Established in response to post-war migrants’ desire for their children to study their mother tongue, Italian studies are now undertaken by students from an array of backgrounds who wish to expand their horizons and become “citizens of the world”.
The organisations active in Australia and recognised for their role are: CO.AS.IT. in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane; the Italian Australian Welfare and Cultural Centre in Perth; and the Dante Alighieri Society in Adelaide.
Each of these organisations collaborates with the director of the education department at the Italian Embassy in Canberra “to establish the language strategy to be adopted, which should be the most effective for every state while remaining in line with the national strategy collectively identified by the Embassy”.
The Embassy therefore plays a key role in the coordination, supervision and direction of financial contributions from the Italian government.
Speaking with each of these organisations, it’s clear that their efforts go beyond the funding received from the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which is nevertheless fundamental to their survival and success.
These organisations have become points of reference for the Italian community and those involved in the teaching of Italian.
Sara Villella, Learning Services Manager of CO.AS.IT. Sydney
Sara Villella was born in Melbourne to Italian parents.
“I pursued a career in teaching languages and worked in Melbourne for around seven years, before moving to Italy where I worked in language training for the corporate sector,” she says.
“After around 12 years I returned to Australia, but this time to Sydney where I found work as an education manager.
“In that initial role I managed the teaching of Italian in NSW schools.”
Having worked at CO.AS.IT. for over 10 years, Villella’s role has evolved and now includes managing language training for adults, professional development and training of teachers, certification programs, and corporate training including cultural awareness for the Health and Aged care sectors and team-building initiatives for companies.
There are two programs directed at students in NSW schools: the Out of School Hours program which has been operating for over 50 years, and the Italian Insertion program in primary schools, which began with federal government funds some decades ago.
“[These funds], together with the contributions made by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, enabled 20,000 pupils in NSW primary schools to study Italian each year,” Villella says.
“Ten years ago, the number decreased to 16,000 following sudden funding cuts from Italy.
Despite further significant funding cuts, CO.AS.IT. continues to teach Italian to around 6000 students and supports many more through the provision of Italian learning and teaching resources and professional development opportunities for Italian teachers.”
CO.AS.IT. is also an exam centre of The University for Foreigners, Perugia and prepares students for CELI certification.
“Through a learning management system, an online platform for distance learning, we create an area for teachers and students to access and exchange learning and teaching materials,” Villella explains.
“We have an agreement with the online Media Library of Bologna.
“This agreement allows us to access the latest newspapers and journals, and an extensive archive of books for children and adults.
“Even if our physical library is small, the online library allows us to have access to thousands of resources.”
A blended learning model is beneficial for language learning, explains Villella, “a good formula for a blended course is about 33 per cent of online activity, 33 per cent classroom tuition and 33 per cent self-access study”.
“This is the same for younger students,” she says.
“Let’s take, for example, the after-school program.
“After two hours of lessons a week, the children then access online materials, complete exercises and write to our tutor for clarification and feedback.
“This also involves parents who ask us, especially if they are not Italian, if they can access learning materials so they can help their children learn Italian.
“We also run online training for teachers, to allow a greater number to participate.
“We provide fundamental courses like classroom management, but we also allow teachers to connect, share resources and discuss problems linked to the curriculum.”
To recognise the work of the students at the end of the year, CO.AS.IT. organises an awards ceremony in which certificates are given to those who excel in their studies, including the HSC and CELI exams, and to the winners of an annual CO.AS.IT. competition with diverse themes (last year it involved recorded interviews with grandparents and elderly migrants, in occasion of the 50th anniversary of the foundation of CO.AS.IT., and over 400 entries were received).
There’s also a collaboration with Il Gruppo dell’amicizia in memoria di Enrica Inglese.
ACHIEVEMENTS AND CHALLENGES
In NSW, the search for qualified teachers is a significant problem.
Even if, for example, there are young Italians with the necessary qualifications, “the system has become, maybe it had to become, very rigid,” Villella indicates.
“There is a lack of staff and I am sincerely worried about the future,” she continues.
“There are areas we are not able to cover and so often I voluntarily go there to teach.
“If there is demand, CO.AS.IT. would like to be able to offer a language course.”
Looking at the positives, instead, Villella admits “there is a lot of satisfaction in this work”.
