The place of the Italian language and culture in Australia and the world
Italian, also known as Standard Italian or italiano standard, is the official language of Italy, the Vatican City, San Marino and parts of Switzerland. It is also an official language of the European Union, and a major community language in countries such as Australia, Luxembourg, the United States, Canada, Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina, and in parts of Africa.
Italian is, and has been for many years, one of the major community languages in Australia.
The place of the Italian language in Australian education
Italian has been taught in Australian schools and universities since the 1930s. Initially it was offered alongside French and German as a ‘language of culture’, and Italian curricula borrowed a strong literary and grammatical emphasis from the precedent of Latin. Italian was an important area of academic study providing access to the rich literary, musical and artistic heritage of Italy, with less attention paid to actual communication or contemporary culture. The distance between this academic approach to Italian learning and the real-world experiences of Italian-speaking communities was considerable.
In addition to the presence of Italian learning in schools, in the 1960s the Italian community established extensive Saturday morning schools to provide Italian language learning for their children. In the 1980s, Italian learning and teaching in Australia increased significantly, especially in primary schools, as a result of policies supporting multiculturalism, in particular the release of the National Policy on Languages (1987), which strongly promoted linguistic and cultural pluralism. In this decade, Italian community organisations established ‘insertion’ programs, hosted within regular day schools, to supplement the weekend and after-hours classes directly run by communities. This coincided with a new emphasis in all language teaching and learning on linking school language learning directly to language use in communities, moving away from traditional grammar- or literature-oriented to more communicatively oriented programs. The focus in these communicative programs was on learning language for use in ‘real’ everyday interactions.
The nature of Italian language learning
Italian belongs to the Romance family of languages and is closely connected to its ‘sibling’ languages of Spanish, Portuguese and French. It also has many commonalities and connections with English, sharing many Latin-derived words and using the same Roman alphabet. The meaning of many Italian words can be instantly recognised through their similarity to English. There are points of difference between Italian and English grammars — for example, variations in word order, tense use, the use of articles, and the gendering in Italian of nouns and adjectives — but overall the Italian language is not linguistically or culturally ‘distant’ for English-speaking learners. Phonologically, Italian is relatively accessible to the English-speaking learner. It is a mostly phonetic language, pronounced generally as it is written, which is especially helpful in the development of listening and speaking skills. There is clear emphasis on all syllables, and intonation follows regular rhythms and patterns.
As Italian is widely spoken in Australia, many opportunities exist to hear and use the language in real-life situations, as well as through the Italian media in Australia and in actual and virtual connections with Italian communities in Italy and beyond.
There are also regional dialects of Italian that are used in local contexts both in Italy and beyond. Some students may bring their experience of the use of regional dialects to the Italian classroom.
The diversity of learners of Italian
Learners of Italian in Australian schools come from a wide range of backgrounds, and include learners for whom this represents a first experience of learning Italian; learners who have existing connections with Italian, most directly as background Italian speakers, as second- or third-generation Italian Australians; and learners who may have experience in a related variety of Italian or another Romance language.
The Australian Curriculum: Languages — Foundation–Year 10 Italian is pitched to second language learners as the dominant group of learners of the Italian language in the Australian context. Teachers may use the Italian F–10 curriculum to cater for learners of different backgrounds by making appropriate adjustments.