Friendship and education in a multilingual community

Alta Badia in South Tyrol
Jamie Green

I’m always on the lookout for up-to-date information which I can use as part of my DPhil, which is looking at the interactions between identity, diversity and multilingualism in South Tyrol, a trilingual province in northern Italy. However, I didn’t expect that useful source of information to come from Facebook, especially as most of my social media activity involves looking for cute pictures of basset hounds and baby tapirs.

As I was scrolling through Facebook, I came across a link posted by Philipp Achammer, the government minister in charge of German-speaking schools in South Tyrol. He was drawing attention to a report released last month which looked closely at how South Tyrol’s young people felt about living in the region. Around 1,800 of South Tyrol’s 81,700 young people between the age of 12 and 25 participated in the study. A wide range of issues was covered, ranging from young people’s relationships with family members to what they thought about religion. I was most interested, however, in what the younger generation thought about living in a multilingual region, if they’ve even thought about it all.

One of the most thought-provoking aspects of the report concerned multilingual friendships.

40% of German-speaking South Tyroleans have no Italian-speaking friends and 2/3 have no contact with immigrants who have a mother tongue other than German or Italian. Meanwhile, three quarters of Italian-speaking young people said they had at least one friend who was either German-speaking or spoke both German or Italian at home.

55.9% of Ladin-speaking young people described themselves as having a ‘high’ number of German-speaking friends. Given that Ladin-speakers are the only young people to have experience of a genuinely multilingual school system, maybe we shouldn’t be surprised to find they have the most multilingual friendship groups. At primary school, Ladin pupils learn subjects in both German and Italian with Ladin also taught as a separate subject. All South Tyroleans who don’t live in one of the two Ladin-speaking valleys (Val Gardena and Val Badia) have to choose whether to attend a German- or Italian-speaking school with the ‘other’ language being taught as the first foreign language.

The subject of multilingualism in South Tyrol’s schools has been discussed ever more regularly in recent times. In April 2015, I was lucky enough to be invited to participate in a German-speaking panel discussion on the subject of multilingualism. Taking instructions from the production team in Italian before a German-speaking programme was a simple reminder of how multilingualism is a part of everyday life in the region.

The introduction of the Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) project into schools has created much debate. The scheme involves certain subjects in certain schools being taught in the ‘other’ language to specific older year groups for a limited time, such as Chemistry in Italian or Geography in German. Some local groups, such as the Südtiroler Schützen (a German-speaking cultural organisation that seeks to promote South Tyrol’s traditional German-speaking roots) feel that this undermines the right of all school children to be taught in their mother tongue. However, others feel the CLIL initiative does not go far enough. They believe the rest of South Tyrol could learn from the multilingual Ladin educational system. Meanwhile, minister Philipp Achammer warns against seeing the issue as a simplistic ‘Schwarz-Weiss-Malerei’, (black and white picture) with monolingualism on one side and multilingualism on the other. Achammer believes that multilingualism can be integrated as part of South Tyrol’s existing education system whilst maintaining separate German- and Italian-speaking schools.

Whatever happens, one thing is for sure. Anything that helps to encourage an appreciation of multilingualism has to be a good thing. It does, however, beg the question of how multilingualism can be embraced without being seen to play down the diverse characteristics of each language group which makes South Tyrol such a fascinating place to research.

Jamie Green is a DPhil candidate attached to the Creative Multilingualism programme. His research is examining interactions between cultural diversity, identity and multilingualism in South Tyrol.

Where next?

New British Academy report highlights importance of language skills

Why Yorkshire, Cockney & New York accents aren’t out of place in Iannucci’s ‘The Death of Stalin’

Inspiring pupils: multilingual creative writing