In June 2018 I read an article in an Italian newspaper about the growth of studying the Italian language in and around New York City. In the last five years, the number of children that study Italian, from elementary school through high school, has more than doubled, from 22,000 to 54,000 in the three states of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.
At the same time, there is an increase in the number of bilingual Italian / English programs in which all of the materials are taught half time in Italian and half time in English. The first such program is already in its fourth year in a public school in Bensonhurst in Brooklyn. The second will begin next fall in a public school in Harlem in Manhattan. A third is ready to launch in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. And even in Staten Island, the borough most populated by Italian-Americans, there is talk of a similar initiative. The demand for placement is great; for example, for the first year of kindergarten, the program in Bensonhurst received 242 requests for only 18 places available.
There are several reasons for this growth and trend in studying Italian. It is a beautiful language, fun (even if difficult) and at times useful. Italy is a favorite destination for tourists. The food and culture are widely recognized. Italy and its culture are loved by New Yorkers and in general by Americans, but unfortunately the language is spoken little. Therefore, more and more families in New York are showing interest in bilingual Italian-English programs because they are convinced that they will be good for their children from a scholastic point of view and for their characters and open minds.
To start a bilingual program, families must guarantee the attendance of 20 children up to the 5thgrade. Among the other requirements are that about half the students must have a parent whose mother tongue is Italian. And a teacher must be available who speaks both languages and has all the certificates necessary to teach children. One difficulty for the young Italian families who have emigrated to New York with little kids is that they are not concentrated in a few neighborhoods (like in the past) but are dispersed throughout the city. If they don’t live near the school, it is not easy to organize commuting in the Big Apple.
There are many groups behind this trend in bilingual education. The Italian American Committee on Education (IACE) is a non-profit founded in 1975 to promote the study of Italian language and culture in the tri-state area. It is under the supervision of the Consul General of Italy in New York. They also furnish books and resources and finance a part of the stipend of the bilingual teacher. And then there is the team that the Consul Generals of New York calls “The Mamma Tigers” who promote the campaign and recruit interested families.
To attract more students, the IACE is also launching “extra curriculum” initiatives focused on Made in Italy in collaboration with major Italian brands, like “Eat healthy and speak Italian” with Eataly and “Design the car of your dreams” with Ferrari. This type of cultural marking helps to increase the propensity of Americans to buy authentic products that are Made in Italy.