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Integrating philosophical inquiry into the Italian language classroom through the use of very short fiction.

To those who think that liberty is a good thing, and who hope that it may some day become possible for more people to realize more of their desirable potentials in a society fit for free, fully human individuals to live in, a thorough education in the nature of language, in its uses and abuses, seems indispensable. (1)


The foreign language (FL) learning experience appears an ideal moment to expand our conscience and understanding regarding a complex web of issues related to the role that language has within individual and collective ways of thinking, perceiving, and living. It is a pity that conventional instruction does not fully capitalize on opportunities to explore the fascinating and important philosophical questions that are within reach of the FL learning classroom. By making space for philosophical, and as we will see, especially, but not only, phenomenological speculation on language and on language learning, we extend the beneficial effects of instruction, raising our students' interest in language as a phenomenon in itself, and consequentially eliciting their curiosity toward the moods, attitudes, and beliefs that the language of our culture as well as our personal idiolect foster towards ourselves, each other, and the things of the world around us.

In this paper, I call for a deepening of the philosophical texture of the FL, and particularly Italian language and culture curriculum, especially at the intermediate and advanced levels, through the literary genre of very short fiction. (2) After arguing that the FL learning experience presents an ideal setting for philosophical inquiry, I propose phenomenology as a special viewpoint and as a productive set of values for such inquiry. I then consider the rationale for choosing the very short story as a means to engender, along with language learning, imaginative and critical thinking, and provide a few samples from the wide range of possible directions for philosophic investigation including three illustrative pieces of fiction that I have written.

The Opportunity of the Foreign Language Learning Experience

FL study seems almost naturally conducive to a certain kind of philosophical perspective on language. It is not uncommon that students taking a FL course may be led to ponder, more or less intentionally, on densely meaningful questions dealing with language and mind such as:

"How does language reflect the thinking of a people and the beliefs of a culture?"

"Does language present and fuel a certain view of reality?"

"Is the foreign language that I am learning influencing my way of thinking and my imagination?"

"How far does the creative power of language stretch?"

Or questions tied to cultural diversity such as:

"How different can people who grow up using another language be from me?"

"Will I ever be able to comprehend the universe of their minds and hearts? And if yes, how?" (3)

"Where does the line between translation and interpretation lie?"

And, perhaps, "Is there a reality independent from our representation of it?"

It is in the FL learning experience, perhaps more than in other circumstances, that we willingly separate to a degree from models and conceptions tied to our native language in order to embrace the mental frames of another language, culture, and way of thinking. Through the distance created by this experience of dissociation we not only gain awareness of how one language (and the cultural context in which it exists) is different from another, but also awareness on what language--that deeply ingrained and pervasive element of our life--is as a phenomenon in itself by seeing it "from outside" with a keener eye and a refreshed perspective.

Perhaps to understand this intriguing and deeply significant aspect of the FL experience, we can see such separation metaphorically as a "linguistic death," a passage that opens a sensitive hiatus between known and unknown where the consciousness can find itself on the edge of gaining or losing, in a cognitive sense, some levels of sentiency. The adoption of the motif of death is in line with the existential philosophies that will be later mentioned that often see the limit of death as cornerstone for any systematic reflection. This metaphorical perspective helps us (4) to ponder, with vitalized imaginative and critical faculty, on that mysterious voyage of mental regeneration into another body of codes that is granted to all entering the learning and the acquisition of a foreign language.

A Phenomenological Perspective

Whether through an occasional discussion within the framework of a lesson, an issue explored during a thematic seminar or unit, or even a central question running underneath a semester-long curriculum, and whatever be the thematic direction of the inquiry, the philosophic investigation needs to be guided by a set of principles or tools that will be made explicit to students. As a source for these principles, I propose to consider phenomenology.

A school of thought that was born out of the work of the German philosopher Edmund Husserl (1895-1938), and that has spread across disciplines and cultures in various formulations devised by other thinkers such as Heidegger (1889-1976), Sartre (1905-1980), and Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961), phenomenology is interested in describing the structures of experience. In a general sense, phenomenology can be seen as a practice undertaken by Hindus, Buddhists, as well as by all philosophers through the ages who have attempted to characterize the states of perception, thought, and imagination. Today, phenomenology is considered specifically as that branch of philosophy that, next to ontology or metaphysics (the study of what is), epistemology (the study of how we know), logic (the study of how to reason), and ethics (the study of how we should act), studies how we experience.

While the various sub-branches of phenomenology differ in certain aspects, especially in regard to the method phenomenology should follow, (5) the majority of them share common basic values. It is these values, below summarized, that are most relevant to us.

