Interview with Professoressa Gisella Langé (MIUR Foreign Language Inspector)
I had the pleasure of interviewing Professoressa Gisella Langé in early February and September 2013. Here she speaks about the reforms that are transforming foreign language learning in Italy and gives sound advice to teachers and parents. — Michael Aliprandini (ACLE)
Michael: What are some of the strengths that you currently see in the Italian educational system?
GL: The reforms that have been and are being implemented in Italy are quite important thanks to precise guidelines and a clear definition of objectives for foreign languages. They set standards, i.e. different language levels at different school levels.
Since 2003 it has been compulsory for students to learn English from the age of six and two foreign languages from the age of 11 to the age of 14. Hopefully, in the future, we will be able to require the learning of two foreign languages also in upper secondary schools. These are important achievements for our country.
Another important strength of the on-going reform is the new CLIL provision. All fifth-year students in upper secondary schools will study one subject or some modules in a foreign language from 2014/15. In Licei lingusitici students in their 3rd, 4th, and 5th years should study one subject in a foreign language plus another subject in another foreign language in their 4th and 5th years.
Finally, minimum requirements for achievement in English are based on the levels of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages.
Setting objectives and language levels at different school levels is improving foreign language learning in this country. If we look at the publication Key Data on Teaching Languages at School in Europe 2012, we can compare data with other European countries: Italy is doing well!
(Key Data on Teaching Languages at School in Europe 2012 can be downloaded here: http://eacea.ec.europa.eu/education/eurydice/key_data_en.php)
Michael: What are some of the weaknesses in the Italian scholastic system that need immediate remedy?
GL: The real problem is that we don’t have an evaluation system at the national level that verifies student competences. Some schools are developing autonomous standards, but we need an evaluation system at the national level such as the INVALSI exams we have for the Italian language and mathematics and science. Having a similar exam for foreign languages should be the next step forward in my opinion.
Another step should be the evaluation of teachers’ performances. In some cases, teachers are linked to a very traditional way of teaching foreign languages, and they don’t try to understand the new national guidelines. They need to better understand Indicazioni Nazionali for the primo ciclo, for Licei and Linee Guida for Istituti Tecnici e Professionali, where apprenticeships and exchanges outside the school and the country are suggested. Many teachers don’t even take these guidelines into consideration.
Michael: What are your hopes for the national concorso that many teachers participated in?
GL: My hopes are that the future teachers who won the competition are qualified people that master both the target foreign language (usually C1 for teachers of foreign languages, but if it’s higher all the better) and cultures of the countries where the language is spoken. My hope is that these teachers have had some training abroad and that they will focus on developing more student-centered curricula and on teaching students how to learn. Student-centered lessons should be their guideline. They should understand that it is no longer a question of theoretical knowledge but practical knowledge: students should be really fluent in foreign languages. The learning environment must be different. Frontal lessons are absolutely not the correct approach. In addition, students should do work outside the classroom, including theatrical performances, viewing films, using new technologies at home, participating in summer programs such as those that ACLE offers. Full-immersion experiences organized either in Italy or in foreign countries are essential.
Michael: If you had a magic wand, how would you change the training teachers receive before entering into service?
GL: First, foreign language student teachers should have a minimum of six months experience with an Erasmus scholarship. One should not become a foreign language teacher if one has not had any experience in a university in a foreign cultural environment.
Erasmus Scholarships provide an important study experience during the university years. But student teachers should also have a minimum of a one-month internship in a school abroad where the foreign language is spoken. This would satisfy their Tironcinio Formativo Attivo.
Michael: Very often, Italian teachers of English comment that they try out more progressive educational approaches in their classes, but parents complain that they aren’t teaching grammar. What advice do you have for parents? And what advice do you have for teachers in this situation?
GL: Parents who usually complain about this are used to a traditional grammar-translation approach in teaching languages. Results are the best way to convince parents of the validity of a different approach. Teachers can show parents results in language certifications with exams that have been taken through Cambridge or Trinity. When they show the good results their children have, parents will understand that nowadays, when you have to evaluate language learning, you can’t only learn grammar. Parents need to understand that use of language is important, not grammar rules. Use of language includes comprehension of written texts and oral texts, spoken production, and the spontaneous interaction between two or more people.
I would tell parents that in the past teaching grammar was the way languages were taught. But nowadays we have modern ways of conceiving learning, teaching and evaluation of competences in foreign languages. We must explain that students must reach proficiency in the four skills: listening, speaking/interaction, reading and writing.
I suggest teachers to give parents the self-evaluation grid from the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, Table 2 [available here]. This table will help them understand that language learning is not done by memorising rules but by demonstrating competences in the four skills. It is very important for them to understand how modern exams are conceived and how competences are assessed in a foreign language. The use of English is at the core of the new perspective.
Michael: Do you have some encouraging words for Italian teachers on occasion of World Teachers’ Day?
I’d suggest a quotation by Irina Bokova, UNESCO Director General: “Teachers… ultimately determine our collective ability to innovate, to invent, to find solutions for tomorrow. Nothing will ever replace a good teacher. Nothing is more important than supporting them.”
Michael: Thank you for your time and expertise!
Gisella Langé is a Foreign Languages Inspector with the Italian Ministry of Education (MIUR), advising on internationalisation and foreign languages. A researcher, writer and consultant on issues relating to Foreign Language teaching, curriculum development, and intercultural education, she has vast experience of working on developing culture and language learning solutions and web-based teacher training. She is currently involved in National Groups organized by MIUR on Primary teacher training, Indicazioni Nazionali and CLIL.