“Especially when you see a child acknowledged on awards night.”
It’s also particularly rewarding to discover that people are keen to work for CO.AS.IT.
During interviews for positions in the organisation which are not teaching positions, she discovers that the candidates are former students of CO.AS.IT.
“It’s so gratifying; it tells us that the work done many years ago has had a positive impact on students,” Villella says.
“On a personal level, I was also a student of CO.AS.IT. in Melbourne when I was a child.
“If it had not been for that opportunity, I may not have studied Italian and I would not be in this position.
“I see a positive cycle.
“It’s true that in NSW we struggle to have the importance of the study of languages recognised, but perhaps it is for this reason I have ended up here.
“Despite the cuts and the lack of government interest in languages, people have a great desire to study the Italian language and culture.
“While this exists, there is still hope.”
Silvia De Cesare, President of Dante Alighieri Society Adelaide
Silvia De Cesare (left) arrived in Australia in 2014.
Upon arrival, her life changed as she entered into a new career as an Italian and French teacher in high schools, where she now promotes the study of languages and culture with passion.
De Cesare is the president of the Dante Alighieri Society of SA since 2017.
For more than 50 years, Dante in South Australia has promoted Italian language and culture at various levels across various sectors.
First and foremost, Dante offers classic Italian courses, from level A1 to level B2, thereby covering the needs of everyone, from beginners to advanced.
So as to involve the greatest number of people as possible, the organisation also created Dante Kids, a weekly playgroup for children aged zero to six years, all in Italian, with a qualified teacher, who is naturally a mother-tongue Italian.
Dante Alighieri Society SA also offers Dante Tweens, a course for children and adolescents aged six to 14 which teaches Italian through songs, according to a program specifically created by the teacher in charge, Sara La Rocca.
For those wishing to refresh their speaking skills, for some time Dante in Adelaide has offered Caffè Italiano, a conversation course.
For lovers of the Divine Comedy, once a month a group (all passionate about Dante’s masterpiece) reunite.
There are also business courses, custom-made on request.
One of these was organised for the employees of Optus and another, in collaboration with Comites SA, for the workers of the Bene Aged Care facility.
Dante in Adelaide is also the central certifier of Plida (Progetto Lingua Italiana Dante Alighieri), the only language examiner, a role which is particularly important now as linguistic competence is a requirement when applying for Italian citizenship.
The Dante Alighieri Society of SA has been a managing authority since 2013.
For the distribution of funds, the body has always organised valid programs of assisted language studies in primary and secondary, public and private schools, which are accessed by thousands of students every year.
The association is also recording an always greater number of participants of every age at its events, thanks to the untiring promotional work by volunteers.
All the profits are used to organise free events for the community.
Achievements and challenges
After two years as a volunteer within the committee, De Cesare decided to nominate herself for the role of president.
“My role as an Italian teacher in Australian schools and my past experience in the world of marketing could have been of great support for the association,” De Cesare recounts.
“I also believe that Italian culture of the other day, of yesterday and today, still has a lot to offer to Italians, to us Italians overseas and in the world.
“Even if one of the major difficulties that we face is being able to involve all the Italian community in our cultural activities.
“For this reason, two years ago we initiated a program of cultural and gastronomic events which involve various local clubs (and their relative regions).
“The other challenge is finding ways to entice more students to study our beautiful language.”
The job, however, offers a lot of satisfaction.
“[An example of this is] the collaboration that has developed in the last six years between us and state and Catholic schools in South Australia via teacher assistantship programs,” she says.
“Thanks to the work of the qualified assistants, the project coordinator and our volunteers, we have been able to offer many primary and secondary schools valuable support to teachers in class.”
Enzo Sirna, President of the Italian Australian Welfare & Cultural Centre Inc., WA
Born in Australia, Enzo Sirna (left) has held the voluntary position of president of the Italian Australian Welfare Cultural Centre (IAWCC) in Perth for 30 years.
For more than 15 years, Sirna has also worked for the National Trust of Western Australia.
Before that, he was director of studies in a private school, after having already held the roles of head of the department of languages and academic coordinator, and having worked for a year in government.
Besides services for the elderly, voluntary work and assistance, the centre has been running a not-for-profit after-school Italian course since its foundation in 1956.
