Chinese students of L2 Italian are grammar-addicted. Perhaps they need to be detoxed.


Most Chinese students of Marco Polo/Turandot programs attend Italian language courses in China before coming to Italy. In many of these courses explicit, declarative knowledge of grammar rules (it does not matter whether inductively or deductively presented) has the lion’s share. In those courses students are expected to learn an incredible amount of grammar rules in just a few months. In those courses communicative activities are simply subsidiary to grammar. Teachers in fact get students practice the rules by proposing oral drills or role-plays which are (artificially) stuffed with the structures that have been covered so far in class. It is commonly thought that, if a rule has not been presented yet by the teacher, students won’t make it to process it on their own. Conversely, it is commonly thought that if a rule has already been presented by the teacher, students are expected to use it in discourse flow. Do things work like that in a student’s brain? Perhaps someone would like it. It is easier and more comfortable: you put something in a student’s brain, and something sorts out accordingly. It comes as a surprise if you cannot take out what you put in a student’s brain or when it sorts out something you did not put in.

According to this “put in – sort out” teaching plan, grammar rules should be interiorized by learners and become automatic after a few minutes (or hours, at best) of oral practicing or written homework. Then one is ready to move to the next grammar point in the syllabus (there are so many to cover, one cannot lay back or she’s lost). When asked about what is the rationale behind this teaching techniques, many Italian teachers answer that learning off by heart the grammar is the Chinese “learning style” and that we should respect this “cognitive and cultural difference”. Moreover, some textbooks have been recently published in Italy display a Chinese translation of Italian grammar explanations. These books are currently widely adopted across the scene of Italian University programs. When asked about what is the rationale behind this editorial choice, authors answer that the use of the first language minimizes students’ anxiety and prevents them from raising the affective filter (Stephen Krashen would possibly be deeply disappointed with this misuse of his ideas).

Let us take a look ahead instead. What happens when these courses (and these books) are over? Many Chinese students end up being reinforced in their idea that studying the language is like studying any other cultural topics (history, biology etc.). They are reassured that the most important issue in foreign language learning is to “understand and memorize concepts”. Grammar rules are seen as concepts (how the language works is more and less like this: “you put a final –a if the substantive is feminine. Be aware of exceptions though!”). The idea is strengthened that everything in the foreign language is just a matter of understanding a rule, memorizing and applying it. What is the acquisitional outcome of this misconception? It is under every honest and fully aware teacher’s eyes. Many teachers by now acknowledge that most of these Chinese students – once in Italy – can barely utter a word or two when they are under pressure and are asked to react to unpredictable communicative situations. Unfortunately, this is true also for the most motivated and committed students. Also after language courses in Italy are over and after students stop attending classes and to interacting with Italian peers, many of them seem to backslide to their originary speechless state. This is true to the extent that they become even incapable of greeting when they ran into their teachers in the streets around the University afterwards. Most of Chinese students drop University courses after the first year. This is the sad, untold truth. Why is it so?

It is because learning a language is not like learning history or biology. When acquiring a competence in a foreign language, our brain does not work like this. Extensive psycholinguistic and neurophysiological experimental research on second language acquisition and teaching carried on in the last 12-15 years has shown that one thing is learning declaratively (by relying on declarative memory brain circuits, centered especially in the temporal lobe and in Hippocampus), and another completely different thing is learning procedurally (by relying on procedural memory brain circuits, especially in the left frontal cortex and in basal ganglia). Learning that is not learning how. Rules of grammar, once they are explicitly taught and memorized in the form of notions, are stored only in the declarative memory system. As such, they are retrieved like facts or notions (learning that), not as automatic, interiorized procedures (learning how). In other terms, these grammar notions explained in class by teachers cannot be put into practice right away during online production or comprehension tasks. To do so, they must be first proceduralized. In order to be proceduralized, they must be represented in (and processed by) the procedural memory system. This shift (or “substitution of knowledge”) from a brain area to another may take a very long time (months or years) to happen and in some cases it may not happen at all. All it is needed is time and patience, not totally useless, all-inclusive, menu-like grammar-based syllabi. What grammar are teachers in Pavia interested in? The grammar we want to teach is not about concepts. It is a matter of gradual developing automatic procedures, which are not consciously accessed by learners even for a long time. Explicit explanations of grammar rules can impact just on the declarative memory system, not on the procedural memory system. It is also important that we do not demand that students immediately put into practice an explicit rule in a real communicative situation. They will not do it. They cannot do it. They are not designed to do it immediately after the rule has been explained on the blackboard. To put it simply: L2 grammar should not be subject to teachers’ evaluation and should not be graded for a very long time. There is so much else to teach!

