural heritage. Of course, knowledge of English or Russian facilitates the understanding of grammatical, lexical, morphological and syntactic aspects of Italian that are very different from Uzbek, an agglutinative language of Turkish descent, although on the other hand, in terms of pronunciation Uzbeks are favoured, as it is more similar to Italian.
Although still very much tied to traditional teaching methods, it was possible to more or less gradually overcome the initial resistance that many students felt towards the use of a holistic and multisensory approach, based on inductive and experiential learning techniques through the learning by doing methodology.
Even through literature, it is easy to make cultural juxtapositions without any intention of asserting the superiority of one culture over the other, but on the contrary, starting with their similarities. An example of this process can be found within Leopardi’s well-known poem ‘Il sabato del Villaggio’, which was proposed to the students as a model for writing a poem about their own cities. In fact, the metropolis of Tashkent is structured in several neighbourhoods called mahallas, characterised by one-storey houses with an inner courtyard, where life is still very much linked to peasant traditions despite the strong urban modernisation taking place.
There’s a certain familiarity between Italy and Uzbekistan, suggested by an interest in Italian culture which many post-Soviet states share. In this context, what initiatives are you putting in place to promote Italy’s image?
To commemorate ‘Pirandello e il cinema’ and ‘Leopardi e la rete’ on the occasion of the last Italian Language Weeks, we used the Alisher Navoi Uzbek National Library in Tashkent, while the performance about Leonardo and the creative education workshops dedicated to the artist took place at the NBU Art Gallery. I have also organised several cultural events related to gastronomy in Italian restaurants: for example, for the Week of Italian Cuisine we screened the film ‘Gli arancini di Montalbano’ at the L’Opera restaurant, to commemorate the anniversary of the death of the writer Andrea Camilleri, as well as the feast of Saint Lucia, accompanied by a tasting of arancini prepared by the Italian chef and livened up by a singing performance by a well-known mezzo-soprano from the Alisher Navoi Theatre.
An initial contact of the students of the Department of Translation with the work of Dante Alighieri, the Supreme Poet, was fostered not only by the knowledge of Dante and the Divine Comedy, which has been widespread in Uzbekistan since Soviet times, but also by the use of audio books of the Divine Comedy recited in Italian and other languages, provided by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation (MAECI). These versions of the text in different languages provided excellent insights into metalinguistic reflections and served not only to understand the poem, but also to paraphrase its verses. Incidentally, there is also an Uzbek version of Inferno written by the poet Abdulla Oripov, who has been working on the English and Russian versions of the work for thirty years.
Thanks to the Italy-Uzbekistan Friendship Association, of which I am a member, I was also able to collaborate with the Alisher Navoi Theater, the largest of its kind in Central Asia. Every year, the theatre hosts the most famous Italian operas, a precious vehicle for Italian language and culture. To this end, I offer Italian courses as a volunteer to young interns. This contact also allowed me to start the educational project ‘Impariamo l’Italiano all’Opera’ (Learning Italian at the Opera), which gives my students free access to opera performances at the theatre, acting as a starting point for interesting teaching activities related to Italian opera, which is also the subject of lessons.
What initiatives, however, are aimed at promoting lesser known or familiar aspects, even outside of the stereotypes that are often attached to knowledge of Italian culture abroad?
The recent exhibition of photographs taken from the archives of the Alinari brothers ‘ItaliAE’, divided into four large sections, provided abundant material to appreciate Italy as a well-rounded country and not just a postcard. The individuals depicted in different urban, social and naturalistic contexts prompted an immediate empathy on the part of the students, who turned from interlocutors into actors and protagonists of imagined lives, which they portrayed in storytelling activities, often in contrast with their own Uzbek experience. The photographs also provided an opportunity to talk about topical issues such as the protection of Venice from the passage of large ships, respect for mountainous environments, and understanding diversity. Even more impressive for the students was the exhibition ‘La Via della Seta’ (The Silk Road), which provided interesting examples of Italian works in the field of contemporary art, thus completing the artistic image of Italy, especially with regards to the latest sculptures, which for many is still stuck in the classical age as a discipline. Generally not very accustomed to interacting with artistic expressions, given their scarcity in the area and their absence as a real subject of study at school, their desire to learn the different disciplines is strong.
How has the pandemic accelerated the digitisation process of Italian teaching and fostered the use of tools such as social media for linguistic and cultural promotion?
Thanks to Zoom and the digital edition of the recently-launched Edilingua books (‘Via del Corso’), I was able to prepare live online lessons according to the weekly teaching schedule. It was initially difficult for the students to find their way around the new way of teaching, but then, thanks in part to the government’s decision to upgrade internet connections in most parts of the country, it was possible for many of them to be present online without any problems.
In the midst of the pandemic was the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death, which was the leitmotiv of all cultural events both offline, as on the occasion of the Day of European Languages, where students recited Dante’s verses with musical accompaniment, and online.
A series of lectures on Dante and the Divine Comedy based on the textbook ‘La Divina Commedia per studenti stranieri’ (The Divine Comedy for foreign students) by Domenico Palumbo was the preliminary work to the webinars organised during the Dante year, which first saw prof. Riccardo Moratti, a skilled populariser of the works of Italian classics in various Italian theatres, present Dante’s journey to the afterlife in a theatrical way, involving both his Lombard and Uzbek students present online in stimulating intercultural reflections.
For ‘Dantedì’, the sociolinguist Vera Gheno used her recent publication ‘Words against Fear’ to discuss the semantic and sociological meaning of this term with the students Starting with an analysis of Dante’s fear, she modernised its meaning, arriving at the fear of Covid-19. This comparison highlighted the different approach of the Orientals towards fear, which is accepted with an ‘inshallah’ , if God wills. Lastly, on ‘World Book Day’, Prof. Domenico Palumbo spoke with them about the Divine Comedy, delving, among other things, into some extra-textual references made in his book relating to typical Italian traditions, such as that of the lottery numbers, related to Dante’s deep sleep, an example of a form of fortune telling that is widely followed here in Uzbekistan, albeit in different forms.