In this age of culture wars, ‘literature’ has become a well-trammelled field of combat. On one side the grey coats extol the virtues of the high canon. On the other side the relativists grant access to the ranks for everything from Star Wars to cereal boxes.
Yet many educators have not left the field, so much as sidestepped the conflict. Dr Piera Carroli believes that literature can encompass the old and the new, the poetic and the pragmatic. She is no relativist. For her the value of literature comes from it being situated in particular places and times. And for her students, she is a sincere advocate of the role that literature can play in learning a second language.
Since 1997 Carroli has been Convenor of Italian in the School of Language Studies at ANU. She’s just published a book, Literature in Second Language Education, which is based on her research delving into how students perceive, study and learn from second-language literature.
But what kind of student was the professor herself? She spent a happy childhood in Romagna, Italy, but confesses to a “nomadic” inclination in her reading, using books as a means of escape to other places and possibilities.
“I’m a bit of a dreamer, but have always been pragmatic too. I’ve had this desire to travel and study languages from when I was quite small, and I’ve wanted to use languages in my work. I found this love of languages in literature. But I had to become very pragmatic when I was studying linguistics.”
Mixing practical and creative approaches to language was clearly something that Carroli developed early in life, as well as an appreciation that knowing how languages function was a way to empowerment.
“Learning languages, including your own language, gives you a lot of freedom – socially, educationally, even spiritually,” she says. “When I began teaching in Australia, I realised that some young people struggled with the underpinnings of language – the structure and metalanguage. In any democratic country everyone should have the opportunity to learn their first language well, and then others. If you do not know language well your options are very restricted. You will never be able to fully avail yourself of all the nuances that language offers, from the slang and dialect you may speak with your friends or grandparents, to academic or poetic forms.”
What does it mean to know a language well? Carroli was deeply influenced by her earlier studies in social linguistics, which links the way that language is used to social class and power. She was struck by the way that the diffusion of standard Italian in her native country – through things like universal education and news media – led to a freeing up of social mobility. People who might once have been discriminated against on account of their ‘lower class’ language use could instead mix it with the best of them.
Carroli talks about the importance of knowing different ‘registers’ within a language, which refers to the many scenarios that arise within a culture and the different kinds of speaking or writing they require. How we address a close school friend at the pub, for example, will be markedly different from how we address a judge in a courtroom.
To know a language well means that you can use different registers, recognise them and have an awareness of how language works, how important it is to use the right register in the right environment.
“To know a language well means that you can use different registers, recognise them and have an awareness of how language works, how important it is to use the right register in the right environment,” she says. “It’s important in Australia as well. If you are not highly competent in English, your employment opportunities will be restricted. And learning languages leads to the freedom to work in other cultures, or even just read of other ways of living.”
In her new book, Carroli puts forward the results of her own efforts to integrate the reading of Italian literature with the learning of that language. She says that her students can be daunted when confronted with an entire page of an Italian novel or short story, but that this initial trepidation soon gives way to curiosity and engagement.
She relates a recent example where students were asked to read The Three Tales of the Traveller, three linked stories by Stefano Benni, a writer known for his ironic political observations. In the third tale a group of travellers on a train complain about the heat, and then about newcomers to their country. Gradually it becomes clear that the different carriages are reflections of the various layers of hell in Dante’s Inferno.
Carroli says her students were impressed by the way the author linked contemporary political commentary with a venerable text. They drew from it reflections on universal human attitudes, but also connections closer to home, especially from the first tale “La Casa Bella” in which the traveller reflects on his decision to leave his beautiful home and land. One student related it back to her own experience of being forced off the family farm. Others drew a connection to the dispossession of Indigenous Australians.
As the students’ imaginations and intellects were engaged with this story, something else was occurring too. Little by little they began to internalise the way that language was being used, in both functional and idiomatic senses. Carroli connects this back to the sense of enjoyment that humans derive from stories.
“I think when you feel a sense of pleasure, you notice things more carefully or clearly, and you remember them well. One of the students said they didn’t realise what they were learning at the time, but it came back later – the images and the form. Some were visualisers, some focussed on words. In almost all of them this dimension of pleasure was crucial.”
“It was also very important to me to focus on form as well. That’s why we work so intensely. Sometimes we’d spend a couple of classes on just one paragraph. I encourage the students to infer the outcome, but also to link it very closely to the grammatical and lexical choices of the author. Why has he chosen those words, why those forms?
