Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 15. Nr. May 2004

8.2. Das "allgemeine Menschenrecht" auf mehrsprachigen Elementarunterricht
HerausgeberIn | Editor | Éditeur: Wolfgang Gombócz (Graz)

Buch: Das Verbindende der Kulturen | Book: The Unifying Aspects of Cultures | Livre: Les points communs des cultures

Slovene Kindergartens in Italy: An Observational Study of Slovene Language Acquisition by Pre-School Children

Susanna Pertot (Trieste)



During the observation of the problems of Slovene kindergartens in Italy we often come across the questions of socialization and of the linguistic code in which this process takes place. The data collected in Slovene minority kindergartens in Italy through interviews with children's parents and intensive observation of pre-school children's interaction during play are mainly discussed from a psychoanalytic perspective. The discussion examines the role of intermarried parents in promoting the child's development from a passive to an active speaker of a minority language to which he/she is exposed in the kindergarten, the communicative nature of the tongue used in the child's upbringing within the family circle, and the power of input it has on other children's language choices in the context of free peer play. The results show the significant impact that the psychological transgenerational transmission of language roles in minority-majority relations also has on peer communication among children.



The research on the role of parents in the child's active bilingual acquisition investigates primarily the parental input and parental discourse strategies within the family. These studies focus on the phenomenon of language mixing in young bilingual children as a source for understanding the acquisition of two languages.

Although the amount (Saunders, 1988; Taeschner, 1983; Kasuya, 1998) and particularly the kind (Goodz, 1989) of the child's input are widely recognized as important factors, the effect of the input in bilingual first language acquisition remains unclear (Paradis and Navarro, 2003).

It is argued that a bilingual child is not learning exclusively linguistic form, but also communicative competence, and that is why some researchers consider parental discourse strategies and teaching techniques as more decisive factors for the bilingual acquisition process (Döpke 1992, Lanza, 1997; Saxton, 1997; Quay, 2001).

Further elements that are frequently pointed out are the importance of the context of language use (De Houwer, 1998; Nicoladis and Genesee, 1998), parental beliefs (De Houwer, 1999) and the emotional relationship between the child and the parent (Juan-Garau and Pérez-Vidal, 2001).

Language-related emotional investments have also been demonstrated in case studies of bilingual individuals undergoing psychoanalysis. Within this theoretical framework, the significance of language use is discussed in terms of the risk of the preclusion of the psycho-affective contact between the child and the parents in case of the abandonment of the use of the mother tongue by one or both parents (Amati Mehler et al., 1990).

While many studies of early bilingualism have concentrated on the role of parents in the active bilingual development of their child within the family, the present research focuses on the role of intermarried parents in promoting their child's development from a passive to an active speaker of a minority language to which he/she is exposed in the kindergarten, in this case the language of the Slovene minority in Italy.

The role of the parents is discussed mainly within the theoretical framework centred on the concept of object relation, as described in Melanie Klein's contributions (1921-1958). From birth, the child internalises the external world, the situations he/she lives through and the objects he/she comes across. Among the first internalised objects are the child's parents. The internalised elements become part of the self and part of the internal life. Hence, they partly reflect the external world. The integration between the internal and external worlds takes place through the internalisation of external objects, the identification with them and a simultaneous process of outward projection, which enables the attribution of feelings to external people. These processes are concomitantly active throughout one's entire life (Klein, 1991: 8-35).


The field situation

Some general sociolinguistic information about the Slovenes in Italy

The Slovene community in Italy lives in three regions of Friuli Venezia Giulia - in the provinces of Trieste and Gorizia, and along the border area of the province of Udine. The Slovene community is granted some minority rights. However, a comparison between the three provinces reveals that the degree of implementation of these rights is higher in the provinces of Trieste and Gorizia. The official recognition of the Slovene language is acknowledged by international agreements accepted by the Italian state after World War II. In 2001 the Italian Parliament passed a new law for the protection of the Slovene linguistic minority in Friuli Venezia Giulia. Nevertheless, in the local communities the pace of the implementation of protective measures that derive from the new law has been rather slow.

The position and development of the Slovene language are influenced by numerous factors. Among the most important ones are that the Italian population does not know the Slovene language (not even at the receptive level) and that public inscriptions in the Slovene language, which are present in small communes with a majority Slovene population, are nonexistent in cities. Being the language of communication in shops, at post offices, etc., the Italian language is the prevailing code in urban centres. In public life the Slovene language is not used.