* every abstract or physical object can be investigated and known;

* one is to free oneself from one's preconceptions of reality so to better see what is truly there;

* the predisposition to move out of the unreal into the real ought to be intentionally cultivated and practiced;

* subjectivity is important and ought to be taken into account since it is part of reality;

* the practices of reflection and writing are powerful tools to be employed in the process of discovery.

It seems apparent that faith in the act of knowing and commitment in intentionally engaging in such an act will provide a solid foundation wherefore to move to foster exploration of personal experience via the accessible tool of writing and of a democratic dialogue that cherishes subjectivity. The practice of observing the real, which brings about a shedding of previous representations of the world so to allow new and more actual insight to enter our minds, is rooted and anchored through the notion of "intentionality" that, even though it has a wider significance in phenomenology, it can be here pedagogically applied simply as "acting with knowledge of our action's object" with the benefit of rendering the movement out of one's limitations a conscious choice and therefore a more vital, integrated, and present process.

In turning to the structures of the FL learning experience, and touching on its various philosophical implications, we want to let students know that, as we are learning a FL and being exposed to a foreign culture, it is very appropriate to use the first person "I" and to speak of what is happening within their own mental and emotional dimensions. The classroom will be a place where students can express the delights and the pains of their individual experiences as learners with the assurance that what is subjective will be retained as potentially meaningful and useful for everyone. Making journal entries, both within and outside the class, is one of the main tools of realizing and elaborating on self-reflections also in preparation for eventual class discussions.

In the field of phenomenology there are other principles to be found that even though they might not be common to all its branches and schools, might be just as fruitful. This is the case for the principle of "everydayness" or also "being-in-the-world" especially present in the existential school that goes back to the work of Heidegger. This notion emphasizes an active engagement with the world as a fundamental prerequisite in understanding our outer and inner reality This idea is quite appropriate to our learning context where the students, learning the practice of intentional communication in using a foreign language, are daily immersed into the world, and busy in negotiating their place within a web of cultural and linguistic interconnections. To acknowledge and verbalize the emotional and intellectual challenges that students face in this experience can be of great help in solving several stumbling blocks in language acquisition and intercultural experience.

It could be argued that some of the principles presented above are obvious and need not formal acknowledgement in the classroom; however, their complexity remains inexhaustible and thus the importance of reminding ourselves and our students of the need of constantly reassess and redirect our capacity to acknowledge, comprehend and apply them cannot be underestimated. The fact that phenomenology utilizes such enlightened values at the heart of its method makes it a most appealing theoretical approach. Even if it only were for its rewarding commitment to unveiling the meaningfulness of everyday experience, the phenomenological approach would suit the quotidian classroom experience and place the possibility for the discovery of deeper truth directly and straightforwardly in the hands of our students.

We might find that under a phenomenological lens, our point of view of language shifts or expands from one primarily concerned with linguistic structures, meaning, and uses to one that values the students' own impressions of their encounter with FL learning and allows for the observation of widely humanistic significances and ramifications linked not simply to language, but also to its existence. (6) As we ponder and contemplate what language is and stands for in our lives, entering not only into the ontological but also unavoidably into the epistemological levels, we cannot help but to acknowledge that the nature of language is chiefly characterized by a quality of mystery. This mystery is nonetheless born by the "bridging nature" of language linking (and simultaneously rendering distinct) the world and the human mind. "La parola oil linguaggio," says the linguist and educator Rocco Ragone, "rimane misteriosa come sinolo di due elementi tra loro irriducibili" (87); indeed it is this meeting of the intellect and the object of reality taking place within language that asks for and justifies an investigation of language in philosophical terms, and it is its inherent and unalienable quality of mystery that challenges, triggers not only our own but our students', philosophical investigation of language.

The Choice of Very Short Stories

In organizing a curriculum that strives toward philosophical depth, the educator should carefully consider the importance of those materials, activities, and situations that not only stir the student's curiosity but also introduce compelling and possibly mysterious aspects of the language phenomenon and present the grounds for more or less unlimited investigation and speculation. Very short fiction can be a spontaneous, accessible, and pleasurable springboard for students' journal entries and class conversations about pertinent and relevant issues while they are learning new language.

Besides serving as a means to introduce students to the study of longer literary texts, and literature in general, very short fiction offers students possibilities for learning while exercising faculties such as daydreaming, imagination, and language play. And perhaps it is because of the playful quality and focus on form infused in this genre that the writer Charles Johnson said that "above all else, it [very short fiction] must be an innovative, attention-grabbing exploration of that perennial mystery that is the origin and end of expression itself: language" (233).

