Excuse me, what is a republic? Introducing Italian area studies to first year undergraduates

Author: Maria Guarnieri


This paper describes an area studies module of an Italian degree programme at the University of Central Lancashire. There is a particular emphasis on transferable skills.

Table of contents


This study aims to describe and evaluate an attempt carried out during the academic year 2000/2001 to visibly integrate a discrete number of transferable skills into the learning and teaching of a level 1 Area studies module delivered to ab-initio students on the specialist Italian degree programme at the University of Central Lancashire. Italian is a relatively new degree subject at the University. It was established in 1993/1994 as an ab-initio minor route and it is currently available also as a joint route (joint students undertake a period of residence abroad at an Italian partner institution and continue with advanced modules and an Italian dissertation in the final year of study).

The module in question was therefore conceived as an introduction to Italian Studies preparing for the more conceptually demanding and specialised thematic or content modules that accompany Italian language modules at levels 2 and 3, and in preparation for the study period abroad (in the case of students opting for the joint study route). The module is offered over two semesters and is jointly taught by the Italian team. The first half is delivered in English and can be described as an outline of recent Italian history from Unification to the present day. A variety of materials, including samples of Italian poetry and short fiction, are examined and discussed in order to guide the learners in their first contact with contemporary Italian history and culture. The second half of the module, on which I will be focusing in this study, is an attempt to provide the student with an overview of Italian institutions and of what one might term the basic co-ordinates of contemporary society. The course consists mainly of lectures delivered in the target language, and typically looks at a selection of the following:

  • Italian government and issues of regionalism and decentralisation;
  • Changes in the structure of the Italian family and family legislation;
  • The Italian education system - between tradition and reform;
  • Characteristics of the Italian labour market;
  • Italy and multiculturalism: immigration and immigration legislation;
  • The evolving relationship between the Catholic Church and contemporary Italian society.

The teaching unit and transferable skills

The list of themes outlined above might at a first analysis, strike the reader as particularly ambitious and somewhat unrealistic. This is a view that often surfaced during the initial stages of module design, in formal and informal exchanges between colleagues and with external examiners. The fact that beginners with no previous knowledge of the language and very little experience of Italian society and culture would be exposed to such a demanding syllabus posed serious questions about its viability and accessibility. The fact that it would be delivered in the target language and that, as we will see, many of the materials discussed in class are in Italian and are not adapted for a non-Italian user, was seen as an even more insurmountable obstacle.

Our rationale was to expose the learners from a very early stage to a meaningful set of socio-cultural references that would influence their understanding and learning of the language; to encourage them to approach a culture of which they tend to have a very general and often stereotyped perception (Coleman 1996) in a serious, non-anecdotal and scientifically inspired fashion; and to familiarise them with the representations of the country that can emerge from a reading of some of its ideological underpinnings. To this purpose, as we shall see, articles from the Italian Constitution of 1948 were studied alongside corresponding aspects of contemporary society. The skills highlighted by this perspective can be grouped under the following headings:

Intercultural analysis skills

The approach adopted has been mainly that of a contrastive analysis by increasing the awareness of some of the structures described in British society and only then transferring such knowledge onto an introductory analysis of contemporary Italy.

Preparation for the year abroad

To encourage the students to start exploring some of the codes that will help them to function in the study/work environment to which they will have to adapt in their third year. Skills such as adaptability, the ability to draw constructive critical comparisons, the ability to consider problems and issues in terms of socio-cultural relativism can be successfully transferred into other areas (other languages studied, general employability skills).

Cognitive skills

Having noticed the need for a clear definition of some of the elementary conceptual tools necessary to compare and contrast areas such as structures of government, we decided to consider with the group possible definitions of pre-requisite ideas, such as what could be a useful definition of a constitution, what we can mean by the term parliamentary republic, etc. These conceptual tools were then applied to texts, figures and statistics in order to highlight discrepancies and correspondences. Skills such as selection and prioritisation of information were explicitly foregrounded. The ability to switch between a deductive and an inductive point of view was also focused upon.

Research and management of sources

The module represents the first opportunity for a guided introduction to the location and evaluation of information sources for this aspect of Italian studies as well as a first attempt at interpreting and presenting relevant information and data in Italian.

