Interview with the lecturer Umberto La Torraca.
Edited by Margherita Marziali, Ilaria Taddeo and Annarita Guidi
Our ‘Lettori per l’italiano’ column continues with the Italian lecturer at the University of Manouba in Tunis.
Umberto La Torraca, a tenured high school teacher, has been an Italian language assistant since 2015 at the Faculty of Humanities and the Faculty of Education and Training Sciences and Technologies of UCAD, with extra-academic assignments at the Embassy of Italy and the Italian Cultural Institute.
Recent data show that the study of Italian in Senegal, especially at school age, seems to be constantly growing. Could you explain this phenomenon in light of the teaching context and the profile of the target audience?
In Senegal, the education system is modelled on the French system. Italian is an optional subject in the last two years of the collèges and in the licei, which last three years. The number of Senegalese students choosing to study the Italian language has been growing steadily for years. The reasons for the phenomenon are many. The first thing to consider is the strong presence of Senegalese immigrants in Italy. Therefore, the choice of our language might come from the influence of a relative already living in our country and the desire to emigrate to Italy in turn. It should also not be forgotten that Senegal is a very young country (the average age is 18) with rising school attendance rates. As the total number of students increases, so does the attendance for individual subjects. Finally, there is no denying the fascination exerted in Senegal by certain aspects of Italian culture, not necessarily the ‘high’ culture, which has less of an appeal here, but above all sport, with football in the foreground, cuisine, and even famous car brands.
And what happens at a university level? Do the numbers of students enrolled and attending the Italian course remain constant?
Italian is currently only taught at Senegal’s main university, the Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar. In the recent past, there was also an Italian language course in the south of the country, at the University of Ziguinchor, which has since been abolished. The University of Dakar currently has only one Italian teacher, assisted for the remaining number of hours by two other retired teachers. This year the university launched a selection procedure for two new lecturers.
The number of students is around 400 or slightly less and has been stable for some years. In this case, the main problem is job opportunities: the labour market could hardly absorb more Italian graduates. Currently some graduates find employment with the few Italian companies operating in Senegal, others devote themselves to tourist activities, but most become Italian language teachers in public and public schools. Finally, some university students intend to use their knowledge of the language to emigrate to Italy to find better living conditions. In contrast to the utilitarian motivation to study Italian, students at university undertake a predominantly academic course of study, where they follow subjects such as Medieval Italian Literature, Modern Literature and History of the Italian Language. And so the members of a culture living immersed in the present interface with authors, concepts and categories representing the past par excellence.
So what are the strategies you put in place to make authors like Dante, let’s not say attractive, but at least more accessible?
It is not easy to help Senegalese students understand the work of writers such as Dante, Petrarca and Boccaccio, who represent a fundamental stage in the formation of Italian culture and language. Just to give an example, it is difficult enough to introduce the very concept of the Middle Ages, which literally refers to an age between ‘before’ (the classical era) and ‘after’ (the modern era), but Senegalese students have no notion of this ‘before’. The political problems of the Middle Ages, the clash between Guelphs and Ghibellines, seem completely abstruse here. It is also difficult for people to understand what a monastic order is, also because Senegal is a country with a large Muslim majority. Sometimes I try to illustrate certain concepts by referring to local customs. For example to explain what the lauda is I compare it to the khassaides, the religious songs of the Mourid brotherhood. To give an idea of what the Franciscans are, I cite the Baye Fall movement, which shares certain principles with the Italian movement, such as the rejection of material goods and individualism. Of course, any comparison with local traditions is fruitful and interesting as long as it does not become trivial and manages to take into account differences as well as points of contact, which certainly exist.
Dante’s Italian (at the heart of the celebrations for the 700th anniversary of his death and the 21st week of the Italian language in the world) and the Middle Ages are already a difficult subject for an Italian high school student, let alone for a Senegalese student. Recently, however, the first canto of Dante’s Inferno was translated into the Wolof language by PapKhouma, which was organized by the IIC of Dakar. Did you take it to class to read it with your students?
Yes, it was a very interesting initiative carried out by the previous Director of the Italian Cultural Institute in Dakar, Cristina Di Giorgio. Wolof is the most widespread and majority language in Senegal, where, however, there are about twenty national languages. Other widely spoken languages are, for example, Pular or Sérère. The complex linguistic framework is also complicated, as in almost all African states, by the presence of the former colonial language, here French, which was later adopted as the official language. Senegalese people generally learn French when they start going to school, as the courses are held in that language. From a certain point of view, the linguistic situation of Senegal resembles that of Italy in the past, when the family spoke one of the many dialects of our peninsula and then at school Latin was learned first and then, more recently, Italian. Translating the first canto in Wolof was not an easy task, not least for lexical reasons. For example, in Wolof there is no word for “mountain“. I tried to use translation during the Medieval Literature course, but it was not easy, because a large part of the class was of Pular ethnicity and only had a rough and instrumental knowledge of Wolof. In class it is much more useful to rely on a French translation of the work.
The pandemic has been a real testing ground for the world of education, compounding problems that already existed. What were the consequences of the health emergency and what kind of challenges did you face at your university?
The pandemic made life very difficult for the university, which was closed for several months during 2020 and is still suffering from delays and difficulties this year. Contrary to what happened in Italy, it was only possible to compensate for the obstruction of face-to-face courses with online activities to a limited extent. In fact, in Senegal, universities and students do not always have the IT tools at their disposal that made it possible to hold distance learning courses in Italy.
Italian courses started in October. Could you provide us with a image of what your first day of class was like and recall the predictions at the time as to how the new academic year would unfold, including the progress of the pandemic and new projects in the pipeline?
In actual fact, in October 2021 we did not start the new academic year, but the second semester of the previous year. I have already mentioned the significant delays caused by the pandemic, which added to the difficulties that were already there in times of normal academic activity. On the first day, I was really happy to meet the students of the licence course, hoping that, little by little, I would be able to make up for some of the time lost due to Covid.