Critic Charles Baxter has said that in very short fiction, we find "a depth of intensity and penetration into human life that is a luminous difference in kind from the novel or the longer story" (qtd in Mills xiv).

Many scholars and educators have attested in recent years to the intrinsic educational value of short fiction within the foreign and second language classroom. I would like here to simply remind the reader of the fact that every culture produces some form of very short fiction to educate the younger members of the group in community value and language. That this is accomplished through the practice of storytelling, strongly testifies to the effectiveness of the genre in engaging participants and promoting acquisition.

Indeed, the very short story possesses certain formal characteristics that play an important role not only in optimizing language learning but also in engendering a pleasurable aesthetically engaging reading experience more apt to spur the kind of inquiry we are concerned with here. In choosing texts, I suggest that the instructor consider the literary characteristics of brevity, suddenness, and rhythm.

Brevity. The stories I envision are indeed very brief, ideally approximately 1500 words or less. Conciseness is crucial since it fosters these vital conditions.

* It confronts students with a body of language that they feel they can manage, thus minimizing anxiety, and reducing the possibilities of students becoming demoralized.

* It allows students to tap into the story's meaning (an element of paramount important for internalization and motivation in learning) shortly after the reading has begun and with considerably less effort than that required by a longer story.

* It provides a task that can fit into the stressful lives carried on by college students.

Suddenness. The Italian fiction writer Italo Calvino addressed the idea of "rapidita" or "economia d'espressione" as a characteristic of folktales (and as one that he proposed as a narrative value for the fiction writers of the new millennium). According to Calvino, the folktale form--derived from oral narration--follows a functional criterion that excludes all that is unnecessary (43). This narrative compression channels the attention of the reader, and in our case of the FL student, right to the core of the story and onto what we might call the emotional highway of its dramatic dynamics. Tied to narrative compression is thus the quality of suddenness--that capacity to blast, to flash, and borrowing Roger Shapard's words, to be "suddenly just there" (xvi). This quality of the very short story can further aid in engaging the FL student with the linguistic thread of the reading, thus enhancing the intensity of emotional and cognitive participation. The student is propelled quickly into a meaningful and resonating encounter with the suddenly developing text that will also likely result in impressing new language forms in the mind.

Rhythm. In conjunction with the value of suddenness, Calvino also spoke of the importance of rhythm. Again, the folktale provided him with the perfect example where rhythm is utilized for dramatic and narrative purposes as a means to strengthen the efficacy of storytelling and the reader's (or listener's) participation: "Il piacere infantile d'ascoltare storie sta anche nell'attesa di cio che si ripete: situazioni, frasi, formule. Come nelle poesie e nelle canzoni le rime scandiscono il ritmo, cosi nelle narrazioni in prosa ci sono avvenimenti che rimano tra loro" (43). In narrative, rhythm is essentially the result of repetition in the plot; in other words, the interplay between a set of narrative constants and narrative variables. Besides being another factor in creating attention, rhythm is also a means to aid in FL comprehension and memorization. This is supported by the brevity of the very short fiction form, which allows for the possibility within the span of one reading session for rereading and reviewing. Comprehension is supported when a piece of very short fiction uilitzes repetition (as in the typical case of the hero or heroine having to undergo a series of challenges), since the FL student is obviously given more than one chance to fully understand the plot.

While, given the aesthetic nature of the kind of inquiry this paper concerns itself with, the consideration of the formal characteristics of brevity, suddenness, and rhythm described above represent a relevant implementation, a synthesis of the vast literature on the pre-reading, reading, and post-reading techniques for utilizing literature within the FL classroom is a topic largely outside the scope of this paper. (7) It suffices here to suggest certain general but crucial guiding principles for language praxis, in particular those principles contained within Judith Langer's Nine General Guidelines that I believe organically integrate with, and further the fruition of, the application of the phenomenological approach previously discussed. These guidelines can be essentially summarized in three key points:

* allowing students to verbalize and deepen their own impressions and ideas;

* encouraging wandering, mutual listening, and probing;

* and letting the organic process of discussion shape and guide the agenda (207-08).