Subject specific skills

The fact that the materials are mainly in the target language allows for a first exposure to issues of register and to a focus on the transferability of skills already acquired in the first language, such as reading flexibly, with a purpose, with a reasonable understanding of macro and micro-textual co-ordinates, etc.

Personal skills

Work on learners' self-awareness and motivation, initial discussion and definition of the purpose of studying a language at university, what university level study is supposed to be like, as well as the requisites of that study (meeting cultural challenges, etc).

Presentational skills

The module is assessed by means of a short presentation in Italian on one of the topics/themes covered. A selection of materials on presentations developed during the Translang project (Pilkington 2000) were summarised and integrated with language-specific guidelines and tips. These were later examined in a workshop in order for the group to share previous academic and professional experiences of presentation delivery and to agree on a common framework within which to work on the task set. Unfortunately, no trial run took place because of the extremely limited contact time. However, given that normally the group is relatively small the students are encouraged to see the module tutor on an individual basis to discuss sources, structure of their presentation, language doubts and difficulties. They generally take advantage of this opportunity, which provides them with a safe environment in which to reflect on the task before the assessment.

The student group

As already stated, the group is normally small. In the academic year 2000/2001 it consisted of 12 students, all of them studying Italian ab-initio. Their backgrounds appear to be fairly similar to those of ab-initio languages groups in similar institutions. Approximately half of them study another language (Spanish or French) at post-A or post-GCSE level. Some are mature students, who have already worked or lived abroad and therefore bring with them valuable skills such as time management, team work, and interpersonal communication skills. In both cases, they nevertheless display very little awareness of acquired skills, and therefore require carefully structured guidance on the how and the to what extent of transferable skills.

Teaching and teaching materials

Topics are covered in teaching units of varying length. Typically, a brainstorming session on one or two key terms and ideas is followed by group work on accepted definitions (in English) of the terms discussed, often from a comparative perspective. After an introductory lecture, students are exposed to texts (mainly newspaper articles and video-clips from recent Italian news of an informative and descriptive nature, but also short academic essays in English). They are often required to find statistical evidence in the texts to support or challenge views expressed in the lecture. At a later stage, learners are guided in a discussion of the extent of discrepancies and correspondences between constitutional principles and the images of contemporary Italian society which emerge from their textual analysis. Examples 1 and 2 below provide some illustration:

Example 1     La Costituzione

Early in the course, students were asked to work in-groups on possible meanings of the term constitution, and to hypothesise about which European countries have or do not have a written constitution, etc. Some of their hypotheses were quite perceptive and were later compared with the following definition:

"A constitution is, broadly speaking, a set of rules that seek to establish the duties, powers and functions of the various institutions of government, regulate the relationships between them, and define the relationship between the state and the individual. Constitutions thus lay down certain meta-rules for the political system; in effect, these are rules that rule the government. [...]. The most common way of classifying constitutions is to distinguish between codified and uncodified, or written and unwritten constitutions. Codified constitutions draw together key constitutional provisions within a single, legal document, popularly known as a written constitution or the constitution. These documents are authoritative in the sense that they constitute higher law- indeed the highest law of the land. [...] Uncodified constitutions are now found only in two liberal democracies (Israel and the UK) and a handful of non-democratic states. In the absence of a written constitution, uncodified constitutions draw upon a variety of sources (in the UK these include statute law, common law, conventions works of authority and EU law). Laws of constitutional significance are not entrenched: they may be changed through the normal legislative process.[...] [as a consequence] The parliament has the right to make or unmake any law whatsoever, no body, including the courts, having the ability to override or set aside its laws. [...]"

Heywood, A. (2000) Key Concepts in Politics. Houndmills: Macmillan: 196-197

Learners were then required to work in groups and try to identify extracts from the Italian constitution that deal with:

  • the duties, powers, functions of the various institutions of government and the relationships between them;
  • rules that establish and regulate the relationship between the state and the individual.

This task provided them with an opportunity to explore the contradictory linguistic format of the Italian constitution, eternally suspended between bureaucratic obscurity and the theoretical aim of democratic accessibility. It also represented the springboard for a series of sessions on the structure of the Italian government and on basic individual rights and duties.

