Traditional Language Education
The objective of traditional (common) language education is translation proficiency; i.e. What does the [English word] mean in Italian? What does [Italian word] mean in English. For example: How does one say ‘Hello’ in Italian? What does ciao mean in English. As the student progresses, they memorize more and more words, phrases, sentences, etc. translating back and forth between the respective languages.
The inefficiency of this ‘brut force’ memorizing (indeed mesmerizing) method of language education is profoundly documented in the drop out rate of foreign language students generally, and Italian language particularly.
For example, one Fall Semester a Rochester NY area college offered and filled six sections of “Introduction to Italian I -part 1”; i.e. nearly 180 students enrolled. In the Spring semester, the same college offered one section of “Introduction to Italian I-part 2"; less than 20 enrolled and fewer still completed the semester. A staggering attrition rate!
By the fourth semester the whole first semester cohort was lost.
An anecdote says you? Forget-about-it says me !
Consider the following national statistics.
High School Enrollment
Level I (2000)
Level II (2001)
Level III (2002)
Level IV (2003)
(see: “And Then There Were None: Surviving Foreign Language Study:
In short, there was an attrition rate for the Level I Cohort of 82% !
[One wonders how these ‘teachers’ pick up their paychecks in good conscience. A blue-collar trades-person with that kind of ‘success rate’ would be fired on the spot - no questions asked!]
The plot thickens:
“The situation does not improve at the college level. Furman, Goldbert, and Lusin (2007) report that of the 1,536,614 undergraduates enrolled in the top 15 foreign languages at U.S. colleges in 2006, only 17% were enrolled in upper-division courses. This attrition rate is similar to what we find at the high school level.” (Ibid)
“Oh the hew and cry” when SUNY Albany and other universities cancelled the “Italian Studies Program" (see i-Italy “Some Night Thoughts on the Termination of Italian Language Programs” October 9, 2010, http://www.i-italy.org/bloggers/15696/some-night-thoughts-termination-italian-language-programs).
Yet, not a word is said about the fact that the high schools and colleges are “eating the seed corn” of such programs. Newton’s LAW of Higher Education: The more students who fail at elementary education levels, the less students available for higher education levels.
The above “backseatlinguist” report goes on to articulate clearly the real tragedy of American foreign language education:
“Almost no one who studies a foreign language in the United States gets very far. Millions of high school and college students show up to their Spanish or Chinese I classes in the hopes of learning to communicate in a foreign language, but only a relatively small percentage will ever do so. Hundreds of thousands of adults pay good money for language CDs, Dummies guides, and fancy software, but with equal rates of failure.”
Methods of Teaching and Modalities of Learning
In every teacher certification program, prospective teachers are taught the concept of applying different methods of instruction to accommodate varying student modalities of learning; i.e. some students are text learners, others visual, others graphic, others manipulative, etc.
Yet, in the face of profound TEACHER FAILUER to effectively teach (NOT student failure to learn), the method of teaching and the textbooks never vary – Drill and Kill memory exercise.
Year after year, the vast majority of students who enroll in language courses by their own initiative (i.e. they are motivated to learn) Fail, Fail, Fail! Yet, year after year teachers pass out the same textbooks, stand in front of the class reciting the same verses and sending the students home to memorize the same lessons (e.g. see Jack and Jill ordering lunch in Florence. What is the word of coffee, waiter, soda? Where are you from?...ad nauseam )
Albert Einstein said:
“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
I keep wondering if schools are ever going to hire SANE Italian language teachers.
Enter Joseph F. Privitera –
A small drop of water in the language education desert, but a drop nevertheless.
Memorization Drills vs. Cultural History Method of Language Education
Professor Privitera has written at least ten (that I know of) books including five Sicilian language texts and references (see complete list at end). For purposes of this pedagogic discussion I will be referring to two of his language texts: Beginner’s Sicilian and Sicilian: The Oldest Romance Language
As opposed to traditional language pedagogy, the objective of Professor Privitera’s Sicilian language teaching method is to teach the student the cultural history of Sicily as it is manifested in the language. He writes;
“Language reveals the nature, culture and thoughts of the people who speak it, for it possesses the many shades of thinking that make up its people’s character and way of life” (Sicilian: The Oldest...e-book location 2991)
In short, Professor Privitera does not think ‘ordering capocinnio in a Florentine café connects the student with the essence of the language or motivates them to learn. Rather, he teaches language hermeneutically, by exposing its hidden history and culture.
To my mind the quintessential example of this approach is his discussion of the Sicilian words sceccu and ciceri in his book Beginner’s Sicilian.
Sceccu is the Sicilian word for ‘donkey’. In traditional language training, the student would be told the meaning and told to memorize the word for future translation exercises (e.g. 'flash-card' homework).
However, Professor Privitera’s cultural history approach to language education entails a discussion of the etymology of the word sceccu. He writes:
“Sceccu (SHEH koo) comes from the Arabic word ‘Sheikh’, a name given by the islanders to the donkey, a derision for their medieval Saracen masters, who rode on donkeys from village to village, maintaining order and collecting taxes.” (p. 23)
Thus, the student not only learned the English translation of the Sicilian word sceccu. S/he also places the word's meaning in the context of the cultural history (Medieval-Arabic) of Sicily.
Similalry: Ciceri is the Sicilian word for ‘chickpeas’. This word also has special historic cultural meaning. Privitera writes:
“Say ‘ciceri’ [CHEE cheh ree] and the Sicilian Vespers leaps to mind when, in the thirteenth century, the islanders rebelled against the French, their new oppressive masters. The Sicilians were able to identify them by their French pronunciation, [SEE say ree] of the word ciceri. Those who could not pronounce it correctly were put to the sword. (p.24)
Thus, in learning just two Sicilian words, the student also learns about two cultural epics of Sicilian history.