What does our program then propose for Chinese students? We propose a different diet than the one they were used to at home. Our Chinese students in Pavia undergo a massive, semi-structured oral and written input flood along with daily occasions for meaningful interactions with Italian peers. First of all, Chinese students are exposed to an intense program of listening and reading comprehension activities. Listening and reading in our program are in their own right. They do not serve the grammar (that might have been preliminarily presented). Students may feel frustrated at first because they cannot understand everything. The input must in fact contain also words and structures students have never encountered before. The most important part of a teacher’s job is to deal with Chinese students’ initial frustration.  Most of our teachers speak Chinese and know China very well not because they are requested to explain the Italian grammar in Chinese, but because students need to be understood and reassured in their mother tongue. Thery need to be reassured that “understanding everything” is not requested in our courses. Understanding will happen at the due time, effortlessly, regardless of a student’s will. What are these listening and reading activities aimed for? Intensive listening and reading activities work for attuning a Chinese learner’s processing system to the target language. By listening an reading (both silently and aloud), students implicitly (without awareness) learn to identify cues to meaning and form-meaning mappings. They learn to group words together properly and to assign them to the right structure. Intensive listening and reading activities get students establish the right habits and attune their mental parser to the structures and to the sounds of Italian. What kind of work do we try to do in Pavia? We try to teach students to process the input properly. We try to enhance and change their processing strategy, also according to some principles outlined by Bill VanPatten, Alessandro Benati and colleagues. As an instance, every time students read a sentence they should not start by identifying its formal (grammatical) features. Instead, they should start by understanding what the sentence is about. In Italian, the Topic and the grammatical Subject of a sentence often (not always) overlap. In Chinese there is no grammatical Subject while the Topic is always in first position. In order to understand what a sentence is about, Chinese learners of Italian must learn to disentangle the grammatical Subject from the Topic. Teachers should get students out of the habit of identifying the Topic with everything comes first in the sentence. Rather, students must learn how to scan the whole sentence in search of the Topic, which in Italian may be expressed by different linguistic means. This change of processing strategy is gradual and represents a huge step ahead in a Chinese learners’ comprehension skills.

A second point in our teaching program is that we think that all brains are borne equal. In the next future (one year or two), Chinese students of Marco Polo/Turandot programs will learn the language along with other foreign students of all nationalities and all L1s. Please, give us the time. It’s just a matter of organization. We are convinced that the typological distance between Chinese and Italian does not impact on a learner’s mental grammar, that is, on the Chinese learner’s possibility to develop target like grammatical representations. Typological distance may instead have an impact on the learning rate, on processing routines and habits. Nevertheless Chinese students may turn up to develop clear representations of core-morphosyntactic phenomena regardless L1-L2 differences. After a few months of intense, hard and well conducted re-conditioning work, Chinese students – if committed and motivated – can study alongside with – say – Spanish or French learners of Italian with the same results.

A third point which is peculiar of our teaching program is that we would like that Chinese students use their life long-trained capacity of memorization not to learn the rules of the grammar, but to learn off by heart chunks, formulas and communicative routines. There is a large part of the second language that does not need to be understood, but need only to be memorized and used as unanalyzed wholes when the situation requires to. We too want to exploit the Chinese attitude towards memory and memorization, but we want to re-direct their efforts to the right direction. It’s not the rules of grammar that need to be memorized. It’s chunks, idioms, formulas and whatever constructions occur frequently in the input of the target language. Chinese students in our program are trained to use chunks and communicative formulas without dismantling them in their formal constituents. When we teach come ti chiami? we do not usually add that chiamarsi is a verbo riflessivo (which is totally wrong). We teach students to use the construction. That’s it.

Finally, if Chinese students of L2 Italian are grammar-addicted, the aim of our teaching program is to detox them and to and deprogram their approach to Italian by counteracting the detrimental effects of associative learning of grammar rules. Maybe one result of these ideas on teaching is that last year (2012), 92% of our students passed the CILS exam Level B1.

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