Example  2.     Il diritto al lavoro. Occupazione e disoccupazione in Italia (1990-2001).
                    The right to work. Employment and Unemployment in Italy (1990-2001).

Articles 1 and 4 of the Italian constitution state:

Articolo 1

"L'Italia è una Repubblica democratica, fondata sul lavoro.
La sovranitá appartiene al popolo, che la esercita nelle forme e nei limiti della Costituzione."

Articolo 4

"La Repubblica riconosce a tutti i cittadini il diritto al lavoro e promuove le condizioni che rendano effettivo questo diritto.
Ogni cittadino ha il dovere di svolgere secondo le proprie possibilità e la propria scelta, un attività o una funzione che concorra al progresso materiale o spirituale della società."


Article 1

"Italy is a democratic republic, founded on work.
Sovereignty belongs to the people, who exercise it in the forms and within the limits of the Constitution."

Article 4

"The Republic acknowledges the right to work of each and every citizen and promotes the conditions which make this right effective. Every citizen has the duty to carry out, in accordance with his own possibilities and choices, an activity or function which promotes the material or spiritual progress of society."

These two articles were the starting point of lessons looking at characteristics of employment and unemployment in contemporary Italy. Short texts in Italian were examined in groups and students were invited to carry out an Internet search in order to collect further statistical evidence on the phenomenon. What follows is a short extract from one of the texts proposed by the module tutor:

"[] I politici stranieri parlano spesso, quando si occupano dell'Italia, dell'unica nostra caratteristica considerata davvero anomala ed interessante: l'incredibile percentuale di giovani che vivono con i genitori. [] Noi non ce ne accorgiamo, perchß siamo immersi da tempo in una realtà distorta. Ma le cifre del caso italiano sono davvero impressionanti. Più del 70% dei giovani sotto i 30 anni vive infatti con i genitori. Nel 1990, il 52% degli italiani tra i 18 e 34 anni stava ancora in famiglia e questa percentuale, già elevatissima, è diventata del 59% nel 1998. [] raschiata la superficie, sotto le battute della stampa straniera e le divagazioni psicologiche e sociologiche, emerge un problema grande come una casa, forse il principale problema italiano, [..]: il problema della disoccupazione giovanile. I giovani sono forse attaccati al cooking and love of Mamma, ma non vanno a abitare da soli (e non si sposano) anche perchß non hanno lavoro. Il tasso di disoccupazione giovanile in Italia è infatti del 32% con punte sconvolgenti nel Mezzogiorno: il 55% dei minori di 24 anni in Sardegna, il 60% in Sicilia, il 63% in Campania, il 66% in Calabria. Peggio ancora si trovano le giovani. [] se le donne non lavorano non raggiungono infatti un reddito familiare decoroso, se lavorano (e questo è secondo l'Istat il caso di un quarto delle sposate) devono sommare all'orario di fabbrica o di ufficio altre 40 ore settimanali di lavoro domestico. La stampa internazionale fa questa semplice riflessione e fornisce i dati statistici che la sostengono. Vogliono di tutto ciò occuparsi anche i nostri giornali? []"


"[] Often, when foreign politicians talk about Italy, they mention one national characteristic of ours which they find really interesting, even anomalous: the incredible number of young people who live with their parents. [] This is not something we are aware of, because for some time we have been living in our own distorted reality, but the figures for Italy are really extraordinary. In point of fact more than 70% of young people under 30 live with their parents. In 1990, 52% of Italians aged between 18 and 34 were still living with their families and this already extremely high percentage went up to 59% in 1998. [] if we look below the surface, at what underlies the witty remarks which we see in the foreign press and the ramblings of psychologists and sociologists, we see a problem that could not be bigger, perhaps the most important problem facing Italian society [..]: the problem of youth unemployment. Maybe young people really are attached to home cooking and the love of Mamma, but the other reason why they do not leave home to live on their own (or to get married) is that they cant get any work. Youth unemployment in Italy is actually 32%, with higher peaks in the South: 55% of those aged below 24 in Sardinia, 60% in Sicily, 63% in Campania, 66% in Calabria. Its even worse for young women. [] If women do not go out to work they cannot put together a decent family budget, and if they do work (and, according to ISTAT (the Istituto italiano di statistica) this is the case for a quarter of married women) they have to fit the time they spend in the factory or the office around more than 40 hours a week of domestic work. The international press is doing no more than point these simple facts out and has the statistical data to prove them. When will our newspapers deign to notice them?"

