In real life, we talk, we don’t conjugate verbs. Sharing fun details in a new language helps students internalize—not just memorize—vocabulary.
Professor and Chairperson of Modern Languages, Borough of Manhattan Community College, CUNY
PhD in Romance Languages and Comparative Literature, MA in Romance Languages, BA in Italian and Medieval Art History
Ah, the romance of romance languages. And there’s no language more romantic than Italian, according to Dr. Maria Enrico, a professor who teaches it to students at Borough of Manhattan Community College in New York.
When her family moved from New Jersey to Italy in the 1960s, Enrico was not thinking of romance—she just wanted to make friends. Though her parents were of Italian descent, they were not fluent in the language, so Enrico was unprepared to communicate with the kids on the playground, who ended up being her first (and best) language instructors.
“I learned fast that if you want to play, you better learn how to talk,” she says. “Kids learn languages right away. I learned quickly and next thing I knew, I had made it through first grade and was in second grade, having mastered enough Italian to engage with my classmates easily.”
Her family stayed in Italy throughout what she calls “the boom years of the 1960s” and Enrico came back to attend Barnard College in Manhatttan, majoring in—what else?—Italian.
In the ensuing years, Enrico has become what you might call una donna rinascimentale—a Renaissance woman. Her work has included stints as a radio producer, opera coach, interpreter, international film festival director, and published translator. “My colleagues say the only jobs I haven’t had are waitress and the world’s oldest profession,” she adds, laughing. Throughout it all, she says, she has always taught Italian and, even after several decades in the classroom, remains inspired to share her knowledge of the language and culture.
“I love teaching beginners the most,” she says, “because when you turn students on to language and culture, you’re opening a whole new world to them.”
Though Enrico does not have a “motto” that informs her work as a teacher, it seems fitting to bestow this one on her: Usa ciò che impari nella vita, non lasciarlo in classe. Translation: Take what you learn into life, don’t leave it in a classroom.
Challenge: A need to converse, not conjugate
Enrico describes the usual approach to teaching introductory language courses as: “Drill and kill, conjugate, translate.” It is a style of teaching that emphasizes memorization and repetition of the same simple phrases over and over. Enrico does not teach this way. She believes that language study should reflect the fact that we spend our lives talking about details—not conjugating verbs, as some language courses will have you do.
Further, when students one day try to apply the language, she says it will be conversation, not conjugation, that will get them through. If you land at Malpensa Airport in Milan, for instance, you will need to engage in dialogue with other human beings to get your luggage, a taxi, food, and information. She reiterates: You will not need to conjugate.
“I want students to be able to talk about themselves,” says Enrico, who notes that the typical “Hello. I am John—I am 18 years old” will not suffice. “The challenge is to take students beyond that basic level and out of their [own everyday] lives to expand their horizons.”
Enrico adds that many of her students are busy and harried, as she was at their age. Coming from a working-class background, she knows that real-world struggles like making money dominate their thoughts.
“So, my other challenge is: How can I engage them in this language when they have their minds on a million different things?” she asks. “Their courses and, in particular, their required courses, often aren’t that fun, and I wanted this [class] to be fun. That’s how I’ll get their attention.”
Innovation: Focusing on communication, not conjugation
“I decided to make my course communicative, interactive, and task-based,” says Enrico. And that is what makes one of her lessons—A Neighborhood Travel Guide—so innovative.
For this assignment, each student must complete a travel guide, written in Italian, that focuses on the few blocks surrounding their homes. This approach addresses all of her concerns: a need to share details, the use of practical dialogue, and a fun factor. Specifically, Enrico asks each student to interview locals, recommend offbeat attractions, and capture the spirit of areas they know well. The class then puts together a more comprehensive guide that includes each student’s contributions.
She thinks students pick up more of the language this way because they do not feel as threatened by it. “They won’t retain the language if they just cram and memorize,” she says. “They will retain the knowledge by doing.”
Course: ITL 105, Introductory Italian I
Frequency: Two 90-minute class meetings and one 50-minute lab per week for 15 weeks
Class size: 25
Course description: This course is for students who have had no previous background in Italian. Grammar is taught inductively and simple texts are read. Speaking, reading, and writing are emphasized.
ITL 105, Introductory Italian ISee materials
Lesson: A Neighborhood Travel Guide
“This is first-semester Italian. At the end of this class, you won’t be able to speak Italian like a native adult, but you will be able to speak it like a very intelligent young person. You will be able to understand basic daily situations. You can order a meal. You can ask about landmarks and things you see in the store. You can talk to people on the street. You can get a hotel room.”— Maria Enrico, PhD
Enrico asks her students to create a neighborhood guide. She wants the students to describe (in Italian) where they live with as much detail as possible. What does your neighborhood look like? What are the places of possible interest to a visitor—stores, parks, housing, people, restaurants, and so on?
