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Young learners special: How history and politics got the better of bilingualism

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A recent study finds that investment in more language exposure has not had the desired impact on second language learning in the South Tyrol – but the reasons are highly complex, Claudia Civinini explains

The Italian press have been calling into question the value of Clil teaching methods after a leading research centre released the results of a study looking at students’ second-language skills.

The research shows that despite investment in bilingualism and techniques such as Clil, students’ second-language proficiency in the Alpine South Tyrol region has worsened since a previous study in 2007.

But for linguists Chiara Vettori and Andrea Abel, the authors of the study, the reality is more complex. Observers must take into account the characteristics of the local context, they say. This is a region where history, politics and identity can become stumbling blocks on the road to bilingualism – and where ‘immersion’ is a taboo word.

South Tyrol is a region in the north east of Italy with three official languages: Italian, German and Ladin, a romance language. Whatever language children speak at home, they grow up studying their second language in school while being surrounded by it in their daily lives, for example on bilingual street signs. With successful trilingual programmes introducing English in primary school, the region seems to be a perfect lab to develop multilingual citizens.

But what at first sight looks like a linguist’s paradise turns into a minefield upon closer examination. ‘Compared to other European countries and Italian regions, we do have an advantage,’ says Dr Vettori, who carried out the study – known as Kolipsi II – at the Eurac private research centre.

‘We should be surprised that proficiency is not higher.’ Students should attain a B2-level in their second language at the end of secondary school, but the study highlighted that fewer students attain that level compared to 2007.

The reason for this, the linguists explains, is that this ‘second language’ – either Italian or German – is really a ‘foreign language’ for most children. ‘One of the biggest predictors for L2 proficiency for both groups [Italian- and German-speaking] is the use of the L2 outside of school.

But the study shows these two communities are separated,’ explains Dr Vettori. The reasons are historical. During the fascist era, the German language was basically outlawed and all German place names in the region were forcibly Italianised. After the war, German and Ladin were declared official languages alongside Italian. South Tyrol kept the Italian names but adopted bilingual street signs, which are periodically under attack.

The region’s linguistic make-up is not homogenous. In some valleys, Dr Vettori says, ‘You can’t find an Italian speaker.’ The Italian community, making up 26 per cent of the population, tends to cluster around the capital Bolzano-Bozen, whereas the German community – 70 per cent of the population – concentrates in other areas.

‘Attitudes are important catalysts for successful L2 learning,’ explains Dr Abel. ‘Families have a fundamental role in this.’ ‘There is only so much schools can do,’ says Dr Vettori. ‘Both the Italian- and German-speaking schools are really committed [to supporting bilingualism] but they can’t perform miracles. It’s also up to the students, the families, the institutions, the politicians and the media.’

The study also shows that young people say they perceive themselves as ‘different’ from the other community. ‘It’s almost amusing to look at the reasons behind this perception,’ says Dr Vettori. ‘Teenagers say, “We have different mentalities and attitudes,” but in reality the contacts between the two communities can be scarce at times – so how do they know that they are so different?’ asks Dr Abel.

When the researchers looked at the correlation between Clil methodology and L2 proficiency, they found ‘no statistically significant difference between students who were taught German through increased exposure via Clil and students who had been taught with traditional methodology.’ Dr Vettori says: ‘This shook the Italian-speaking community, which had embraced Clil as a way to improve their German proficiency. However, results must be seen in context, and we considered the Clil methodology only as one factor among many: family, socio-economic background, attitudes towards the L2.’

Dr Abel adds, ‘For this particular dataset, we only looked at Italian-speaking schools as Clil is not as popular in German-speaking schools.’ While the Italian-speaking community has welcomed Clil, the German-speaking one was always a little reticent about it over widespread fears they could lose their mother tongue – a vestige from the fascist era when German was outlawed. ‘“Immersion” quickly became a taboo word,’ explains

Dr Abel. ‘Our study shows that the learning of a language in a bilingual context can’t just happen at school: the L2 needs to be relevant in, and for, students’ daily life.’

It takes a region to raise a bilingual.

Abel Vettori

Linguists Andrea Abel and Chiara Vettori, the authors of the study.