Challenges of Teaching a Monolingual Class in Italy
Teaching English as a Foreign Language to adult Italian students within the corporate environment presents a variety of specific challenges, both for the teacher and the students. These include issues about the actual language acquisition and problems relating to particular company dynamics.
This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Flavia C. Please note that this blog post might not necessarily represent the beliefs or opinions of ITTT.
First of all, we must consider the students’ specific learning background: in Piemonte, a region in the North-West of Italy, people who are now in their forties and fifties generally have no (or very limited) prior learning experience of the English language. This is due to historical and geographical reasons, as this area has always had strong ties with France and the local dialect has much in common with French; therefore, the English language was not included in the public school syllabus up until the late Nineties.
Moreover, people who went to school at that time were taught languages using a ‘deductive’ method, as opposed to the more inductive’, communicative modern learning styles. This meant that students were mostly taught the grammar rules, and all practice and testing phases were purely based on gap-filling, written exercises. In addition to this, lessons were traditionally teacher-centered, and learners had very little opportunity to practice their listening and speaking skills.
Also Read: How much can I earn teaching English abroad?
Furthermore, Italy has a strong dubbing tradition; therefore, unlike in many other European countries (such as The Netherlands and Romania), children are not commonly exposed to authentic English media content such as TV programs and movies. It is undoubtedly true that the widespread use of the Internet and social media is slowly reversing this trend, but it is still very much the case that adult classes are still affected by a more traditional upbringing. For these reasons, it is not uncommon to meet Italian adults who are successful businessmen and women, but who do not feel at all comfortable when having to face conference calls or meetings in an English-speaking context.
These considerations lead directly to another problem: saving face in front of peers or, worse, direct superiors. As is the case in South American countries, Italian culture shares a traditionally masculine, hierarchical power structure in the workplace, thus compromising the free expression of opinions, and the legitimate exploring of the language can be impaired due to the fear of judgment.
It is quite frequent to observe a certain degree of embarrassment in groups of students where, due to company requirements, the Human Resources Manager attends the same course as other employees, or someone is asked to work with their chief of department, for instance. As Prof. Geert Hofstede claims, ‘Italy is a Masculine society, highly success-oriented and driven. Children are taught from an early age that competition is good, and to be a winner is important in one’s life. (….) As the working environment is the place where every Italian can reach his/her success, competition among colleagues for making a career can be very strong.’¹ Therefore, it is hardly surprising that the concept of ‘saving face’ and not losing credibility is strongly rooted in most Italian corporate environments. Some companies offer one-on-one EFL training to executives as part of their benefits package, thus reducing the occurrence of such specific cases.
Women vs. Men
Gender issues can sometimes arise, especially in family-owned companies with a long-standing ‘macho’ tradition. Women in Italy still experience the power gap with their male peers, which is reflected in their reduced chance of climbing the power structure, lower wages and, occasionally, fewer training options.
On the other hand, as is the case with most adult classes, Italian corporate students are strongly motivated to learn and improve their linguistic proficiency and are therefore willing to dedicate time and effort to this end, despite family time and other commitments.
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On the whole, teaching English (whether it be General or Business) to adult students in the North of Italy is a rewarding, yet challenging adventure.
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