The assignment includes both a written/presentation component, usually in the form of a PowerPoint presentation with copy and photographs, and a conversation component. She describes it as a semester-long project that she suggests students begin working on by the end of week four. The guide is due by week 12 to allow time for feedback from classmates.
The professor lays out the ground rules for this assignment, and the first and foremost one is that the students must write about where they live. “It’s too easy for them to copy outside work if they do a popular area, like the Statue of Liberty, for example,” she says.
Other guidelines and tips for students include:
- The guide must be written in your own words (no Google Translate or copying from the Internet).
- If presenting in PowerPoint, include photographs and captions (in Italian, obviously). In lieu of a PowerPoint, you may upload a short film with narration in the target language. Submit your narration scripts in advance.
- Upload all submissions to the classroom’s Blackboard software.
- Review other students’ projects that are of interest to you.
- Choose least one other student’s project and respond in Italian with a comment and a follow-up question. Then, the travel guide’s author must answer that query. Typical questions might be something like, “You show this restaurant: Have you ever eaten there?”
“Make what you teach students relatable, not abstract,” she says, in summary. “If you are vested in showing your neighborhood in the best or worst light, you’ll put effort into it. And if an assignment is relevant to you and your life, the language will stick.”
Enrico says that if other teachers want to adapt her neighborhood guide for their classes, she suggests these strategies:
Put yourself into the story
Enrico eases into her lesson by talking about the neighborhood where she grew up in Italy.
“I tell students about the piazza near my family home,” she says. “And how it’s near the wine shop and a fruit stand. I tell them that you only meet your friends at a café on your block or at one populated by people who share your political or socioeconomic status. Cafés there are like living rooms, and people who go expect a certain comfort level.”
Her students get intrigued by her stories because they are not “grand history”—they are “basic human living,” and the students can relate her experience to their own lives.
Encourage use of simple vocabulary
Students may be daunted by the idea of a presentation, perhaps thinking they need to use overly complicated words. Enrico suggests you remind them to keep it simple. “Tell them to take a picture of a restaurant in their neighborhood and then make a short list of adjectives, nouns, and verbs to describe it,” she says. “They should integrate simple sentences into their narrative, using these words.”
Create a clear rubric—in plain English
Enrico shares the rubric for this lesson with her class before they get started, so they are clear about how they can be successful. The neighborhood guide is worth 20% of a student’s final grade.
Grading is on a scale from poor to satisfactory to excellent, and it includes factors such as intonation, pronunciation, and volume (for the spoken section); “usage and appropriateness” of visual aids such as PowerPoint and other visual media; and vocabulary (in all media involved). Like an English teacher might, she offers higher scores for correct spelling and grammar, familiarity with the words used, and a lack of colloquialisms or slang.
“If students follow the rubric, they are successful,” she emphasizes.
Don’t get lost in translation
Make sure students write their narrative in Italian first, rather than starting in English and then trying to convert it to Italian. “They waste a tremendous amount of time putting something into sophisticated English,” says Enrico. “This guide is not an exercise in translation! If they make what they’re trying to say too complicated, no one wants to do it. And the point is to have fun.”
Pepper the semester with fun facts
Another way Enrico keeps students interested is by infusing a lot of Italian culture into her curriculum. “You take three months of Italian and you don’t know who Garibaldi or Marconi is?” she asks. “Over my dead body!” Maintaining excitement in the overall course helps students stay passionate about their semester-long project, too.
Adapt the assignment by language and level
The great thing about a lesson like this is that you can adapt it in several ways, says Enrico. Want to assign it in French? No problem. “I know it works for any language,” says Enrico. “I have taught Spanish and French. This applies. And if you want to keep it in Italian but target it toward an intermediate level? Just make the requirements a little harder. For example, have students use past tense in at least half of their slides.”
Enrico says this lesson has inspired others in her department to try some of her strategies. “I am hosting a workshop for adjuncts, and 47 are attending,” she says. “The focus is how best to teach in a task-based, interactive, and communicative manner.”
“Students love this [lesson], in part because they’re relieved to be given a project that’s creative and fun,” says Enrico. “Several students have told me that they discovered something about their neighborhoods that they didn’t know before. It’s much more personal than other assignments and, best of all, they learn Italian and don’t even realize it.”
“This assignment is never complicated for students,” says Enrico. “You’re asking them to report on their neighborhoods, so there’s no travel time or cost. And it’s inexpensive to take photos or shoot a movie since everyone has a phone with a camera.”
Her favorite student feedback is when they tell her, as several have, that they not only got a sense of Italy for the first time but they now view their own backyard in a fresh, colorful way.