The New Italians

August 23rd, 2013 1:40 pm

Teaching Immigrants Italian

With about five million immigrant citizens from all over the world and at least 150 languages daily spoken, Italy continues to be considered “country of recent immigration”. However, there are only 12 officially recognized linguistic minorities. In the last 40 years in Europe we witnessed the development and consequences of French Assimilation, the German model of guest-worker migration and Multiculturalism in Britain. In this context, Italy has come to establish a “non-model” based on the effective and “cumbersome” concept of emergency, whose only aim is to hide the inability of our State to receive, manage and welcome migration flows.

Despite official publications by the Ministry of Education, which highlight the need for intercultural education also in Italian schools, our country is not ready to it in many aspects: political, cultural, linguistic. A Ministerial Decree of 2010 established that for requesting a long-term Residence Permit, immigrants must possess a certificate of linguistic competence of Italian as a second language (or L2 Italian), level A2 of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR). According to the parameters of CEFR, A2 is a basic level of linguistic competence, at which the learner can understand and use simple expressions linked to his/her immediate environment and familiar context.

This Ministerial Decree, however, was not accompanied by any increase in governmental facilities and resources to provide such language training. So, once again, Italian voluntary associations and third sector organizations have to fill this void.

I grew up in an association called “Scuola di Pace” (School of Peace), in which my family has always been committed. Its principle purpose is to spread ideals of peace and non-violence to young people in Naples, through conferences, workshops in schools, music courses, and a drama company.

In this context, five years ago, an Italian language school for immigrants was born. Last year about 400 students from 32 different countries attended our courses. More than 25 volunteers work together to ensure the success of this experience. There is lot to do and everyone can engage in something: giving lessons, organizing a film forum or guided visits in the city, preparing fantastic intercultural dinners or simple “tea and biscuits” to welcome students.

What does it mean to work with immigrants?

First of all, the vision of the anonymous and dangerous immigration – too often nourished by the media – gives way to the actual knowledge of people with names, ages, faces, stories, health and legal problems. The legislative measures about immigration, which normally seem so distant from us, assume, in the light of this knowledge, a different meaning. The ear tends to hear the background sound of television and its words evoke concrete images and people.

We came into contact with a complex and heterogeneous reality. The students vary by age, sex, mother tongues, patterns and levels of education, reasons for emigration, and much more. I feel lucky to have the possibility to meet so many people, from which I receive so much, giving in exchange Italian language lessons. But what does it mean for us to teach Italian, our own language in our own country?

Teaching our language to immigrant students made us reflect upon the “naturalness” of speaking Italian: we became (and we still become) aware not only of the structural complexity of our language, but also of the countless ways to use it and its sociolinguistic levels, its dialect nuances. Our language, in short, took contours and characters previously unknown and sometimes unexpected. In this teaching experience and dialogue the Italian ends to transform, contaminating with the mother tongues and cultures of the students, with their “accents” and their rhythms. Slowly new Italians appear, in every sense. But teaching Italian as a second language for us means also to give students a tool to communicate and be autonomous and independent in Italy, an instrument to be known and to dialogue with Italians, to make them open to the “different from us”.

On the other hand, it is necessary, when working with immigrants, to continuously question yourself not to fall into the trap of paternalism or a sterile pietism that – sometimes unconsciously – does nothing but increase the difficulties of the students. It is necessary, in other words, to have in mind what are the risks of this kind of work. It is possible to fall into the trap of folklore reducing students to cultural prototypes and domesticating and simplifying their identities (in Italy someone calls it “couscous interculture”). Another risk is that of culturalism, for which every culture becomes a cage, which is really hard to get out. You have to be constantly aware that the language is not only a set of labels and conjugation to learn, but is the tool for nomination (Adam used it, too) and categorization. In this sense, it is also a tool of power and it can easily become an instrument of domination.

In conclusion, I see Italy as a sort of Tower of Babel, in which is not easy to understand each other. In this Tower everyone, Italians and immigrants, are now waiting for the descent of the Holy Spirit, to become able to dialogue but not to lose their own languages and cultures. As a Christian, I can do anything but hope for this descent, and as a citizen, I can do my “terrestrial” best to let it happen.


Caritas Migrantes, Dossier Statistico Immigrazione 2012, 22° Rapporto, Pomezia, Idos Edizioni, 2012.

Maffia M., “Nuovi Italiani”, in Proceeding of “Etica, immigrazione e città. Uno sguardo sulla Napoli che cambia. Napoli, 25 Ottobre 2011”, in press.

MIUR, Linee guida per l’accoglienza e l’integrazione degli alunni stranieri, Roma, 2006.

Ministero della Pubblica Istruzione, Osservatorio nazionale per l’integrazione degli alunni stranieri e per l’educazione interculturale, La via italiana per la scuola interculturale e l’integrazione degli alunni stranieri, Roma, 2007.

Tosi A., Dalla madrelingua all’Italiano. Lingua ed educazione linguistica nell’Italia multietnica, Milano, La Nuova Italia, 1999.


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