Moving Through Possibilities

The dimension of philosophical inquiry proposed here is to be conceived in its broadest and most lively nature encompassing vast ranges of issues. Particular directions may also be pursued so as to address and expand the kind of questions that may arise in the students' minds during their FL learning experience. The three stories presented below offer a sample of the vast spectrum of possibilities open to our inquiry. (8)


In Voci di burattini, the story of the son of an Italian traditional puppeteer speaks about the power of play and imagination in allowing us to absorb and acquire the subtle aesthetics of a language and a culture as a child can do, and of the emotional and psychological bonds with our native tongue, but it also points to the reality of linguistic regional variations in Italy thus opening the door to the ethical issues underpinning the sociological tensions between language and dialects. (9)
 Quando il sipario viola si riapre, il mago racconta la storia della
 maledizione del castello e svanisce in una fiamma sulfurea.
 Faggiolino si lancia a sinistra dietro la quinta, mentre Sandrone
 si nasconde, dietro la quinta, a destra. Una figura tetra entra
 lentamente in scena. Dalla sua tonaca marrone appaiono solo due
 mani scheletriche. In un lampo si libera dal cappuccio e sghignazza
 sui suoi piani maligni. Faggiolino e Sandrone saltano fuori da
 entrambi i lati armati di pesanti randelli e sommergono il teschio
 in una grandinata di bastonate.

 Guido era il figlio di un burattinaio italiano. All'eta di sette
 anni inizio ad aiutare suo padre e suo fratello trasportando e
 montando i pali, i teloni e i cavi del teatrino. Viaggiarono
 l'Italia in lungo e in largo. Nel loro pulmino blu, zeppo di
 drappi e gingilli, si spostavano, mangiavano e sognavano. Il padre
 di Guido amava tutto cio che faceva parte del passato e,
 attraverso i burattini, riviveva la pura e gloriosa vita dei giorni
 andati. I suoi spettacoli erano diversi da quelli piu moderni dove i
 burattini ballavano musica rock e parlavano l'italiano della
 televisione. I burattini di suo padre non sapevano nulla di
 tecnologia, di politica o di musica leggera, ma vivevano in un
 limbo di preoccupazioni ed espressioni remote. Suo padre metteva
 sottosopra gli antiquari per trovare ai suoi burattini canovacci
 autentici d'un tempo e per armarli delle battute usate dai
 burattinai del passato; ma soprattutto, siccome ogni regione della
 penisola ha le sue maschere, suo padre diede ai burattini del suo
 teatro l'accento e il vocabolo unici del luogo d'origine.

 Quando Guido non era ancora alto e forte abbastanza per manovrare
 i pesanti burattini di legno passava numerosi spettacoli nel vano
 vaporoso tra le pareti di telone verde scuro in fondo al teatrino,
 ipnotizzato dai movimenti frenetici di suo padre e suo fratello. E
 forse era il suo essere cosi vicino al cuore pulsante di
 quell'esplosione di creativia ed immaginazione, forse era
 l'impressione che i burattini fossero vivi animati da suo padre, o
 forse era la costante marea di climax drammatici che fece si che
 Guido assorbisse tutta quella miriade di lingue che si scontrava
 lassu tra quegli impiastri di tela e legno.

 Guido era solo un ragazzo e non pensava ai dialetti che udiva come
 a lingue diverse l'una dall'altra, e cio perche a lui sembrava di
 capirle con la sola forza del piacere. Stava la, in fondo al
 teatrino, completamente abbandonato alla vivida e animata voce di
 suo padre mutante in una gamma infinita di parole stravaganti e
 suoni grotteschi. Un bolognese vivace era parlato da Faggiolino, un
 eroe coraggioso e bonaccione, e dal suo un po' ignorante ma fedele
 compagno, Sandrone. Brighella, il losco servitore, parlava un
 veneziano viscido e omato. Il carabiniere, come tradizione vuole,
 era meridionale e minacciava Faggiolino di galera con un accento
 tagliente e arrogante che evocava i drammi sanguinolenti dei pupi
 siciliani. Da ogni goccia di linguaggio, Guido estraeva sensazioni
 e di queste si abbuffava fino ache nella sua mente le tante lingue
 diventavano variazioni di una lingua sola: la sua. Pochi anni
 dopo, lui avrebbe imparato che queue lingue erano molto diverse e
 separate. Sarebbe cresciuto abbastanza per viaggiare per conto suo,
 partire per un paese lontano e imparare a vivere e respirare in
 un'altra lingua per poi esser di ritomo soltanto per la morte di
 suo padre.

 Una volta uomo, Guido attraverso le stanze della sua casa
 d'infanzia. Discese nella cantina, lo studio deserto di suo padre,
 e rovisto nell'unico baule del teatrino rimasto ancora li. Come lo
 apri e un odore familiare gli invase le narici, Guido si senti
 trascinato indietro nel passato dentro una pelle piu giovane. Dei
 corpi legnosi dei burattini, solo una testa e due paia di mani
 rimanevano. E come tocco la loro ruvida carne, fu circondato
 dal calore del teatrino. Sotto l'ombra di suo padre, la sua lingua
 riacquisto una flessibilita creduta persa. In fondo al baule, trovo
 le buste incartapecorite con i canovvaci dialogati nei vari
 dialetti. Butto l'occhio su alcune battute e fu preso da immensa
 sorpresa. Erano passati tanti anni dall'ultima volta che aveva
 incontrato quelle parole. Cio nonostante, dalle pagine arricciate,
 quelle parole ormai estranee ravvivarono marchi polverosi nella sua
 memoria, il mosaico di un se passato. Guido afferro quelle carte
 come fossero state un tesoro li li per svanire -- quelle voci di
 burattini, attraverso cui parlava ancora suo padre. (word count:


