I came to Rome without knowing the language fluently, so I was happy to be placed in an English language school. The school I am teaching at is an American school called the American Overseas School of Rome. They follow an American curriculum and the students speak (or are supposed to speak) only English in the classroom. I had absolutely no idea what to expect when I entered my fourth grade classroom for the first time mid-September. I didn't know if the teachers or students would really know English fluently, if the curriculum would be so foreign that I wouldn't be able to contribute, and I worried that I wouldn't be able to communicate well with anyone. All of my fears were quickly put to rest as I became immersed in the culture of AOSR, and I am happier there than I could have imagined.
My cooperating teacher is American, but has taught in elementary schools all over the world. Because her husband travels for work (I believe he works for the UN) she has taught in almost every continent, from South America to Asia. She is an incredible classroom role model because of her vast experiences, and I love hearing about all the different places that she has taught in. The students in my classroom are also very well-traveled. About half of them are native Italians, a fourth or third are American students who have lived in many different places (some have never even lived in America for more than a few months) and then the rest are a mix of students who originate from places like Israel, Russia, Chile, China, and Korea. I LOVE having such an eclectic group, and it amazes me how much these students, many of whom have gone through so many moves and life changes, are able to do.
Almost all of the students speak English fluently. All but one student have been there for at least two years (one Italian girl, Alissa, just started in September) and have grasped the language incredibly quickly. There is one boy named Francisco who grew up speaking Spanish in Chile, moved to Rome at the beginning of third grade, and now speaks fluent conversational Italian (most of his friends in the class are native Italians) and fluent English. It completely amazes me!!! He is trilingual by age 9, and he has only been speaking the last two languages for less than a year and a half.
The native Italian students speak English at varying levels, strongly correlating to how much they speak in general. One boy, Lorenzo, does not write in English very well and speaks with consistent mistakes, because he is always speaking Italian during class to fellow students. On the other hand, Angelica, who has been at AOSR the same amount of time, is a huge talker in general, and usually speaks English in the classroom, so her written and spoken English is nearly perfect. When she speaks English she doesn't even have a noticeable Italian accent, and she says words such as "like" and "um" between thoughts, just like an American would.
I think it is so incredible that the native Italians are bilingual at such a young age, though it is nothing special to the students themselves, just part of their normal schooling. The ease of which they view bilingualism is perfectly demonstrated by a conversation that I had on my first day with a fourth grader, Vittoria. She asked me where I was from and what language I spoke. I said, "I'm from the United States of America and I speak English". She replied, "Right, but what else do you speak?" She assumed that since most of the people around her easily spoke at least two languages, I would too. I almost felt a little silly telling her that English is my only language, while her and all the other students speak multiple languages very well!
Most of the teachers are also multilingual. My cooperating teacher speaks Portuguese because she taught in Brazil for many years, while the long time teachers speak fluent Italian, and others who have been there for less time are taking classes. Most teachers are native English speakers, from America, Australia, or the UK. Many of the teachers also do not stay for a long period of time, like my cooperating teacher who has been there for three years but knows that she will have to leave for another country in two more years. Most of them have experience teaching in different countries and different languages, so it is very interesting to hear them all talking about the different experiences they have had. One of my favorite parts of the day is lunchtime (and not just because I get an delicious and free Italian meal), because every week I hear a different conversation between different teachers who come from all over the world, with unique perspectives to offer the school.
I am about halfway done with my placement, and I continue to be incredibly impressed with all that my students can do and accomplish in English, whether they are native speakers or, more likely, not native English speakers. I hope that they all are able to keep their bilingualism through life because it is a great ability to have. I am certainly learning this, being an American in Rome who does not fluently speak the language!