What Have You Learned While Abroad?

Lets face it, the cost of a college degree is not cheap and one’s semester abroad needs to be justified for its value added (or not) towards ones academic and career goals.   At a minimum a student should walk away from a semester abroad having met locals and having made progress towards language proficiency.

Cultural competency, which includes learning a foreign language, is consistently touted as a given outcome of living abroad.   To the contrary, study abroad professionals are often anguished by the fact that many students fail to meet native speakers and rarely break out of their “American Ghettos.”

The Italy Center is attempting to evaluate our students’ (non Ghetto) immersion experiences.  The research conducted by Spring Hill Language Professor Lorenza Fabretti focuses on language acquisition through our Speaking Partner program.  The program matches each U.S. American student with one, often two or three Italian college students living on our residence hall or peers who are active at the Bologna Jesuit Center where many of our classes are held.

Attempting to determine why some students learn the local language and others do not is complex.  When asked “how to speak in a different tongue?” a group of Italy Center students offered the following wisdom:

1.  Severely limit the time you spend with other American students

How? All Italy Centered students share a residence hall with 100 Italian students (plus a few Spanish, Scandinavians and Australians).  Dorm life allows for daily conversation over meals, coffee and cigarettes (yes, Europeans still smoke), and access into the Italian language immediate.

2.  Everyday go out and force yourself into a situation where you have to speak the language.

How? Bologna is squeezed between Florence and Venice but fortunately pushes away the more that 14 million tourists that those cities try to absorb each year.  As a result, Bologna is not saturated with tourists and is a welcoming city for U.S. Americans. Therefore, one has no excuse for not getting out and trying to practice Italian with other students (there are only 100,000 Italians students walking the streets).   Your professor can only do 50% of the work—it is up to you to do the rest

3.  Get involved in a project or club with Italian students.

How? The Italy Center and the Camplus Alma Mater residence hall staff collaborate to provide a broad range of activities.  American students may work as “Junior Teachers” with Italians neighbors who are learning English. Others may simply take part in the bi-weekly Speaking Partner events where we mix over food, music, and cultural events.   Informal opportunities are abundant ranging from sitting with Italians in the cafeteria to exploring the nightlife on weekends.

The philosophy, which underscores the pedagogy of the Italian Center stems from the idea that learners, can become owners of their own ability to learn. Fundamental to this concept is creating a structure that will help to develop learners’ autonomy through interaction with a more expert tutor/teacher.  This idea revolves around the notion of language autonomy and Zone of Proximal Development based on the work of Russian psychologist Lev Vygotskij

Italy Center Faculty operate from the notion that learning comes from interacting with a peer as a part of the Speaking Partner Program.  Imbedded in this structure is the fact that the student becomes both the teacher of his own language and the learner of the foreign language.

According to Vygotsky (The Cognitive Process), language learning takes shape in interaction with a more expert peer or tutor.  In essence, language learning is not solely a cognitive skill but is nurtured and develops by group interaction. Here at the Italy Center, co-curriculum opportunities are ample as students learn not only in the classroom, but also in a number of venues that include on-site classes, social and educational events with Italians living in the dormitory as well as structured travel with Italian peers – to name a few ways in which the social environment augments the classroom experience.

For more information on Professor Fabretti’s study of the Italy Center’s Speaking Partner program, she can be reached at lfabretti@shc.edu.