The Slovenes living in Italy can speak the Slovene and Italian languages as well as both dialects. Therefore, they are characterised by bilingualism or double diglossia. The Slovene colloquial language contains numerous specific elements that distinguish it both from the standard Slovene language in use in central Slovenia and from the dialect, which is rapidly fading away. Most Slovene speakers are employed in Italian-speaking environments, where they lack opportunities for the development of the Slovene language, which is why they display large gaps in their knowledge of some functional genres, in particular practical-communicative functions.

Carli (2002) denoted the Slovene language used by Slovenes in Italy as a language of declining vitality. Among indicators of its declining vitality he mentions: a) the insecurity of speakers in relation to the changed perception of the language situation, b) the decreased number of opportunities for the use of the Slovene language and the insecurity with respect to the transgenerational transmission of the Slovene language, c) the high "convergence" (if not "transformation") of the language system toward the dominant Italian language and the consequent search for the linguistic norm at any cost. He believes that the reasons for these processes are of a "self-inherent social-political nature".

School system with Slovene as the medium of instruction

The solution to the problem of the use of the Slovene language bears vital importance for the preservation of the Slovene national community in Italy. As a consequence, the leading role in the process of the preservation and development of the Slovene language is attributed to educational institutions. In Trieste and Gorizia, the Slovene language can be chosen as the medium of instruction from kindergarten to the upper secondary school level (but not at the tertiary level).

Slovene schools in the provinces of Trieste and Gorizia have been continuously operating since the time of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, with an interruption during the period of fascism. They are a constituent part of the Italian school system and dependant on the Italian Ministry of Public Education. The instruction is based on the same curriculum as is used in the schools with the Italian medium of instruction but takes place in the Slovene language. In Speter/San Pietro al Natisone in the province of Udine, a private bilingual school and a kindergarten were established in 1986. In 2001, they were nationalised.

It is estimated that the basis for the acquisition of literacy and for knowledge transmission in the Slovene language is represented by the minimum language standards acquired in the kindergarten. As a consequence, kindergartens are given increasing importance.

Linguistic milieu in the Slovene kindergartens in Italy

Research reveals that in the 1970s young children attending Slovene kindergartens had a better knowledge of the Slovene language than of Italian. As early as the end of the 1980s, however, we bore witness to the opposite situation: the knowledge of the Italian language started to exceed the language skills in Slovene (Pertot, 1996).

Today, the frequency of the use of Italian as the language of communication among peers is proportionate to the number of children from non-Slovene families. The number of children from nationally mixed Slovene-Italian marriages or mixed marriages of members of other nationalities is rising. There are also a lot of children from former Yugoslav republics and some from Italian families. Children from non-Slovene families account for approximately 50% of the total Slovene kindergarten population. At the beginning, their language competence may vary considerably. The level of the knowledge of the linguistic codes varies from a good mastery of both languages to the mixing of various language elements from both and to the knowledge of one language only (mostly Italian). Therefore, a kindergarten with the Slovene medium of instruction in Italy can be defined as a kindergarten of a child's first language if the mother tongue of the child is Slovene. Theoretically, a kindergarten with the Slovene medium of instruction should represent an opportunity for 'full immersion' in the Slovene language for children whose knowledge of Slovene is poor or nonexistent. However, the Italian language competence (dialect and/or standard) of young Slovene speakers is generally good enough for them to use Italian in communication with their peers, if desired.

In addition, similar to adult speakers of Slovene in Italy, Slovene-speaking children do not use the language standards of colloquial Slovene spoken in central Slovenia but rather the Slovene code with elements and interferences from Italian at all language levels. Also children of Slovene parents display a varying level of knowledge of the two codes, which ranges from a good mastery of both languages to the intertwining and mixing of various language elements. Last but not least, kindergarten teachers know the Italian language. Although they do not use it in the kindergarten, they can understand it.

The language skills of children attending the same kindergarten can be significantly different, which opens the question of special approaches used with children who do not use the Slovene language at home. The question is particularly topical for kindergartens in cities because children there display a low degree of homogeneity from the linguistic point of view. Kindergarten teachers often feel helpless when they realize that, despite their efforts, some children have acquired a receptive knowledge of the Slovene language but are unable to use it productively after a three-year period spent in a Slovene kindergarten.

Teachers who use the Slovene language exclusively in the kindergarten most frequently associate the inefficiency of the Slovene language instruction with the attitude of the parents toward Slovene and their motivation for their children to truly learn Slovene. Parents who subconsciously attribute negative connotations to the Slovene language inhibit the development of the Slovene language of their child and involuntarily hinder the work of the teacher in terms of language instruction. Increasing the motivation of the parents to cooperate with kindergartens in the creation of favourable psychological conditions for the early learning and practical-communicative use of the Slovene language could contribute to a higher efficiency of language instruction in kindergartens.

