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Dual Language Italian Style

Ross Nelhams explores the benefits and challenges of teaching a class of Italian first graders in English, and asks what we can learn from them

In countries as varied as Canada, Brazil and Spain, the popularity of bilingual (dual-language) elementary schools has seen a notable increase in recent years, but there is a widespread lack of understanding as to the methods used in such projects and the motivations which drive them. Seen by many as an approach best suited to the education of the children of immigrants with a poor grasp of English, or to areas where high levels of linguistic diversity make it the only feasible approach to teaching, its broader significance and relevance to all modern education systems are often ignored.

In order to understand the term “bilingual elementary school,” it is first necessary to recognize that it encompasses an enormous diversity of institutions and approaches in various parts of the world. Often the classes are made up of children who come from a wide range of linguistic backgrounds, but this is not always so. In many cases, just a few subjects are taught in a second language, but in others, it is virtually the entire curriculum. Some schools actively seek out mother tongue speakers of the second language, while others prefer to find local teachers with the necessary language skills.

Many people assume that a “bilingual school” is either a private institution for the children of international business-people and the like, or else a way of integrating the children of immigrants into their host communities. Perhaps surprisingly, they are often neither of these, but simply public elementary schools which have decided, for one reason or another, to offer a bilingual program to the local community.

One of the key ideas uniting nearly all bilingual schools is that languages should not be taught as a subject in themselves. The importance of linking languages to the material studied in other subjects has long been recognized, but the bilingual approach goes further by advocating that some, and occasionally, all of the subjects that the children would normally study in their own language, from math and science to music, art and physical education, are taught in the second language. This simple yet radical concept has two major advantages.

Firstly, it provides a solution to one of the biggest obstacles to introducing greater language learning into primary schools: that there are not enough hours in the school day to allow for it, especially when too many students are still leaving elementary education without an adequate grasp of core skills. The idea is that by studying a subject such as math in a foreign language, it is possible to introduce world languages into the curriculum without taking time away from or compromising the children’s education in that subject. Instead of competing for valuable classroom time, the two areas of study become complementary to one another.

Secondly, the practice of teaching traditional subjects in a second language brings about a fundamental change in the way in which children learn that language. Every English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher knows how vital it is for students not just to study the grammar and vocabulary of a language, but also to gain confidence and ability by putting them into practice. The most effective way to do that is to actually use them, however imperfectly, to perform some task. Anyone who has sat through a dull language lesson can attest to how difficult it is to commit new rules or words to memory when the only reason for doing so is to pass a test or satisfy the teacher.

Part of the thinking behind the bilingual approach is that the children will become so immersed in and accustomed to using the second language that they will no longer consider it a foreign language, and begin to use it as a means to an end, whether by understanding and responding to a teacher’s question or winning a group game. In short, it ceases to be a language to learn and becomes instead a language with which to learn.

So much for the theory,but does it actually work?

To answer that question, rather than wading into the quagmire of statistical evidence both for and against bilingual education, which has become a heated political issue, here I will concentrate on my personal experience of one such project in Trento, northern Italy. At the Sanzio Public Elementary School, several classes are engaged in an experimental project in which every subject, with the exceptions of Italian, history and religious education, is taught in English. Practically all of the children come from local families where Italian is spoken at home, while teachers work in pairs, with a local teacher leading the lessons taught in Italian and the other subjects taught by a mother tongue English speaker.

The first observation is that the children who form the core of this program have shown an incredible ability to adapt to learning in a language to which most of them had had very little exposure before entering first grade. Much of the success of the project stems from the natural open-mindedness of young children, along with the intuitive and rapid way in which they learn, especially with regard to languages. Mentally, they are still at a stage where they rely much less than older children on precise word meaning, which they are often unsure of even in their own language, and so they are less likely to panic or “switch off” when they fail to follow every word or instruction.

Young children know intuitively that which many adults have forgotten: that body language, tone of voice and other non-linguistic forms of communication carry at least as much meaning as the words we speak. Essentially, they are learning a second language in the way they have already learned their mother tongue: by listening, absorbing, experimenting, and learning to associate certain words with certain objects, activities and ideas.

The methodology followed by the teachers explicitly recognizes that the involvement of the children is absolutely key to the success of the project. The emphasis is always on active participation in lessons, investigating and discovering as a group, and using mistakes as a positive learning experience. An activity as simple as reading a storybook to the class allows the children to form and strengthen mental connections between the words they hear and the images they see, and asking them to guess at the next page or the end of the story encourages them to engage with it and to make a contribution.