The extract on unemployment in Italy is deliberately confrontational and draws attention to at least three of the most distinctive characteristics of the 'Italian case': high female and youth unemployment rates, AND a historically unbridgeable gap between the north and the south of the country. Students were required in a final session to compare the image of Italian employment and unemployment emerging from the data and opinions examined in this and other sources with the principles set out in the constitution (Italy is a democratic republic based on work, the Republic recognizes the right to work of each and every citizen). The discussion was carefully structured and resulted in a joint effort to read the information critically.


As already mentioned, this half of the Introduction to Italian Studies module is assessed by means of a short presentation in Italian. The students are invited to select a topic from the syllabus and to integrate information from class notes and materials with evidence of independent research. The rationale behind this choice of assessment is the introductory nature of the module itself. The assessed presentation represents an opportunity to work as a group on academic conventions and move beyond the topics and tasks normally expected of a first year ab-initio cohort and onto more exciting terrain. Workshops were devised in an attempt to bring together students' previous ideas and experiences of presentations and to outline a common accepted framework for the task at hand. A selection of the materials on presentations enclosed in the Translang guide (Pilkington 2000) provided a stimulating input for group discussion and was supplemented by guidelines in Italian focusing mainly on language tips and issues of register, which will become more important in assessed presentations and seminar papers at levels 2 and 3.

Two sets of marking criteria were used: departmental criteria and a communication skills assessment grid which was developed by the Translang project (Pilkington 2000). Most learners fell into the Pass category, which is in itself an encouraging result for a 1st year group coming to grips with academic expectations.

As regards the cultural contents of the module, many students showed a reasonable degree of familiarity with sources in Italian: the Istat (Istituto italiano di statistica) website and the websites of the main Italian newspapers and current affairs magazines (La Repubblica; Il Corriere della sera; L'Espresso; Panorama). Preparatory work for the presentation allowed them to at least become aware of the main printed resources on contemporary Italian society available in the university library.

Evaluation and conclusions

As noted in the Introduction, the debate on the measurability of skills transfer is ongoing. Within this context the present study can also be regarded as an attempt to find a practical solution to some of the difficulties encountered by practitioners teaching on ab-initio languages degrees.

The need to give homogeneity to the profiles of the learners on these programmes (often mature students coming from hugely different learning and working experiences), to work with them on motivation and expectation, to offer them an active, up-to-date and challenging first approach to new cultural contents, the necessity for adequate preparation of new students for the requirements of level 2 and 3 and an open-minded and pro-active attitude during their period abroad, are all factors that have contributed to the design and implementation of the module outlined.

The explicit emphasis on skills, the movement from procedural to declarative knowledge that has to take place in the case of skills that the learners have already acquired in their native language, the focus on new conceptual tools and on comparative analysis (i.e. phenomena like the employment gap between Northern and Southern Italy bear striking similarities to the UK of the last two decades), the questioning of stereotyped representations of other cultures and of ones own culture (a careful examination of employment/unemployment statistics will find little difference between the British unemployment rate and those of southern European countries such as Italy) point in the direction of the wider learning implications of specialist language programmes.

Appendix 1: Guidlines in Italian

Download Appendix 1 (rich text format, 27Kb)


Byram, M. (1999). Language Teachers, Politics and Culture. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters

Coleman, J. (1996). Studying Languages; a survey of British and European Students. London: CILT

Heywood, A. (2000). Key Concepts in Politics. Houndmills: Macmillan:

Hinkel, E.(ed.), (1999). Culture in 2nd Language Teaching and Learning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kramsch, C. (1993). Context and Culture in Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

O'Malley, J. and A. Chamot (1990). Learning Strategies in Second Language Acquisition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pilkington, R. (Ed.), (2000). The TransLang Guide to Transferable Skills in Non-specialist Language Learning. Preston: TransLang/University of Central Lancashire.

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