Strani vestiti, employing a protracted metaphor (10) between clothing and language, unveils embarrassing, frustrating, and even painful situations awaiting all those taking their "first steps" in the uncomfortable and unfamiliar suit of a foreign language; besides broaching several topics of intercultural relevance, this story can serve as a tool to begin addressing, and maybe even aid in overcoming, some of the stresses of living abroad.
 Come se fossi caduto su un pianeta dove gli esseri hanno gambe e
 braccia di strambe misure, numero, e posizione e nel cadere io
 avessi sbattuto la testa e perduta la memoria della mia diversita,
 io lotto ogni giorno per indossare queste nuove parole inglesi
 come vestiti di cui ho poca comprensione. Quale pazienza e
 necessaria in quest'operazione? Il problema non e quando mi trovo
 incastrato con la gamba in quella che forse era una manica o con
 entrambi i piedi in un collo. In casi di questo genere, non mi ci
 vuole molto per realizzare che qualcosa e fuori posto e ad agire di
 conseguenza. Ma quando finisco, per esempio, con un guanto extra
 largo sulla testa o con una sciarpa intorno alla vita non e poi
 cosi facile. Quando cio accade, proseguo indisturbato finche vedo
 chiaramente sulla faccia di qualcuno quell'espressione che sta
 trail meravigliato e il preoccupato. Non mi crederete, ma una
 mattina di non tanto tempo fa ho indossato un paio di scarpe
 invece dei guanti, erano cosi soffici e di un colore che mi
 ricordava un vecchio paio di guanti di mio padre. Anche semi
 pareva di avere qualche difficolta nell'afferrare le cose, ero
 gia in ritardo per il lavoro e senza preoccuparmi troppo, ho
 camminato dritto fino all'ufficio dove ho finalmente stretto la
 mano del capo. Certe volte ci vogliono estremi di questo tipo
 per imparare ad usare i miei nuovi vestiti. Mail fatto e che
 sono ancora giovane in questo mondo, e se non fosse per lo
 sguardo attento di mia moglie, uscirei ancora ogni mattina con la
 giacca a rovescio. (word count: 271)


The practice of translation is brought under a critical lens in Peccati di traduzione with the intent to sensitize students to the fact that dictionaries, be they electronic or paper, are not all that is necessary in order to understand and translate a foreign language. In the caricature of a Dantesque scene from hell, is exemplified the kind of tribulation to which translation practices that are mechanical and lacking multifaceted involvement may subject us. (11)
 Dovete sapere che Dante, occupato com'era da tutti i suoi progetti,
 si dimentico di includere, nei profondi gironi dell'Inferno, vicino
 al luogo dove sono dannati i falsificatori, la fossa degli inetti
 traduttori. In questo inferno rovinoso sono dannate quelle anime
 idolatre che misero piu fiducia in un mortale strumento quale il
 dizionario che non ne misero nei talenti di cui Dio li aveva
 provveduti: l'intuizione e l'immaginazione. Questi blasfemi,
 rifiutandosi di percorrere l'unica vera via verso la verita, cioe
 quella dell'esperienza personale, e indulgendo invece nel dogma dei
 vocabolari, servirono malamente nel loro lavoro e fallirono
 nel portare al mondo nuova saggezza. Per tali ragioni, attraverso
 una pianura deserta, queste anime miserabili sono condannate a
 portarsi in groppa larghi blocchi di pietra sui quali sono incise
 parole. Il contrappasso li condanna ad appaiare parole di
 differenti favelle una affianco all'altra, fino a che ne combacino
 i significati. Mail loro affacendarsi e senza speranza perche a
 ogni momento, nuove parole appartenenti a tutte le lingue del globo
 sono forgiate da industriosi diavoli impietosi e
 dall'alto lanciate sulla miserabile orda. E per di piu il loro
 tribolare e aggravato dall'agire di quattro giganteschi demoni che
 dai quattro angoli della pianura scuotono la terra distruggendo
 ogni centimetro d'ordine accertato. A questa maniera gli inetti
 traduttori sudano e gemono nei secoli dei secoli. (word count: 219)