Games and physical activities, in which the children can demonstrate their knowledge in non-verbal ways, for example by touching images or objects at appropriate moments, are common ways of both involving them in the lesson and freeing them from their desks. Even just listening to the teacher explaining the rules of a game is an activity in itself, and one to which the children, if sufficiently interested, give their full attention in an effort to understand and win the game. Performing music and songs, often combined with miming in order to clarify their meaning, is a method of consolidating new words which is as tried and tested as it is effective.

All of these are just a few examples of how the foreign element of English takes a backseat to the activity at hand, until eventually the children become so used to the fact that they are passing the majority of their time at school in another language that it ceases, at least in their eyes, to be remarkable or unusual. Obviously they are not expected to respond to the teacher or contribute in English in the first grade, but even at that early stage and without any prompting, many have already begun to do so. English quickly becomes not so much a foreign language as an alternative one, just another communicative tool which they use to understand and explore the world around them and, with time, to express their own thoughts and feelings.

Clearly, nothing about such a scheme comes easily. It requires careful planning, plenty of ingenuity and a great deal of co-operation between teaching staff. Providing the appropriate teaching resources and finding mother tongue speakers or ensuring that the existing local teachers have adequate language training all require good organization and support.

Ultimately, though, the same rules apply as for teaching young children in any language. The priorities are to engage them and to hold their attention by finding new and interesting activities to consolidate the material that is covered. The staff are still fundamentally elementary teachers, not ESL teachers. Furthermore, the essential simplicity of the work covered in the first years of elementary school and the emphasis on motion, play and images, rather than reading and writing, as in later years, naturally lend themselves to a bilingual approach, and ensure that the linguistic demands on the foreign language teacher are not too great.

Admittedly, the Trento project is only entering its fifth year, but even so, many of the doubts that surrounded it have proved unfounded. The children are following the same curriculum as their peers and show no signs of lagging behind them, and there is every reason to think that they will be truly bilingual by the time they enter the equivalent of junior high. But does such a program have any relevance to education in a country like the U.S?

The concept of the bilingual school is certainly not alien to English-speaking countries. In the U.S., there are already many schools which employ some variety of bilingual education. In the country as a whole, however, the vast majority of elementary pupils are not taught any language other than English. The number of elementary schools offering world language lessons in any form has fallen considerably in the last decade, from 31 percent to just 25 percent, and the figure for public elementary schools is lower still (Rhodes 2008, p. 2). Education in foreign languages only really begins in earnest at high school, despite a widespread recognition of the fact that children are much more receptive to languages at elementary school.

Clearly, the need to be proficient in other languages is not felt as keenly as it is in Italy, where knowledge of English is fast becoming absolutely essential for business, travel, academic study and any other number of fields. English is the main language of international communication and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. This also means, however, that the ability to speak it as a mother tongue will become ever less relevant in a world where more and more people speak English as well as other languages. Those education systems which fail to produce students with language skills are putting them at a massive disadvantage. In the words of one British research paper on the state of language instruction, such an attitude risks leaving many people “vulnerable and dependent on the linguistic competence and the goodwill of others” (McDonald 2010, p. 5).

Quite apart from this practical argument, there is also a point to be made about the other, less measurable benefits which a bilingual approach can bring with it. In Trento, one of the stated aims of introducing children to other languages at such a young age is that of bridging the gaps between communities which would otherwise remain isolated from one another, and instilling in the children the acceptance of and willingness to learn from other cultures. The idea of educating young people exclusively in a national language belongs to an earlier age, and is arguably no longer suited to the realities of our international society where living and working abroad have become far from unusual. In a world which is headed towards globalization in practically every area of human activity, taking a similar course in terms of language learning would appear to be not just desirable, but indispensible.

Most European bilingual projects are still in an experimental phase and there are plenty of problems to be resolved and challenges faced. But we can already be fairly certain that the students involved are learning something very valuable which many adults never do: that languages are not an abstraction to be feared, but a useful skill within reach of everybody who has the motivation. The Italian children who are taught math and science in English have not lost their Italian identity, but have had their horizons broadened. Who can say which future windows of opportunity it will open for them? The debates over exam results and methodologies will continue to rage, but many of them fail to take into account what such an approach really has to offer.

P. Bari, ‘Nuovo progetto della provincia: italiano e inglese alle Sanzio’, l’Adige newspaper, Trento, (June 25th 2005)
T. McDonald et al, Languages: The Next Generation, The Nuffield Foundation (2000)
N. Rhodes and I. Pufahl, “Foreign Language Teaching in U.S. Schools: Results of a National Survey, Executive Summary.” The Center for Applied Linguistics (2008)
“Eurobarometer Survey Results: Europeans and their Languages.” The European Commission (2006)

Ross Nelhams ( was born and educated in the UK. He worked at several English as a Foreign Language (EFL) schools in Verona, Italy before taking on a post as a bilingual elementary teacher in the northern city of Trento.

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