More generally, his method of teaching is what might be called the Association Method which stands in stark contrast to the ‘brut force’ ‘drill and kill’ ‘reciting’ and memorization method.
Educators have long understood the efficacy of Associative Training Methods. Associative Memory is the process by which ONE MEMORY TRIGGERS ANOTHER e.g. ‘sceccu’ memory is associated with Arab memory and ‘ciceri’ memory is associated with French memory.
In his book, Sicilian: The Oldest Romance Language Professor Privitera expands on his Beginner’s Sicilian introductory lessons. To my mind, the title of this book is misleading. A portion of the book presents the argument that Sicilian is not only a Romance language, it is indeed the first.
However, the bulk of the book takes the form of classic language education. Not limited to vocabulary, it presents a complete Sicilian grammar. As Professor Privitera wrote in his book The Sicilians: “I have long been aware that grammar is the most important record of a language” (e-book location 2587).
To my mind the greatest virtue of the book is the innovative method of teaching the Sicilian LANGUAGE (i.e. not dialect – dialects are variations of a national language. Sicilian is not a variation of Tuscan national Italian. Sicilian is a stand-alone language that existed centuries before Tuscan/Italian). Of course, his method is not limited to Sicilian, it is applicable to all foreign language training.
Again, the method is to associate the components of the language with the etymological and cultural history of the language. For example, he does not simply present vocabulary word list to memorize. He classifies the list in terms of the origins of the words. Thus,
Sicilian Word – part of speech – English meaning – Ancient Greek origin:
ACCURINARI v. to mend shoes <knoirinel
BUCALACI n.m. snail <boukalaki
Sicilian Word – part of speech – English meaning –Latin origin:
ARBIRU n.m. tree <adcuminitiare
And on: Byzantine origin, Saracen, Norman, Swabian, Spanish.
The whole vocabulary list is divided into groups of national/ethnic origins of Sicilian words. Students do not simply memorize by repeating the word over and over, they associate the word's etymology and historic cultural implications.
Which is not to say that there is no memorization involved. Rather, memorization is facilitated by association and made more interesting and motivating by history.
Teaching Italian à la Privitera
Professor Privitera’s cultural history association method of studying the Sicilian language is applicable to the study of all foreign languages including Italian. If Italian regional languages were taught in conjunction with the Italian national language, two benefits would accrue: (1) the efficacy of the association method, and (2) increased student interest and motivation.
For example, associating the Italian word for donkey ‘asino’ with the Sicilian word ‘sceccu’ will facilitate remembering the translation of both.
Also, the vast majority of students of Italian descent in America, who show up for Italian language training, are south of Rome progeny. By lacing Italian language lessons with the Mezzogiorno / Sicilian history and culture, students will be motivated to persevere in the course of study.
However, changing the way Italian has been taught for as long as it has been taught is probably too much to ask. Teachers and textbooks are inertial; deeply seated habits that are slow to change; if changeable at all. Teachers will continue to fail students by the droves and continue to blame the students for their inability to learn and continue to pick up pay checks they do not deserve; rather than consider the possibility teachers have failed to effectively teach and make changes accordingly.
Towards a South of Rome Curriculum
Similarly, the southern-Italian literati and prominente have a deeply seated bias against the history of Italy south of Rome. They view themselves as sophisticated and their peasant history as quaint. Indeed, they are embarrassed about our history. Hence, they reject the reality of our history and escape to Renaissance adoration and Little Italy nostalgia.
This is understandable. According to Professor Privitera the very death of the Sicilian Language in Sicily may be attributed to the embarrassment of the Sicilian people themselves. He writes, in the spirit of Gramsic’s theory of cultural hegemony:
“The fact is that Sicilians, like the rest of their Italian brethren, have been made to feel ashamed of speaking a dialect. They have never reared up to declare their dialect is a language, apart from Italian, with its own logic and beauty. Sicilians have conspired with their detractors to ignore it and finally to have it disappear without a satisfactory record.” (The Sicilians, e-book location 2583 emp.+)
Similarly, the Neapolitan Pino Aprile wrote of southern Italy:
“Through a cultural lobotomy, the South was deprived of its self-awareness; its memory. (Terroni p.8)
The dominant northern Italian hegemony has overwhelmed the southern culture in Italy. Why should we expect it to be otherwise in America?
However, if it should ever come to pass that the southern-Italian American literati and prominente experience their own renaissance, becoming imbued with the spirit of their mighty three-thousand year history and culture...the vortex of ancient Mediterranean civilization...the chrysalis of modern Western Civilization, then they will bring forth a southern-Italian curriculum; the history and culture of Italy south of Rome – the history and culture of near seventeen million Americans of southern-Italian descent.
And, no doubt the foundation of that curriculum will be teaching the languages of southern Italy and Sicily based on the model and methods of the greatest language teacher – Joseph F. Privitera
Appendix (1) Works by Joseph F. Privitera; (2) Sicilian Etymology Diagram
Works by Joseph F. Privitera
1. Sicilian-English/English-Sicilian Dictionary and Phrasebook
2. Beginner's Sicilian
3. Sicilian: The Oldest Romance Language
4. Basic Sicilian / a brief reference grammar
5. The Mystery of the Sicilian Sub-Dialect, Sanfratellan, Transformed in the Twelfth Century by the Normans, the Provencals, and the Gallo-Italians (co-author Bettina Privitera)
6. The Sicilians
7. Sicily: An Illustrated History
8. Beginner's Italian
9. A Reference Grammar of Medieval Italian According to Dante, With a Dual Language Edition of the Vita Nova
10. Italy: An Illustrated History