It could be argued that such abstract content and narrative signification is too rarefied a subject matter and that it may not be suitable to foreign language students who are rather in need of content that relates to the immediate and to the familiar and better facilitates comprehension and acquisition of new language. Indeed, I am aware that the philosophical nature of the content represents a greater demand on the interpretational skills of the students (it is because of this reason primarily that I focus my proposal on the intermediate and advanced classes). However, I believe that content characterized by some conceptual depth represents a greater challenge simply because it not only yields greater promise for linguistic skills but more importantly because it improves the overall critical and imaginative capacity of the student. My experience has been that in trusting our students to surprise us with their minds spurs them to undertake and overcome tasks we had first thought were insurmountable for them. This challenge has a positive effect on the learning of language as well, since engaging students with issues that are novel and fascinating makes for learning experiences that are more memorable and significant and leave a greater and more lasting impression in the students' minds even while they are engaged in the pragmatic acquisition of language skills.


Perhaps the FL classroom in its deeply intimate and felt experiential dimension might even prove a more impactful setting for this kind of inquiry than a philosophy course--if not in the theoretical depth reached, in the way the reality (the phenomenological nature) of the issues will resonate in the students. Among the many possible directions for philosophical exploration, those more tied to the intercultural are now common and have partially been integrated, if not by educators, by FL theorists. (12) On the other hand, philosophical questions that focus more directly on creativity, on aesthetics, and on metaphysics (as pertaining to the relationship between reality-language-mind) are indeed at the base of and apply to virtually all other issues related to language, diversity, and acquisition and are seldom given the relevant place they deserve within the curriculum.

In choosing very short stories--appropriate in content and form--the instructor can find a means to integrate moments of phenomenological inquiry in the curriculum. Overlooking such deep exploration means to fail in inviting our students to engage with the myriad of rewarding prospects for ethical, critical, and creative growth that live at the core of the FL experience; and to fail to educate them in the role that the languages we know occupy in our mental and physical worlds, within our collective and personal lives.


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(1) Aldous Huxley, "Education on the Nonverbal Level" 283.

(2) The genre of very short fiction goes by many names including: short-shorts, very short stories, sudden fiction, flash fiction, or even micro fiction.

(3) The reader may have already recognized in this paper a kinship with the theory sometimes referred to as the "Sapir-Whorfian hypothesis." Benjamin Lee Whorf was a brilliant scholar whose work crossed several areas of inquiry further promoting the theory inspired by his professor Sapir that the logic, meaning, and experiences contained inside the words of one language cannot always be easily and fully translated into another tongue. Whorf's theory was later embraced by other scholars, but unfortunately spread in an altered form more radical and pessimistic that did not allow for any possibility of mutual comprehension between people speaking different languages. Today, there exist two versions of the "Whorf hypothesis": a "mild" and a "strong" version. This paper embraces the mild version (Whorf's original one) considering it as a viewpoint with much to offer to the FL classroom not only because it is a perspective that reminds us of the unique qualities of each language (both of form and content) but especially because it maintains a constant attention to the relationship between mind and language. The instructor will find Whorf's Language, Thought and Reality, and especially the last chapter of this book ("Language, Mind and Reality"), a most rewarding and profound source of insights to share with the class stimulating discussion on deep phenomenological and even metaphysical dimensions of language.

(4) While the metaphor of death can be a useful one in helping the instructor enter a fertile mind frame, it might prove difficult to share it directly with the students without a great deal of tactfulness and irony.

(5) Most methodological diatribes in phenomenology revolve around what ought to be the perspective toward the outer reality to be taken by the individual so to better unveil the fundamental structures of human experience. The two main schools differ in regard to the strategy through which they develop awareness of the structures of consciousness: while one school advocates the transcending of the outer world through "bracketing" the question of its existence, the other school sustains that only by fully acknowledging the inescapable problematic nature of the relationship between our mind and the world may we understand the life of our consciousness.

