L’italiano per i ragazzi
Italian for Children
“Mi chiamo Abigail,” the blonde, pig-tailed girl at the Girotondo Italian Academy in San Rafael, Ca., replies when asked her name. Holding up four fingers, she announces “quattro” as her age. When I compliment her Italian, she nonchalantly says, “Si, parlo bene italiano.” (Yes, I speak Italian well.)
I am seized with jealousy of this adorable child. Although I’ve studied Italian for more than a quarter-century and written a book about la bella lingua, I will never match Abigail’s flawless accent or effortless rhythm. She and growing numbers of American youngsters are ingesting Italian with as much ease and delight as a cone of gelato.
Fluency is only one of the reasons for a boom in Italian “Mommy and Me” playgroups, family day care, preschools, kindergartens and after-school programs. Many of these young students are among the 26 million Americans of Italian descent. “Italians take great pride in their roots and want to preserve their heritage,” says Carolina Gengo di Domenico of the Piazza di Carolina, an all-Italian nursery program in Yonkers, N.Y. “The language helps their children connect with their grandparents and relatives in Italy.”
Other parents, lacking even a drop of Italian blood, want to prepare their youngsters for an increasingly competitive global future. According to linguists Kendall King and Alison Mackey of Georgetown University, authors of The Bilingual Edge, children immersed in two languages at a very young age are more creative and flexible in their thinking and demonstrate earlier reading readiness compared to their “monolinguistic” peers.
The Romance languages, including Italian, French and Spanish, offer an extra advantage: Their Latin roots, the basis for many English words, build vocabulary and pay long-term dividends such as better grades and test performance.
“Extended study of a Latin-based language can boost verbal SAT scores by 20 percent—and Italian is closer to Latin than any other tongue,” says Patrizia Ciniquini Cerruti, education director at the Italian Cultural Society in Sacramento.
Because Italian is so musical and phonetic, even the youngest children grasp it quickly. Within a week, a two-year-old in an Italian-only class fully comprehends what teachers and classmates are saying, reports Rosella Pusateri, founder of the Girotondo Italian Academy. “The older the child, the longer it takes—three weeks for a three year old, up to three months for a five year old.”
By studying Italian, children become not just bilingual but bicultural. They sing the same ninnenanne (nursery rhymes) that youngsters in Italy have chanted for hundreds of years. They listen to stories such as Cappuccetto Rosso (“Little Red Riding Hood”) and Riccioli d'Oro e i Tre Orsi (“Goldilocks and the Three Bears”). They add and subtract with pasta shells and make the sounds of Italian cani (dogs), gatti (cats) and mucche (cows).
Like others preschoolers, children in Italian immersion programs may learn colors by touching everything yellow (giallo) in the room or filling a basket with red (rosso) items. But they also do activities all’ italiana (Italian style).
For instance, at Sacramento’s Italian Cultural Society (photo above) kindergarteners choose colors whose names they know in Italian, attach big sheets of paper to the undersides of their worktables, lie on their backs, and paint like Michelangelo.
Because readers often ask where they or their children can learn Italian, I am putting together a registry of Italian programs for children and/or adults at my website. If you would like to add your link, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Words and Expressions
asilo — nursery school, kindergarten
disegnare — to draw
colorare — to color
pastelli — crayons
pennarelli — colored pens
Dianne Hales is the author of La Bella Lingua: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language.
Click below to learn more Italian school-related words — from a child: