Our column ‘Lettori per l’italiano’ continues with the language assistant position at Sultan Qaboos University in Muscat, Caterina Mirasolo.
Edited by Ilaria Taddeo, Margherita Marziali and Annarita Guidi
Caterina Mirasolo has taught in Italian primary and secondary schools. She graduated in Languages and has a degree in Classics. In 2021, she took up a position as an Italian language assistant in Oman. Her interests involve the dissemination of the best practices for linguistic, intercultural, human and experiential development within the teaching/learning process.
In 2021, the Italian language assistant position was established at Oman’s most prestigious university, Sultan Qaboos University in Mascate. Its presence is an indispensable and crucial tool for the dissemination of the Italian language and Italian culture. Can you provide a rough description of the context for teaching Italian and sketch out a profile of the types of people who take part in your courses?
Oman is a very young country, with large families and a slow pace of life. The Omani are a hospitable and warm people. They love tradition, but they are also focussed on the future. The Sultanate of Oman is a land of many charm. There are golden dunes slipping into the Indian Ocean, souks with intoxicating fragrances and colours, historic World Heritage sites… It is a hospitable country that celebrated its 51st anniversary on 18 November 2021. Since January 2020 it has been under the leadership of Sultan Haitham bin Tarik al Said, who succeeded the previous Sultan Qaboos bin Said bin Taimur, the father and founder of modern Oman.
Sultan Qaboos University (SQU), established in 1986, is named after Sultan Qaboos and is a centre of Omani excellence. The huge library is stocked with texts on Arab and Omani culture. The campus is populated by young students who also want to study and learn about new cultures. Currently, Italian is only taught in universities or in some private courses, but not in schools. On 8 February 2021, Sultan Qaboos University launched its first Italian language assistant position. The creation of the role, which marks the end of a path that began in 2014 with the creation of the first Italian language course at the university, was the result of a collaboration between SQU and the Embassy pf Italy in Mascate and is being supported by MIUR and the Farnesina. The three Level 1 Italian courses for Beginners with expected results at CEFR level A2, have been set up at the College of Arts and Social Sciences, Department of Tourism, with the aim of strengthening academic and cultural collaboration between Italy and Oman, creating new opportunities in areas such as culture, tourism, hospitality and commerce.
The language assistant position constitutes a quantum leap in the range of courses hitherto available to students, who will benefit from structured and continuous teaching, from which opportunities for study and research in Italy will emerge. The language courses have been combined with activities that bring Omani students closer to the most diverse aspects of Italian culture: virtual meetings with Italian academics to learn about the educational programmes at Italian universities, the offer of scholarships from the Italian government, and cultural laboratories and workshops on topics of specific interest to the students.
As of January 2022, alongside the two first-level Italian courses, a second-level Italian course has been set up with the possibility for students to obtain certification in Italian (CEFR level B1) from Italian certifying bodies, and to participate in the next call for applications for scholarships to continue their university studies in Italy.
Students benefit from additional hours of consultation and tutoring at the dedicated office in the Department of Tourism. In the previous two semesters, courses were conducted online due to the pandemic situation. Since January 2022, courses have been taught in-person, except for a few weeks because of the pandemic conditions in Oman, and students have shown signs of keen appreciation and interest in the Italian language and culture.
In 2021, the Italian government offered scholarships to Omani students to continue their studies in Italy for the first time. We hope that, in the coming academic year, these scholarships will increase in number and type, so as to broaden cultural and academic exchange and boost the Omani people’s enthusiasm for acquiring greater and greater levels of Italian.
Another strength is the high proportion of women among students and in academia. Women in Oman have enjoyed extensive freedoms for a very long time: voting, working, driving cars and studying freely. ‘Oman is a bird with two wings, one is the man and the other the woman’ as Sultan Qaboos said. Out of the students enrolled on Italian courses, at least 60% are female.
The language assistant position is part of an expanding cultural landscape worldwide, one characterised by a strong receptivity to Italian culture: what expectations and motivations have you found in students interested in studying the Italian language?
The Sultanate of Oman’s strong receptiveness to Italian culture was reflected on several occasions during 2021. During the Week of Italian Cuisine in the World, 1 December 2021 saw the opening of the Incēnsum Exhibition at the National Museum in Muscat, in collaboration with the Embassy of Italy in Oman and the Turin-based PerFumum Foundation. The exhibition was inspired by the profound importance of incense, juxtaposing prestigious collections from Italy with magnificent Omani artefacts covers thousands of years of tradition in the Frankincense Hall, highlighting the continuity over the centuries of relations between Italy and Oman through trade in the precious resin and aromatic spices for Western cuisine, via the ancient caravan routes.