(6) The approach advocated in this paper aims to foster in students a philosophical practice that directly leads to greater understanding of the nature of language and culture which is an element that appears central within the 1999 ACTFL standards for FL learning. Even though the reader may have already intuited how the approach of this paper promotes advancement of ACTFL five core areas of learning (communication, cultures, connections, comparisons, and communities), I will briefly touch on this matter. 1) In addition to the exchange of ideas that occurs through the interpretation of the stories, the instances of classroom conversation around significant issues allow students to engage in meaningful communication obtaining information, expressing feelings, and presenting opinions and ideas. 2) As it has been previously stated, a phenomenological eye entails involvement with and observation of the "things-in-themselves"; involvement with an explorative agenda that intentionally values and seeks the unveiling of realty (and that it does so with the effectiveness fostered by an approach that overtly places under the microscope of our curiosity our experience of reality) appears to be tremendously favourable in expanding understanding of the target culture. 3) As the exploration of philosophical themes evolves with interdisciplinary openness, new textual and non-textual resources are brought within the fabric of the discussion as illustrative, explanatory, and enriching material furthering the student's ability of making connections. 4) By following the proposal in this paper, the reader may come to see in the practice of explicitly inviting students to ponder the profound theoretical dimensions living underneath the surface of their FL learning experience as a step that is necessary in order to proceed onto that delicate path leading to greater awareness of how mind and language interweave. The Sapir-Whorfian hypothesis discussed above is just but one example of how attention to the language/mind intersection promoted within this paper leads to the realization of the existence of multiple ways of viewing the world and therefore to the practice of cultural and linguistic comparison and contrast. 5) Communicating on issues that are intellectually, ethically, and spiritually important with classmates, with the instructor, and possibly even with pen pals in the target language does not only stimulate a desire to use language appropriately, but it also has the vital potential of uniting two or more people in sharing a concern, a question, and even an aesthetic moment--a sharing that may quite possibly mark a memorable event of friendship, common understanding, and community.

(7) For discussions focused on application strategies as well as for further argumentation on the educational values of the short fiction genre see Goet's "Short Cuts: A Model for Using the Shortest of Short Stories to Teach Second Language Reading Skills," Knutson's "Reading with a Purpose: Communicative Reading Tasks for the Foreign Language Classroom," Williamson's "Techniques for Presenting the Short Story in the Advanced ESL Classroom," and Zoreda's "Teaching Short Science Fiction Stories in English as a Foreign Language in Mexico." For a presentation of more linguistic criteria in selecting texts (e.g., average sentence length, verb to adjective ratio, and register) see Chapam's "Selecting Short Stories for Early Stages of Language."

(8) Even though I thought it useful and interesting to provide the reader with a few stories that I wrote, I also feel the need to briefly point out other possible applicable texts. Given the broad variety of the topics that could be relevant and appropriate to spark a philosophic discussion within the FL classroom, reading material can be found virtually, and unexpectedly, within the work of any short fiction writer. Certainly it would be wise and fruitful to begin searching for stories in the work of authors such as Italo Calvino and Luigi Malerba who are renowned for their proclivity to spin philosophy within the fabric of their narration. However, it seems difficult, if not impossible, for me to provide, in this paper, any satisfactorily exhaustive listing revealing all the places within the vast landscape of Italian modern and contemporary literature where suitable short stories may be found. In the hope of seeing one day an anthology of very short stories to be employed in the aim of introducing philosophy into the Italian language and culture classroom, I limit myself now to directing the reader to a few valuable texts.

Besides being a stimulating supplement for any field course or study abroad, spurring students to keep evolving in their understanding of urban realities within the foreign country they may be visiting, Le citta invisibili by Calvino offers a wealth of brief, fable-like narratives. In the reports that Marco Polo makes of the cities he visits throughout Kublai Kan's vast empire, we are constantly reminded of the tension that exists between the reality of the other and our representation of it. Indeed in the few following examples that I have chosen among several attractive ones, we are invited to view the city as a symbol for what is diverse in general--a person, a culture or a language. The students could find it rewarding to read "Le citta e la memoria. 2." the story of a traveler who, finally visiting the city he has dreamed about for years, comes to find there, much to his dismay, nothing else than the desires and the expectations he had been cultivating and that he now contemplates, like an external and nostalgic observer, as distant memories. In "La citta e il home. 1." we are reminded to keep our perceptive and critical faculties alive by reading about the story of inhabitants whose minds have been for centuries so filled with myths and preconceptions about their city that they now dwell in the city that has for foundations their ideas rather than reality. "Le citth e i segni. 4." tells about a traveler who enters a city that confounds him by being the exact opposite of what he thought it would have been, and who, in order to successfully move through it, resorts then to adopt an inverted mind set or logic which alas proves also to be inadequate. Just as the traveler of this story learns that systematic logical thinking can never be fully trusted as a means to make sense of a place or to find one's way through it, the student is invited to be aware of the limits of intellectual thinking and representing and to imagine other means to make sense of the unknown.

