The challenges of learning a language… for teachers and students

Every October, for the past 10 years, the Intercultural Centre Miguelim opens its doors to the school of Italian for foreign women.

My class is composed by 25 women of different age and national groups, and 4 teachers: Maria Stella — one of our long-standing volunteers, a truly creative genie — Gabriella — a former teacher of Latin and Greek — Simona — a young intern from the language faculty — and me.

This year, all the teachers of the school collectively decided to put ourselves on the line right from the start and briefly tell, with the help of short videos, some of the difficulties we encountered in learning a foreign language.

Stella has recently started learning English and her biggest problem is that she gets anxious when she has to speak. So much so that she forgets all the words that she knew until one minute before. She needs time and quiet to get hold of the language. Slowly slowly.

Simona tells about her experience with Chinese: the difficulty and the beauty of the written language, but most importantly the feeling of extreme disorientation once she got to Beijing. Despite months and months spent studying the pronunciation and tones, no one would understand her, and she would not understand anyone. How do you learn a language in which the words horse (má) and mother (mâ) have exactly the same sound but with a slightly different tone? After 6 months her pronunciation had considerably improved.

Gabriella tells us about Arabic, with sounds so different that she struggled to read and pronounce. Solutions? She did not find any. Go back in time and be born in an Arab country, a voice from the class laughingly suggests.

Valentina talks about the “damn” English phrasal verbs: how is it possible that the same verb has all those different meanings? Tatiana, a Moldovan woman who arrived in Italy only 4 months ago, proudly pulls out the dictionary of verbs she just bought. This is what Valentina needs!

I tell of the “sentimental relationship” that I had with Portuguese, a language so similar to mine that at some point I felt that I stopped learning and did not progress anymore. Only thanks to the relationships I had with friends and loved ones I could get my motivation back. Camila, a 28-year-old Brazilian, says that this story feels very familiar; she never thought it would be so hard to learn a language so similar to her own…

Behts arrived in Italy when she was 15. She did not choose to move to Italy. Her mother was already living there for some time and she had to join her. Italian was an imposition to her; she hated the language as much as the idea of leaving her country. Once she got there, she did not speak for a whole month: the Italian she studied seemed like a totally different language. And there was the fear of making mistakes. But the motivation slowly became stronger thanks to her schoolmates and teachers, the desire to attend the university and finally the job as a teacher of Italian! Behts gives a piece of advice to the students: you should not be afraid of making mistakes, they are vital in the process of learning a new language.

Behts’ video is the most difficult for the students to understand, but it is also the one that strikes them the most. They see themselves in those words.

At the end of every video, the students pair up to fill in a table that helps them with the comprehension: name, language studied, difficulties, solutions — if any.

They give advice, ask questions to understand better, speculate on possible ways to overcome their problems, draw inspiration to tell something about themselves.

We spend some time thinking about the word “motivation”, and on the important relationships that can support it.

They are a bit tired but very satisfied.

On Tuesday morning we brainstorm all together. At the center of the blackboard, I write “learning Italian”. The connections it sparks are endless. For all of them the most important skill to master is understanding, and only then come speaking, reading and writing.

Who and what can help us in this process?

The schools of Italian, the teachers.

The children, if any: children-teachers who never miss a chance to make fun of us when we mispronounce a word or misconjugate a verb. Some of them say that their children prefer that their fathers go and speak with the teachers at school, they speak better Italian, they are a bit ashamed of us.

Sometimes our husbands help us, but not much because they work a lot and when they get back home they just want to relax and speak their own language.

Watching cartoons with the children, Cartoonito and Masha & Bear. They are much easier to understand than the news or other tv shows. Nadia, a woman from Bangladesh who always gets to class literally out of breath, with the headscarf disorderly hanging off her head and a crying child who does not want to get used to the school, says that her tv does not receive italian tv channels, only those from Bangladesh. Someone offers to fix her antenna.

Sometimes internet. There are some websites where one can watch films from one’s own country or American tv series with italian subtitles, online dictionaries, google translator, which often lies though… I tell them about our proposal to start a Facebook page only for us where to exchange information, share school materials, study Italian also from home when there is some spare time for it. They seem happy.

