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Italian School Comes to Parsippany

The idea of a school devoted to teaching the language sprung up at a Sons of Italy meeting.

It's an age-old concern for parents: How do we keep our family's history and values alive? That is certainly a concern for many parents of Italian ancestry in Parsippany and throughout New Jersey. These folks will get a helping hand in that regard when Italian School NJ brings its instructional program to the township.

The town gets its official introduction to the school during an open house scheduled to take place Saturday from noon until 2 p.m. at the building at 33 Baldwin Road.  

The school is coming to Parsippany in collaboration with the PAL and the local Sons of Italy chapter.

The idea first arose during the February 29 Sons of Italy meeting, when teachers Natalia Bernini and Marilisa Zanarelli appeared at the community-service group's gathering to talk about their effort to put a spotlight on Italian culture and heritage through the promotion of the language.

At the meeting, the school's representatives noted that the school launched officially in October 2011 and that classes are already underway in Morristown and in Summit.

The Sons of Italy members reacted positively to the presentation given by Bernini and Zanarelli and promised their support for the effort.

Adriana Afonso, a Lake Hiawatha resident who is mom to Central Middle School students Alissa and Matthew, was at the meeting and said she immediately felt a pull toward the school.

"I only wish [the] school was around when my children were 2 and 3 years old," she said. "I'm looking forward to [the] open house and the adult classes and I even hope to enroll my children in the fall as a supplement to the Italian they are taking in middle school."

Afonso said she's been looking for a language school for her kids and could only find one in New York City. 

"I always felt our culture was ignored," she said. "The Sons of Italy members were very interested in taking the classes themselves and they pledged support in terms of supplies and all.  It was wonderful that [SOI President] Joe Jannarone invited us to their meeting even though we were the only women."

Italian School NJ offers classes and private and semi-private tutoring for all ages from 2 1/2 years old to adults.

"The objectives of the school are to provide each student with formal instruction and the confidence to speak and write in Italian," Zanarelli told Patch. 

She added that school also seeks to be a forum for building community where people can meet to celebrate Italian language and culture.

Because of the substantial number of Italian descendants in New Jersey, Zanarelli said this is the perfect place for her school to thrive.

"There is also a large presence of native Italians because it is home of important Italian companies that operate in the U.S. and also of many international companies' headquarters," she added.

"The proper Italian language has slowly disappeared among the Italians that emigrated to the U.S. and it has not been passed along the new generation of Italian Americans," Zanarelli continued. "We believe that the Italian culture and language has so much potential that should not be forgotten. It is very important for someone to learn this beautiful language because it opens the door to the culture of the country."

At the Sons of Italy meeting, fellow instructor Natalia Bernini spoke of the sadness those still in Italy feel when their American grandchildren come to visit but are unable to speak with them in their native tongue. She said the situation feels particularly acute for people in her situation. 

"As Italian natives living in New Jersey and mothers of bilingual children,  we recognized that having a structured environment where children can learn proper Italian language skills while interacting socially can greatly enhance ones sensitivity toward the Italian culture," Zanarelli explained. "In addition, we believe that the congregation of both Italian and non-Italian people who appreciate Italian culture will become an invaluable resource for everyone living in the area, whether young, middle-aged or elderly."

The method the school uses is the full-immersion approach, meaning, no English, please!

”Preschool, pre-K and elementary students, whether they are beginner or advanced level, get full immersion in the Italian language," Zanarelli said. "We developed a play-based curriculum that evolves around age-appropriate activities like reading, singing, crafts and drawing. The students will learn the language while they are having fun."

Much of the curriculum focuses on vocabulary-building activities such as songs, visual aid games, arts and crafts and more. The rest is more academic in nature and involves listening and speaking for younger students and listening, speaking and writing for older children--"all in Italian," she asserted, adding that the program is educationally sound.

"For elementary advanced students who already know Italian, we developed a curriculum very similar to the one that a student of the same age has in any native Italian school for reading, writing and grammar," she said.

Zanarelli said that the program also incorporates other disciplines, including geography, history and art, within lessons. Classroom learning is reinforced through parent participation and homework assignments.

Adult classes focus on communicating skills, she said, noting that grammar, reading and listening are taught in a manner tailored to individual students' needs. 

"We also offer conversation sessions for those who are interested in practicing their Italian language skills or meeting people that wish to share their love of Italian," Zanarelli said. "These sessions are perfect for those who already know Italian but want to [keep their skills sharp]."

As the world economy becomes a global one, Zanarelli said having a second language is important to everyone.

"Early childhood is the best time to introduce a second language, because that time is a unique opportunity to learn and establish a critical basis for all future development," she said. "Research shows that learning a second language at an early age can stimulate brain activity that can open doors for opportunity later in life."

The benefits continue as kids grow. Zanarelli said that having fluency in a second language can facilitate easier acceptance into colleges and assist in a career search.

And then there are the cultural aspects. Part of the Italian School NJ mission is to help people appreciate Italy's rich, historic culture.

"We are very focused in not just teaching the language, but also teaching the culture," she said.

Parsippanians can learn more about the school at the Saturday open house. Classes for children will kick off this spring, and Bernini said adult courses are slated to start in the fall.

For more information on Italian School NJ, check out the group's Facebook page or contact Natalia Bernini and Marilisa Zanarelli via e-mail.

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