The IAWCC became a managing authority when it introduced the “integrated courses in 1978”, Sirna recalls.
“There was a big demand and we decided to offer the courses, mainly at beginner level, at a time when there were not many courses of foreign languages in existence,” he says.
“There was a good opportunity and we were able to convey that teaching a second language shouldn’t wait until secondary school, but that it was actually important to begin sooner.
“Public, private, Catholic and independent schools, both metropolitan and rural, can apply and we send them teachers (of which there are more than 60).
“At the moment we have around 11,000 students [the total number of Italian learners at all levels in the State is more than 50,000 students].
“The courses have a minimum duration of an hour a week, with some exceptions.
“Our teachers must follow the programs and recognised criteria under the formal system of Western Australia (and of the Schools’ Curriculum Standards Authority).”
The centre had previously accommodated up to 30,000 children but, because of cuts to state funding some years ago, the number has reduced.
Albeit not at previous levels, funds have now returned.
“It is mainly due to the quality of the programs on offer that we have been able to maintain a considerable nucleus of children,” Sirna explains.
“Schools continue to appreciate what we offer.”
Besides the after-school program and Italian courses for adults, the IAWCC also offers training:
“We always have professional development courses, not just for our teachers but for teachers statewide. It’s important to keep up to date in order to renew their registration,” Sirna concludes.
Achievements and challenges
“[Besides funding], the other issue is the continuity of teaching, for example, from primary level to mid-secondary level,” Sirna says.
“In all these years they never allowed us to have courses beyond primary school level not only because of costs, but because at high schools there was already a system in place for a second language.”
Students often have difficulty finding schools that continue with what they have already learned.
Or if they find a school that offers Italian, they are often forced to go back to the start.
“For this reason we are negotiating with schools. We can offer ‘continuity’: we have the methodology, the teachers and the resources to be able to offer that continuity up until Year 7 or 8,” Sirna says.
Sirna is proud that the program is at least recognised and respected:
“I am happy with what we have been able to do in these years,” he says.
“We’ve always tried to maintain a high standard.”
One important project for the centre is the Italian Australian Child Care Centre, founded in 1972 as “a bilingual kindergarten that works very well”.
The centre offers activities in two languages and the children are “not always of Italian origin”, as is the case for 95 per cent of students of Italian courses at the IAWCC.
A fact which causes us to reflect on the importance of promoting outside of our own community.
To conclude, Sirna cites another program which merits attention:
“We offer Italian courses, live, via Skype, to schools in remote areas.”
“When a second language became compulsory at Year 3, we began a pilot project last year and we have continued it this year with Year 4.
“The program is slowly expanding and I must say it is seems to be successful.”
Ferdinando Colarossi, Manager of the Department of Language and Culture, CO.AS.IT. Melbourne
Ferdinando Colarossi (standing) has been manager of the Department of Language and Culture of CO.AS.IT. Melbourne since 2009.
Prior to that, when the department was divided into geographical areas, for four years Colarossi was in charge of the eastern zone, and was based in Glen Waverley.
He is also president of the Victorian Association of Italian Teachers (VATI).
Language teaching and cultural promotion are the main elements of CO.AS.IT. Melbourne.
As early as the 1970s, the organisation has concerned itself with the inclusion of Italian in schools.
In the beginning, with the help of funding from the Italian government, CO.AS.IT. was able to pay Italian teachers so they were hired by schools, even if languages were not part of the curriculum.
Without this commitment, Italian would never have become the first foreign language to be taught in Australian schools.
When the Italian government altered the destination of its funds, the Victorian Minister of Education began to offer support by including Italian in the state’s curriculum and introducing linguistic assistantships.
This program is an essential component of the Protocol of Understanding stipulated between the Minister of Victoria and the Italian Embassy in Australia, which gives CO.AS.IT. the task of supporting “the actualisation of high-quality Italian language programs in schools in Victoria, which are particularly concentrated on the development of linguistic competencies and knowledge of culture”.
Another initiative which has always characterised the CO.AS.IT. programs is the after-hours program for primary and secondary students, which began in the 1970s.
In the beginning, the program was offered in various locations and suburbs, such as Brunswick, Clayton and Doncaster.
While demand for the program diminished with the development of Italian studies in schools, the program still has many students today.
