San Pedro High School has partnered with a nearby university on a curriculum that may not surprise some people: teachers are using students’ Spanish-speaking skills to speed their progress in Italian and French classes.
Observers say it’s a big deal in a public school system that’s done little to nurture the heritage language skills of Latino students.
The method is in evidence bright and early at San Pedro High. On a recent morning at 8 a.m., 11 students walked into advanced placement Italian. Teacher Ida Lanza believes that’s not too early for a good aria. She plays a century-old recording of “Vesti la giubba,” sung by Enrico Caruso. Then she plays the same song sung by Luciano Pavarotti.
The debate is who’s the best opera singer, ever. No contest, Lanza tells her students. Caruso cries through song, she says, and listening to him makes her want to cry too.
The students have immersed themselves in Italian by cooking and eating Italian food and taking summer trips to Italy. They’re preparing to go to the Music Center in downtown L.A. to see a production of Puccini’s “La Boheme” in Italian. With the libretto on each desk, teacher and students talk about the opera’s star-crossed lovers.
Each has different reasons for taking the class. Twelth-grader Nick Amalfitano said Italian’s in his cultural DNA.
"I think my parents’ parents and before that all came to [San] Pedro, worked on fishing boats, were all fishermen, and that’s what I do now," he said. "I enjoy fishing just like my grandparents."
Most of his classmates, though, aren’t members of San Pedro’s old Italian families. All but three of the students in the class are sons and daughters of Mexican or Central American parents. More than two-thirds of the high school’s student body is Latino.
Students Alex Romero and Luis Villalobos have stuck with Italian for four years partly because of its similarity to the Spanish they learned from their Mexican and Central American parents. Just look at the libretto of “La Boheme,” they said.
"'Dolcemente,' that’s 'sweetly,' and in Spanish it’s 'dulcemente,'” Romero said. “Or 'amici,' it’s similar to 'amigo,'” Villalobos added.
Teacher Lanza reminded them not to get too comfy with the similarities.
"Basically a Spanish speaker can understand 80 percent, 85 percent of what I’m saying in Italian," she said. "But yeah, there are words here and there. The one that all my Latino students love is the word 'burro,' because in Italian 'burro' means butter, that you put on your bread. And a 'burro' in Spanish is a donkey."
One scholar says California public schools take a "subtractive education" approach to Latino students like these. That is, treating students' native or heritage language as a liability to mastering English. Italian teacher Lanza treats students’ Spanish as an asset.
She’s creating an "Italian for Spanish Speakers" class next school year.
"If I can do the Italian for Latino students, they could really advance more quickly. We could do two years in one,” Lanza said. She said she believes that would boost students’ advanced placement college credits, along with the rest of their academic achievement.
At the other end of the L.A. harbor, at Cal State Long Beach, French professor Markus Muller opens a university classroom door to a beginning Italian class to show how it’s already working.
Venezuela-born instructor Violetta Pasquarelli Gascon effortlessly shifts between Italian, Spanish and English. Cal State Long Beach won a $100,000 federal grant to train high school and college instructors in this method, called “inter-comprehension.”
Cal State Long Beach Italian Studies Chair Clorinda Donato and professor Markus Muller say Europeans have done this for a long time.
"Let’s say I’m a Spanish speaker, or an Italian speaker, and I say, 'Markus, que tal? Como estas?' Let’s say he’s a French speaker — he can answer me in French," Donato said.
"'Je vais bien,'" Muller replied. "So we basically understand the other person speaking in their mother tongue, [and then] we answer in our own mother tongue."
That, she said, opens comprehension between people who don’t speak the same mother tongue. And that can lead to understanding — in business or pleasure.