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Italian lesson corona

The two groups are all currently perfecting their Italian

Coronavirus builds new connections between students and refugees living on opposite sides of Europe

They may live thousands of miles apart, separated by lockdowns, but coronavirus has forged new connections between a group of students in England and refugees living in Italy.

The University of Exeter undergraduates have seen their year abroad in Italy come to an abrupt end, while the adult learners in Italy have overcome enormous challenges to reach the country and begin new lives.

The two groups share a common experience – they are all currently perfecting their Italian - and during get-togethers online they were able to share the highs and lows of learning the language.

Valentina Todino, an Italian tutor at the University of Exeter and community cultural mediator, and Sara Forcella, a PhD student at the Rome University La Sapienza who also teaches Italian, set up the online lessons to help their students feel less isolated, and to help them continue to practice their language skills while stuck at home.

The group of seven people based in Italy who took part in the lessons had arrived in the country after traumatic journeys from Guinea Conakry, Ghana, Nigeria, Mali, Iran and Somalia. Some had to learn to read and write when they arrived in Europe, others have degrees, and a few speak three other languages. Some live in refugee centres and others are now in private accommodation. Sara runs Italian language and culture activities and, together with a legal assistant, advice sessions to help them adjust to life in Italy. Since the pandemic these activities have moved online.

The group met twice before term ended, and it is hoped the initiative can run again in the next academic year.

Valentina said: “We deliberately planned the lessons to include language activities and kept the conversation informal. People didn’t have to talk about anything personal, and they really enjoyed discussing their love for the Italian language and culture. The two groups have told us it’s been a wonderful experience for them. For my students it has given them a new perspective on the reality of migration to Italy, something they wouldn’t necessarily have seen in person while they were in the country.”

Sara said: “The two groups discovered they had much in common at the moment as they work to improve their Italian. They have reflected on the fact that for those in Rome learning the language is a matter of survival, whereas for the undergraduates it’s a pleasure and something they can use in a future career.

“They talked about the Italian words you wouldn’t find in any other language, and how it feels to speak Italian. This has really built a bridge between two completely different groups of people and has given both a glimpse into a different world to the one they live in.

“For my students it was an opportunity to exchange views on interesting topics, not directly linked to migration or their personal situations.”

Both groups discussed the impact on coronavirus on their day-to-day lives, and how they had all experienced isolation and the loss of jobs and opportunities.

Amos Atobiga, one of the students based in Italy, said: "To be honest it was the first time I ever joined a learning group online, and it was fun. This period of isolation has been very difficult for me. During the online meetings with the group of students we learnt together while asking each other questions. I'm looking forward to more online learning. Connecting with the students has been positive to me, it was actually a very enjoyable moment. Meeting new people was pretty good, my wish is that we will keep doing it."

Tilly Dabbs, a University of Exeter student who took part, said: "It was really rewarding to use Italian as a language of communication or lingua franca with other foreign students of Italian. I feel very fortunate to have met Sara’s students and to have been offered such a unique opportunity that I probably would never have had in any other setting. In the midst of everything going on at the moment, it was really lovely to have some connection with Italy again to be able to reflect back on our favourite places, the gestures we learned and other small things that we are missing from our time abroad. I would love to continue this exchange in the future as it has been a rich, eye-opening and rewarding experience."


Date: 26 June 2020

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