Classes are held during the week for older students and on Saturday morning for primary students.
A point of reference for hundreds of educators, CO.AS.IT.’s Resource Centre offers teaching material, support, professional development training and events for teachers.
Another important element of CO.AS.IT. is its packed cultural calendar, as well as the Museo Italiano, which hosts exhibitions and events and is home to the Italian Historical Society.
Achievements and challenges
Colarossi highlights the success of CO.AS.IT.’s Language Assistants Program and the Resource Centre, which he describes as “a pivot around which all the teachers rotate: both for the quantity and variety of the material, and for the assistance ad hoc of the staff”.
“No other language has a similar initiative to this level,” he adds.
“And Orozzonti is the crowning jewel.”
CO.AS.IT. is also celebrated for its professional training initiatives, such as a trip to Perugia for teachers, which now aims to become an annual occurrence.
Colarossi is particularly passionate about assisting schools in training teachers and keeping them up to date with both their language and teaching skills.
Focusing on quality is the key to “winning” the competition against other emerging languages which are attracting more attention lately.
“The challenge lies in continual self-interrogation and self-evaluation, and being constructively critical on the path that we are taking,” Colarossi concludes.
Dina Ranieri, Director of CO.AS.IT. Brisbane
Marzia Mauro and Rosella Dermedgoglou, Education and Training Officers, Italian Language Centre Brisbane
Dina Ranieri (above) has worked at CO.AS.IT. Brisbane for over 30 years, 21 of which she has held the role of director.
Under her guidance, the organisation has become a point of reference not only for the Italian community, but for other ethnic groups which it assists.
Marzia Mauro (left) and Rosella Dermedgoglou (right) are both teachers with a wealth of knowledge in Italian studies.
They were both born in Africa to Italian parents (in Kenya and South Africa, respectively) and support teachers at the Italian Language Centre, coordinating courses and initiatives.
Founded 40 years ago, CO.AS.IT. Brisbane has focused on Italian studies since the beginning.
In the 1980s, with funding by the Italian and Australian governments, the organisation established language programs in Catholic and state schools in Queensland, extending beyond the Brisbane area and into the northern regions of Cairns and Townsville.
A big change occurred in the 1990s, when education became a state prerogative: the funds were then redistributed to all foreign languages, not just Italian, and the principals decided which languages had priority in their schools.
The responsibility of hiring Italian teachers in state schools was passed on to the government, while CO.AS.IT. hired and paid Italian teachers in Catholic schools up until 2012.
In 2007, CO.AS.IT. separated its educational and language services from its other areas of assistance, as recommended by the Italian Consulate in Brisbane.
As a result, the Italian language Centre (ILC) was established.
The centre continues to operate underneath the protection and financial support of CO.AS.IT to this day.
Coordinated by Mauro and Dermedgoglou, the many initiatives of the ILC are directed towards children (weekly playgroup), primary and secondary students (after-hours school program, incursions and competitions), adults (book club, courses and corporate activities) and teachers.
The pair travel around Queensland providing professional and language training, holding events in Cairns, Townsville, Sunshine Coast and Brisbane.
The two women do their jobs with immense passion, seeking to make all activities fun and interactive.
“We are not the first to discover that having fun and laughing causes one to remember things better!”
Last year, the duo organised the inaugural edition of the Italian oral state competition.
Fifty finalists from the five regional competitions (Brisbane, Sunshine Coast, Gold Coast, Townsville and Cairns) met in the capital to compete for the championship, and had to speak about the theme of ‘Italian on the web’.
It was a great initiative and all the students were proud of their results.
Achievements and challenges
For Ranieri, CO.AS.IT.’s success is reflected in the fact that it is considered as a point of reference for the entire Italian community in Queensland.
She also highlights the organisation’s role in meeting the demand for Italian studies in the state.
“For us this is an important accomplishment as we feel that we are able to contribute to the success of the language program in Queensland,” she says.
As is often the case, the organisation’s challenges are related to funding, which continues to dwindle as Asian languages, in particular Japanese, are prioritised by the state government.
There is also the challenge of finding qualified teachers of Italian who have a good grasp on both the teaching aspect and the language.
“This is why we concentrate on professional training,” Ranieri concludes.