Then there is music: Tatiana loves Adriano Celentano and his songs. Camila shows us her notebook where she, right after her moving to Italy, used to write down the lyrics of songs by Laura Pausini and Elisa and then tried to translate them. Bangladeshi and Arab women struggle with Italian music instead: Poly gets a headache from it, the words go too fast, but she would love to know it more. We decide that this year we will study a lot of Italian songs together.

Headache, confusion, what are the places where language takes does not come out so easily? Or what are the moments when it is more difficult to understand it?

At the doctor’s: sometimes they are nice and speak slowly, but often they are in a rush and impatient. There are women who never go to the doctor’s without their husbands, those who always go with a friend, those who are ashamed to say they did not understand. When we do not understand we should not stay silent. What can we do? Rabia — an Afghan woman, pharmacist, who loves to study and has very clear ideas — speak slowly, please, I did not understand. Can you repeat? What does it mean? Can you explain? We should not be afraid to ask.

Talking with their children’s teachers. Going to birthday parties of their children’s friends, where all the parents are Italian and talk a lot. My head hurts.

In the stores we speak very little and often here in Torpignattara we shop in stores owned by some fellow countrymen, say the Bangladeshi women.

Rabia says that the main problem for foreign women in learning the language is that there are not enough occasions to speak it. We stay at home with our children, and our friends are all from our home country. We teachers think that we could open an afternoon space for conversation. What Rabia says is true: languages are learned by speaking and practicing. Without being afraid of making mistakes. Mariam, an Egyptian woman who lives in Italy for 6 years, said that once at the bakery she died from shame when she asked for 50 bread rolls instead of 5 and the lady started filling a huge bag for her. Mzia, a forty-something Georgian woman with a thunderous laugh, blushes and stops talking when someone laughs at her mistakes. Mousumi, a Bangladeshi woman who works in her husband’s office, says that when the husband or other Bangladeshi people are around her she cannot speak Italian anymore; she feels judged.

The grammar and study of the language are important, all of them want to build complete and correct sentences. Alia, a 29-year-old Egyptian woman with 4 children — of whom 2 1-year-old twins — wants to learn verbs in the present, past and future tense. L., a Thai woman who is in the processing of divorcing her husband, has a very good command of Italian; she mainly goes to school to spend time outside her house and meet other women. She would like to learn phrases. Fatima, a tiny fast-speaking Bangladeshi woman who slurs words into each other both in Italian and Bengali, says that the hardest thing for her is “persecutions”, meaning prepositions. We laugh together, it is true after all that prepositions are a persecution. Jacqueline, a Brazilian 19-year-old woman with a 1-year-old son, really cannot understand the double consonants in Italian. Some of the other women do not even know what they are.

Some words come out: correct, erase, make mistakes.

At the end of the brainstorming we write this sentence:

“no matter if right or wrong, it is important to speak and write, it is important not to be afraid”.

Each of them chooses a word from the brainstorming and writes a sentence to describe it’s meaning.

The following week we move onto individual work. Each student writes a short presentation regarding the problems she encountered in learning Italian, what helps her, what blocks her and what she would like to improve this year. They write in order to put their ideas into order before talking in front of the camera, like we teachers did. We will watch the videos at the end of the year to see the progresses in the pronunciation and verify whether they actually accomplished what they wanted to achieve. We teachers have the duty to guide them in the process.

Thanks to this work we have been able to understand many things: the attitude one has in learning a foreign language tells a lot about the person, their motivations, fears, strategies, allies, enemies. And what it means to be a foreign woman in Italy.


Storyteller: Alessandra Smerilli, Asinitas, Italy— partner in the Erasmus+ project GuLL (Consultant in translation from Italian to English: Elisa Fiore)

More info about GuLL: www.pleasemakemistakes.eu

Guerilla Literacy Learning is a project co-funded from Erasmus+ (Agreement no. 2014–1-BE02-KA200–000472)