“When they answered I could see they were reproducing some of those forms in their language, so they had internalised it. You need that intensity to internalise it and reproduce it. They have a much stronger chance of learning the language if they start this process of internalisation immediately.”
Carroli’s successful approach has been recognised outside the classroom. She’s been a recipient of the Vice-Chancellor’s Award for Teaching Excellence. The Italian Government has also been keen to build on the success of Italian at ANU, funding a lecturer position currently filled by Grazia Miccichè. The team has grown again with another ANU-funded position, filled by Patrizia Berti.
But at the core of this success is a love of language, and especially literature – something Carroli says she could not live without.
“I’m addicted. If I don’t have a book I feel lost,” she says. Her enthusiasm is clear, and the message simple: in a book can be found a new language and all the freedom it brings.
In 2008 Italian student Madonna Quixley won first prize in the literary component of the Premio Italia award, which is sponsored by the Italian Institute of Culture in Sydney. Her poem about sisters in the piazza is reproduced below in Italian and English.
Nella piazza di re giorgio v
È Brisbane, non è Bologna.
È il municipio, non il tempio,
solo una faccia della mia piazza preferita,
solo il centro della mia città, della mia minuscola vita,
nel principio, vicino al mio cuore,
Ancora è così maestoso, nella luce del sole del
Le colonne corinzie, le palme quasi egiziane,
due leoni di pietra, le guardie.
Noi bambine, affettuose domatrici di leoni,
baciavamo, abbracciavamo quei leoni placidi
ogni volta che andavamo in centro.
La fontana la notte che bellissima vista!
I colori dalle luci subacquee attraggono il turista
rna immagini di depliant non trasmettono i giochi
e il divertimento che provavamo certe notti
della nostra infanzia, nelle nubi di goccioline.
Ridevamo mentre i nostri gcnitori guardavano, noi
Come i piccioni che fanno la cacca sulle statue,
non percepivamo Ie macchie che facevamo sulle
nostre facce ogni volta (sempre) che sceglievamo
di odiare. E quando per la prima volta abbiamo pensato
alle conseguenze dell’odio ci siamo sedute
insieme nella nostra piazza preferita - fuori.
Mia sorella e io, bracci collegati, abbiamo protestato
contro l’ apartheid, sedute, con i cartelli e tutti gli altri
che credevano nell’uguaglianza, insieme, poi,
nello stato d’emergenza che Bjelke-Peterson ha dichiarato,
abbiamo ricordato il nostro passato nella piazza del nostro amico
Giorgio quando, insieme, improvvisamente, abbiamo riso.
E abbiamo guardato i nostri leoni di pietra
e ci siamo sentite coraggiose, cuor di leone
mentre ricordavamo i baci e gli abbracci che
gli davamo quando noi eravamo bambine
e sapevamo, poi, solo, dovevamo comportarci odiosamente
per proteggere i diritti umani in nome dell’ amore, fuori.
In King George Square
It’s Brisbane, it’s not Bologna.
It’s the town hall, not the temple,
only one face of my favourite piazza,
only the centre of my city, of my miniscule life,
in the beginning, close to my heart,
Still, it’s so majestic, in the Queensland sunshine
the Corinthian columns, the almost Egyptian palms
two stone lions, the guards.
We little girls, affectionate lion tamers,
we used to kiss, we used to hug those placid lions
every time we went to town.
The fountain at night what a beautiful sight!
The colours of the underwater lights attract the tourist
but travel brochure images don’t convey the fun
and games we experienced certain nights
of our childhood, in the spray
we laughed while our parents watched us, we rebels.
Like the pigeons that poop on the statues
we didn’t perceive the marks we made on
our faces each time (always) that we chose
to hate. And when, for the first time, we thought
about the consequences of hatred, we were seated,
together, in our favourite piazza, outside.
My sister and I, arms linked, we protested
against apartheid, seated, with placards, and all the others
who believed in equality, together, then,
in the state of emergency that Bjelke-Peterson declared,
we remembered our past in the piazza of our friend
George, when, together, suddenly, we laughed.
And we looked at our stone lions
and we felt courageous, lion-hearted,
while we remembered the kisses and hugs that
we gave them when we were little girls
and we knew then, only, we had to behave badly
to protect human rights in the name of love, outside.