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Italian Learners of English

By Anthony Fornaro

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English as a Foreign Language has been acquiring quite the importance in the Linguistics world throughout the past 20 years. I know that you might be wondering why I have decided to talk about Italian learners in the specific if this is a worldwide discussion. The primary reason is, partially, to ignite an introspection on and from the Italian education system (and method!). The second reason, and this is more of a hope than a reason, is to give some credit to all the “inaccuracies” of Italian speakers of English as a Foreign Language, so that these could be seen as widespread common features, rather than standard errors or mistakes, so to stimulate confidence in the Italian learners.

Italian schools are based on a classical method and this is to blame on the Latin origin and the Greek influence on the education system, as well as on the culture in general. This means that in Italian classrooms there is a lot of grammar going on, and a lot of literature, but very little work on production, pronunciation, and receptive skills like listening and intensive reading. These last three are fundamental parts of the students’ learning journey as they prepare them to apply what they’ve learnt in class and to be able to recognise the ‘language in context’ when outside the classroom. It does not come as a surprise that Italy ranks near the bottom amongst other European countries for English proficiency. Clearly, something needs to change!

For how true it is that Italians are well known for their unconventional way of communicating via hand gestures, it is also true that they have a beautiful language that they can speak very (or almost) well. However, when this language, with all its beauty, meets a foreign language, namely English, atrocious things can happen!

The Italian language is a transparent language, which means that everything is pronounced as spelled and that, in all cases, the sounds from the alphabet match the sounds pronounced in speaking. On the other hand, the English language is a so-called opaque language which means exactly the opposite. So, one can imagine that some of the first and major issues an Italian English as a Foreign Language learner would face are related to pronunciation as well as spelling. In second language learning, interferences from the first language are very common. It is in fact well known that mistakes and errors can be linked to influences from one’s first language. For this reason, mistakes on things like stress, intonation and vowels differences, might be caused by influences from Italian rather than lack of knowledge, and these can be the cross that students have to bear.

Some small-scale research, have found shared common mistakes and errors from Italian students and this might point at the direction to help them achieve their highest potential.

Often, teachers find themselves wondering why they should give headache to their students about mistakes they keep making on repeat. Citing James Blunt in one of his songs “Cause I’ll just make the same mistake again”. However, if a given mistake is frequent and, most importantly, common to more than one learner, then probably it shouldn’t be seen as a mistake anymore but rather a feature of that specific type of learner: the Italian learner.

My point is, if said mistakes happen often, and if these are shared amongst several users, then, perhaps, these go beyond the idea of mistake itself. We might then call them ‘difficulties in producing the language to its standard form due to the influence of the first language’ rather than mistakes, in this case the language is Italian.

Some varieties of English around the world present inaccuracies in grammar and pronunciation, that deviate from the standard form of English and these are taken as normal and aren’t defined as mistakes or errors. Along this line, I don’t see why we shouldn’t broaden our view on the concept of mistakes and errors and embrace the fact that EFL students, for instance Italians, will all make the same mistakes due to the strong features of their first language rather than ignorance and lack of preparation.

I do understand that this argument might abruptly clash with decades of pedagogy and research. Therefore, to support my case, I would like to focus the attention on the fact that, whether the shared Italian inaccuracies are to be considered mistakes or not, these are common to most Italian speakers of English as a Foreign Language.

I would also like to remind ourselves that these are times of change in the linguistic scenario. Times in which non-native teachers are more in numbers and sometimes better prepared than native speakers. Times in which the concepts of mistakes and “propar” English should be revised. In fact, the English language doesn’t belong to England anymore.

So, what can we do to be better Italian speakers of English?

The first instinct is to look at the teaching method applied in public schools. Even if this is changing, it’s still not enough, and still mainly based on grammar and theory, with very little practice. Therefore, the first thing to do is to implement the focus on oral production. To which I would like to add the importance of pronunciation, which is not even remotely considered as part of the teaching method in Italian schools.

In light of what we said, it seems that learners should consider two things: focus their strengths on productive skills and be aware of what their difficulties are due to the limits of the education method as well as their first language. Let’s not forget that this could lead to self-analysis and help to better differentiate between errors, mistakes and interferences from the first language; hence, have a lesser impact on the learners’ confidence when they try to speak.

This discussion is merely based on my personal experience, on empirical research and review of literature and aims to help learners in building more confidence when approaching the English language. But, if this is your case, remember: mistakes are never a bad thing and most likely these aren’t your fault but the consequences of bad education alongside the influence from your first language. So, don’t worry about getting it wrong, just throw yourself out there, embrace your mistakes and enjoy yourself on the way!

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