Cooperation in the cultural field is one of the pillars of relations between Italy and the Sultanate. This collaboration ranges from archaeology, with several Italian universities having been involved in excavation and conservation missions for forty years, to opera, a field in which the Royal Opera House of Muscat, led by the Italian Umberto Fanni, has become a point of reference in the region, partly thanks to collaboration with several important Italian organisations such as the Arena of Verona, the Teatro La Fenice of Venice, the Teatro Massimo of Palermo, the Teatro Carlo Felice of Genoa, and the Rossini Opera Festival of Pesaro. On 20 January 2022, the Royal Opera House opened its tenth season with the world première of Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto, in the long-standing production devised by the great maestro Franco Zeffirelli. Presenting the event in Rome, the artistic director stressed that this occasion is one of the most important and eagerly awaited moments in the history of the Royal Opera House, due to its vital relationship with Italian opera which began in 2011, when it opened with Puccini’s Turandot, which was also under his direction. For the Italian Ambassador, Federica Favi, the staging of Verdi’s masterpiece is yet another example of the magic of Italy, proof that Italy’s wealth of culture is the driving force behind the bilateral relations with Oman. Establishing links with Italy is profitable in the fields of transport and infrastructure, renewable energy, tourism and hospitality, enhancement of Omani cultural heritage and natural beauty, accommodation, hospitality, and hotel services.
Recent years have seen development in the tourism sector in the Sultanate of Oman. According to data released by the Ministry of Tourism, the country has recorded an increase in international arrivals. In this context, Italy is the second largest European market by number of arrivals, after Germany. The market for Italian tourists in Oman continues to grow, thanks to the adoption of a strategy aimed at promoting the Sultanate from a historical, naturalistic and cultural point of view, but also due to the interest of travellers who practice sports and, in Oman, find a packed schedule of international events ranging from sailing to running, from cycling to kite-surfing. A strong impetus to the growth of our market was given by the increase in Oman Air’s direct connections, with the Muscat-Milan Malpensa flights.
Studying and acquiring the Italian language is therefore something that is crucial for young Omani people and for certain professions, due to the Sultanate’s need to develop skills in the tourism sector. It also plays a part in making young people more aware of its natural beauty and raising their awareness of the importance of preserving their land. Oman is a country that is open to other cultures. Muscat is known for being understated. It doesn’t have the ultra-modern architecture typical of other cities in the region. The link with Italy comes from the Omani interest and passion for Italian food, sport, football and fashion. There is a great deal of curiosity for anything to do with Italian culture and manufacturing.
You offer courses of instruction in Italian at A2/B1 level. Which teaching approaches and methods do you prefer and which do you consider to be most effective in achieving the learning objectives? Presumably you have to take into account different cultural sensibilities and values, and therefore adopt specific strategies to adapt to the needs of the users, avoiding culture clashes…
English is the language of reference for Omani students who are beginning to study Italian. One of the biggest difficulties for first level students using English for their first encounter with the Italian language is the problem of pronouncing vowels, which are read differently in English, just as verb tenses and modes in Italian are different from those in English. Omani students therefore have to go through two different stages (from Arabic to English, from English to Italian), which in some ways helps but in others gets in the way of a more direct and authentic way of learning Italian, without any linguistic or cultural interference other than that of the passage from one’s mother tongue to the “other“ language. However, the use of appropriate and effective teaching methods, authentic material, practical activities, along with the use of technology, web resources, points of contact between Italy and Oman, and the personal and professional interests of the learners, has so far provided interesting stimuli and excellent results, and continues to offer new ideas for work and research into cultural exchange. This includes attempting to explore the similarities and differences between Italy’s language and culture and that of Oman.
There is a preference for a communicative approach and practical, hands-on methods, including “learning by doing” and the “flipped classroom”. Omani students are respectful and attentive. Many of them achieve excellent results. They are consistently surprising and provide me with real motivation to keep on improving my teaching practice. Teaching Italian to Omani students is a continuous process of discovery, a fascinating challenge for a teacher who is so struck by this ancient yet modern world.
Compared to a traditional lesson conducted from the front of the classroom, students are encouraged to intervene and interact, and to take part in both frontal and so-called “inverted“ teaching. A lot of work is done on the basic vocabulary and on researching their interests (which is always done with great care and sensitivity to cultural differences) in order to get to know them better. Girls have some difficulty turning on their video during online classes and I noticed that in the Whatsapp groups, unlike in Italy, there is not this habit of setting a picture of oneself as the profile picture. Discretion and respect for privacy are highly regarded values in Oman. The attitude of the students is always friendly and respectful. Omani students take pride in their homeland. My commitment to them is always there in order to motivate them to do their best.
In the absence of an Italian Cultural Institute, the language assistant’s role in cultural promotion is essential. Apart from your academic assignments, what activities are you carrying out to promote the dissemination of Italian language and culture in the Sultanate?
The lack of an Italian Cultural Institute in Muscat is made up for by the countless exciting activities organized by the Cultural Office of the Italian Embassy in Oman, with whom I am an active and committed collaborator. My roles and duties both as a Language Assistant and as a Cultural Operator allow me to have a 360 degree view of MAECI’s cultural efforts in this fascinating country.
It should be noted that the language assistant role is proving increasingly central to the dissemination of the Italian language and culture at an international level. Each situation is different and unique, both from a linguistic perspective and in terms of cultural values. It goes without saying that every language assistant has to deal with totally different worlds, fascinating cultures and “other“ landscapes which are quite incredible. These are dense with meanings that have to be explored and internalized, in order to be able to make the transition from ‘Italianness’ and tangible and intangible ‘Made in Italy’ products. It is a constant emotional, cultural and professional challenge, one which requires passion, commitment, sacrifice and a great deal of enthusiasm. Open-mindedness, a high degree of receptivity and a willingness to embrace the widest possible cultural relativism are all required in order to become both a “conduit“ and a “hub“ of meaningful and inclusive intercultural encounters.
The language assistant is a facilitator, a bi-directional mediator of semantic meanings and values. Its role in educational and professional contexts for the promotion of the Italian language and culture therefore cannot be ignored, so as to ensure to widespread diffusion of Italian at an international level.
In light of this perspective, on 28 April 2021, as part of the initiatives to develop the institution of the Italian language assistant, ‘ItalianDay@SQU’ was launched, an online meeting aimed at presenting the world of Italian academia, allowing Omani students to familiarise themselves with the educational programmes at Italian universities, and not just in terms of learning the language. In the presence of the Head of the Department of Tourism of the SQU, 6 Italian universities (University for Foreigners of Perugia, University for Foreigners of Siena, University for Foreigners of Reggio Calabria, University of Palermo, University of Milan, Bocconi University of Milan) presented their Italian semester courses, summer courses and scholarship opportunities to Omani students. The students took part actively with original presentations on Italian culture and on some of the most beautiful Italian cities. The fact that there were students of Arab origin currently enrolled in courses at various Italian universities, also made it possible to illustrate life in Italy and the positive experiences of these young people from cultural backgrounds similar to the Omani context. On this occasion, the University for Foreigners of Perugia offered two scholarships for two deserving Omani students to attend a language course in Italy. This gave rise to a project to promote similar virtual meetings on a regular basis and the participation of Italian universities in university fairs in the Sultanate, to promote greater attraction of Omani students to Italy and foster stronger academic relations.
The Ambassador of Italy in Oman, H.E. Federica Favi, pointed out how significant it is that the Language Assistant position at the SQU will begin in 2021, on the occasion of the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death, to which the Embassy has dedicated cultural initiatives during the Week of the Italian Language in the World. What cultural mediation strategies have you adopted to popularize the supreme poet in the Sultanate?
Various initiatives have been implemented: from the opening of the Library, which is full of interesting books, at the Embassy of Italy in Muscat, to a workshop for children from the Italian Community on the theme ‘Dante’s Monsters’ in the Divine Comedy. Significant passages from Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso were recited on video by leading Italian authors at the Residence of the Italian Ambassador to Oman. A mixed audience of Italians and Omanis, including some SQU students attending Italian courses, were able to attend the event. An online workshop on ‘Dante Green. La natura nell’Opera di Dante’ (Dante Green: Nature in the Work of Dante), with the active participation of Omani students enrolled in Italian courses. In connection with the Italian co-chairmanship of COP26 on the climate, a path was designed to uncover the relationship between Dante and nature across the three Canticles of the Divine Comedy. The workshop explored Dante’s landscapes, highlighting light and shade, from the dark forest to the bright stars. Students connected Dante’s locations with Omani sites of natural beauty, true icons of an earthly paradise.
He has been in Muscat for just over a year, but it seems that his arrival has already laid the foundations for a revolution in Italian teaching and an improvement and expansion of the programming and cultural schedule. What are the future actions to be taken in the academic and cultural field in keeping with the prospect of the inevitable growth and transformation of a young and receptive country like Oman?
The increase in Omani students learning the Italian language and the dissemination of Italian culture and “Made in Italy” products, are both achieved by increasing the number and level of courses of Italian as an optional subject for students of all faculties of the SQU, and by the inclusion of Italian language and culture as a subject of address in the various departments of the College of Arts and Social Sciences (in particular in the Departments of Tourism, English Language and Literature (specializing in Interpreters and Translators), Archaeology, Mass Communication, Geography, Theatre, Philosophy, Music and Musicology), with the aim of disseminating the rich historical and cultural tradition of the Italian language in these fields. The professional opportunities that come from mastering the Italian language in the tourism sector will support the establishment of a curriculum in which the Italian language is the main subject, alongside German and French. It is necessary not only to strengthen the teaching of the Italian language at Dhofar University, which started courses last semester, but also to involve the entire Omani public and private academic world. The Embassy is working towards opening the Dante Alighieri School, which will implement Italian courses in-person in the capital, an initiative which has also been greatly supported by the Italo-Omani cultural association TOIFA.
It is also necessary to consolidate and preserve the professional profile of Italian language assistants around the world, since they are the driving force behind the dissemination of our image, culture, language, history and tradition, when it comes to the objective of promoting Italian values and cultural leadership internationally. Lastly, it will be necessary to build a well-organized and functional network between all the Italian Language Assistants worldwide, with a specific three-year plan, structured year-by-year, which, despite the diversity of cultural contexts, should have a unified strategy, aimed at the widespread distribution of best practices, the enhancement of excellence, and the safeguarding of local diversity.