Malerba's La scoperta dell'alfabeto, an entertaining book that portrays the almost fairytale-like life of a small community of farmers at the foot of the Apennines near Parma, consists of a group of short stories among which is "La difesa della lingua." It is the story of what seems to be a mentally unstable man, who after having spent two years in jail, returns to his family obsessed by the idea of learning and speaking proper standard Italian. The man's disgust with the ignorant and vulgar-speaking farmers around him is met with mocking antagonism by his family and from the people of the town; the tension grows until the man's violent nature is triggered leading to a tragic end. This story not only opens the discussion on the dynamics between language and dialect, but it also poignantly exemplifies the painful ironies that lie where language becomes a tool for drives of cultural supremacy and identity legitimization. In the same book, we also read in the story "La scoperta dell'alfabeto" of an elderly farmer who is learning to write in Italian, who through his conflicting relationship with the distant abstractions of grammar as well as the simple but moving fulfillment he experiences when using newly acquired words, makes us reflect on certain nuances of the language learning experience.

Testifying to the variety of authors and texts where constructive pertinent texts might be found, I suggest to consider a story such as "Il colombre" by Dino Buzzati telling of a man torn between fleeing and facing a mysterious marine creature, invisible to all but him, that has chased him all his life. This engaging and rewarding reading tells about the unknown that we fear and at the same time we yearn for, perceiving in its obscure and enigmatic essence dangers that may very well not be there. These ambivalent feelings and tendencies of longing and trepidation, enthusiasm and anxiety are present in the complex emotional and psychological relationship we have for the foreign cultures that for some reason have entered our lives, with their inexhaustible aura of unknown, and have bound us to a relentless pursuit that could harbor peril just as it could harbor a pearl, perhaps a pearl only to our eyes while to others nothing more than a simple stone.

(9) In the teaching of the Italian language, it is necessary to address the issue of regional linguistic variation not only to understand the history of modern Italian and to develop any complete outlook on today's Italian culture, but also to offer an opportunity to raise students' awareness around important theoretical questions that usually fall within the area of sociolinguistics. Some of these questions could be: "what is for you a language and what is a dialect? is one more 'correct,' 'prestigious,' or 'complex' than the other? if yes, how so?"; "what does multilingualism mean for you? do you think that the minority languages within your country are given the attention that they need?"; "why are many people so attached to their native tongue? are you attached to it? in which ways?"; or "should languages be preserved? if yes, why." As for valuable resources in implementing a lesson plan that elicits discussion over many ethical, political, and cultural issues tied to dialectology, I direct the reader to Haller's The Other Italy: The Literary Canon in Dialect and Ripetti's "Teaching about the Other Italian Languages: Dialectology in the Italian Curriculum."

(10) The notion of metaphor has come to occupy a relevant role in the teaching and learning of those perspectives and attitudes of a culture that are reflected by language and particularly by idiomatic expressions. As it has been clearly presented to us by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in Metaphors We Live By, metaphorical thinking is inherent to all languages. In this seminal work, it is shown how through metaphor we perform the act called "imaginative rationality" that enables us to understand one thing in terms of another. Students can find, in the study of the metaphors that lie at the foundation of the target language, a tool to employ not only to orient themselves in that complex and crucial area of learning that is that of figurative language, but also a tool to shed light on those viewpoints that guide the members of the target culture in understanding experiences and relating to themselves, to others, and to the world. In addition, employing once again the idea of language as a mysterious "sinolo" expressed by Ragone, the study of metaphorical thinking could be deemed important because it predisposes our students to begin noticing, and then pondering, those most significant tensions inherent to the existential situation of human subject caught in between the world of reality and that of mind. In regard to the teaching of specifically Italian dynamics of metaphoric thinking, I direct the reader to "Il linguaggio figurato nella didattica dell'italiano come lingua seconda: una proposta metodologica" by Raffaella Uslenghi Maiguashca where there are to be found original didactic guidelines and materials for the instruction of certain basic metaphors such as "la vita e un viaggio in mare," "la testa e l'intelletto," and "l'uomo e un animale."

(11) The reader will find in Umberto Eco's Dire quasi la stessa cosa a thorough discussion rich of anecdotal illustrations that could be assigned as ancillary reading material to occasion or to complement a discussion on issues tied to translation. As an example, I point the reader to the chapter investigating the nature and the causes of the recurrent mistakes in the work of electronic translators such as Altavista (25-35), that could be assigned as an supplemental reading to a story dealing with the limits of dictionaries as the story "Peccati di traduzione."

(12) The intercultural element of foreign language learning curriculum has risen from a need to help individuals "grow out of the shell of their mother tongue and their own culture" (Kaikkonen 64) thus educating them to recognize racism, ethnocentrism, prejudice, and stereotypes and to move toward more empathetic, respectful, and non-judgmental responses; it also aids in producing better speakers of the language able to correctly relate to non-verbal communication and to understand the mentality and sensitivity of the foreign culture.


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Author:Pacchioni, Federico
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Date:Mar 22, 2007
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