Pinocchio Project at La Dante – Overcoming the challenges of raising bilingual children

When it comes to learning a foreign language, every child is different and each of them needs a specifically tailored programme throughout their language learning process in order to be able to improve.
When parents speak different languages, there will always be a majority language – the one that is also spoken at school and by the community that surrounds the child. The parents who speak the minority language might have encouraged and supported the learning of their own native language from an early age. Unfortunately, they often find that at the age of 5, when children start going to school, they stop using the minority language.
Why does that happen? It’s because children are practical and they quickly understand which language is more useful in their everyday life – and that makes it easy for them to decide to neglect the minority language. To prevent this from happening, the parents have to be able to show them the importance of their second language, and they can do it by surrounding them with other children who speak the same language, creating an oasis where speaking the minority language is necessary – and fun!

What’s special about children’s courses at La Dante?
At La Dante, we made it our primary objective to create a sense of community. We want children and parents who come here to feel we are an enlarged Italian family in the heart of Cambridge, where learning comes naturally and where they can borrow Italian books or Italian movies and enjoy their time with other children who share their background. La Dante has been supporting families in this way since 2008 when the school was founded for this exact same reason. We have seen an incredible number of young learners studying for and successfully passing GCSE’s and A-Levels or IB exams with exceptional results… but remember it all started when they were kids and just enjoyed playing in Italian with their friends.
Raising a child bilingually is not easy – and that’s something our Director and Founder, Giulia Portuese-Williams, knows very well. Her sons, now at university, have gone through two different paths in their learning: one, Lorenzo, has always been enthusiastic about his mother’s language and thought it was “really cool to be Italian” once he discovered – at secondary school – that “girls love it”. While for the younger one, Luca, he didn’t see the point in speaking any language other than English, as “none of his friends at school spoke any Italian”. When he was 10, he completely dropped it. Giulia gave him the space he wanted, but she never stopped talking to him in Italian, until he started showing more interest and spontaneously chose to start learning it again when he was 14 years old. Giulia often took them on trips to Italy to visit friends, family, and certainly, their Italian nonna had a major role in keeping them attached to their Italian roots. She was the one who truly inspired them with her octopus salad and delicious food from Southern Italy. Luca and Lorenzo both came at La Dante to join our Italian classes to consolidate both written and spoken skills. They both managed to acquire a good level of Italian and confidence in speaking Italian and now they are both fluent.

How do you develop your communication skills with children?
We know that children are only capable of brief attention spans. Our Italian teachers are trained to vary the topics of their class often enough to keep their interest high while developing all four skills (listening, speaking, reading and writing) at different levels.
In small classes, children thrive and develop the Italian language from a very young age. Joseph, for instance, was just 4 when he first joined one of our classes – he is now 5 and has an incredible control of language: he loves making hot chocolate with the teacher when he starts his lessons and he speaks with a perfect Italian accent.
Our teachers take into account the age and needs of every young student and their personal and linguistic skills in order to develop a programme that gives them the confidence necessary to communicate in the language.

What children classes is La Dante currently offering?
We currently run two beginners’ courses, which are aimed at two different types of learners. The first group includes children from 4 to 5 years old and the second group is intended for children from 6 to 8 years old. Both these courses focus on the communicative approach and place particular emphasis on developing their speaking skills.
All children have the possibility to learn Italian while having fun with their friends through games and creative activities, under the supervision and the guidance of our native Italian teachers. They get to know every child and give constant feedback to parents.
Who is the Pinocchio bilingual project aimed at?
Our brand-new Pinocchio bilingual project is aimed at children who have already achieved some level of fluency in Italian skills but need to practice their writing skills and to develop their knowledge of Italian culture, as they would if they were living in Italy. In September 2018, the new classes will start following a programme based on consolidating Italian grammar, becoming acquainted with Italian traditions, and learning the basics of History, Arts and Geography.
La Dante is currently the only school that is providing this important educational service to the Anglo-Italian bilingual community in Cambridge, UK.
What happens in the classrooms?
In our children’s courses, children are exposed to basic Italian vocabulary and learn some simple sentences: they learn how to describe their daily routines, how to talk about their favourite food, to ask for their favourite pizza or pasta, how to talk about what they like to do in their free time, how to ask for directions, how to speak about their family and so on. Our Italian teachers make an extensive use of realia (real objects, photographs, games, role play, rhymes, songs, creative media tools, online resources and textbooks) to enhance the children’s skills.
As for the bilingual classes, the programme is different: we use a textbook to give the course a better structure and to enhance their knowledge of Italian culture, History, Geography, and Arts, as well as introducing elements of grammar in a structured way. Italian teachers use a wealth of textbooks used in Italy which will consolidate grammatical skills over time. Parents’ support and encouragement are extremely important in inspiring children and in helping them with homework at home. But don’t forget: at La Dante, we believe “learning through play” is the best and most effective way to learn.
The warm and welcoming environment at La Dante is where children make friends and have fun on Saturdays while learning one of the most beautiful languages in the world!
Come along to find out more – it is never too early nor too late for your children to learn another language! Give them the gift of fluency, they’ll be thanking you for life once they grow up.

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