The Guidelines for Educational Activities in Nursery Schools, issued by the Italian Ministry of Public Education, define the cooperation with parents on the basis of the principle that "effective education is characterised by the active cooperation and complementing of the family, the kindergarten and other individuals". The Guidelines also include a "common definition of objectives, a consonant, active and purposeful cooperation." Moreover, the decree also anticipates the help that should be offered to children with problems "that derive from social conditions": "All means should be used to facilitate the insertion that will suit their special needs".


Research questions

No data are available about possible common decisions that Trieste kindergarten teachers and the parents make in cases of language problems confronted by a child with a poor or nonexistent knowledge of Slovene. No research in this area has been done yet, which motivated the Slovene Research Institute in Trieste to conduct qualitative research that included interviews with parents and observations of the language behaviour of their children in the kindergarten. Previous research had emphasised quantitative data and social aspects. This time we decided that the research should concentrate on psychological aspects and that special attention would be given to the elements of the relationship between the children and their parents that are reflected in the kindergarten. Furthermore, the research focused on the opinions of the teachers that a) the parents are the most significant element in the child's acquisition of Slovene - the parents who consider Slovene to be a minority second-class language inhibit the child's development of the Slovene language and involuntarily hinder the work of the teachers in terms of language instruction; b) the attitude of the parents cannot be changed through the mediation of data about the child's bilingualism nor through persuasion to promote the Slovene language to their child.




Weekly observations began in October 2001 and will be completed by June 2004. The observed children, Maria and Giorgio, were selected from two different classes of pre-school children in Trieste. They were selected at random among children from nationally mixed families, regardless of their gender. They were three years old at the beginning of their kindergarten attendance (September, 2001) and had a good use of Italian but none of Slovene (as confirmed by their parents and teachers). Maria and Giorgio are given our full attention, although the verbal and non-verbal behaviour of the children that interact with them are also registered.


The observations are being carried out following the Tavistock model (Miller, Rustin, Rustin, Shuttleworth; 1989). The model applies the technique of "infant observation" invented by Esther Bick (1964). The method, used as part of a particular training method for psychotherapists, consists of the weekly observation of a child in his/her natural family environment from his/her birth to the age of two. The attention is not concentrated on a particular behaviour but rather on the emotional and dynamic contents of the relationship of the child primarily with the mother but also with the father and - in the absence of parents - with other people who take care of him/her.

According to the model, the observer does not intervene but adopts a receptive listening attitude. Thus, the observer's attitude eliminates the active role that is expected from an adult in the presence of a child and yet does not imply an entirely passive attitude; rather, the observer's manner is to be in control of his/her emotions and refrain from taking any initiative. The observer answers the child only if questioned; therefore he maintains a division between the observing self and the participating self (Nissim, 1999). In this way the observation acquires the function of a "sounding-board" for the emotions of the child.

The important aspects to be observed are the emotional quality of the relationships, the development of the relationships at the physical, mental and affective levels, the phases in the mother-child relationship, the ability of the child to express and explore his/her state of mind symbolically through play, and the types and contents of communication.

Remaining within this theoretical frame of reference, we will place special emphasis in our research - and therefore in the reading-interpretation of the records - on the language in which the child's family upbringing has taken place and on the power of input it has on other language choices of the child in the context of free peer play in the kindergarten.

According to the model, during the observations, which take place during the children's play time, no notes are taken but a report is written immediately afterwards. However, during the observation a cassette recorder is used. Therefore, when the report is finished, it can be supplemented with the insertion of the exact words used by the children. In the next stage the work continues on the records themselves.

Observations began in October 2001 and will be finished by June 2004. The observations were preceded by non-structured interviews with both or at least one of the parents of the children involved in the project. The interviews enabled us to discuss the aims of the study with the family, to collect information about the first developmental phase of the child and identify the reasons why the child had been enrolled in a Slovene kindergarten. The interviews were repeated at the beginning of the second kindergarten year and will be conducted again this year. Because of their indirect roles in the observation and because they offer other valuable psychological and linguistic material, interviews were also held with the parents of the children who interact a lot with the observed children.

Data reduction and analysis

As previously noted, according to the model, during the observations, which take place during the children's play time, no notes are taken but a report is written immediately afterwards. However, a cassette recorder is used during the observation. Therefore, when the report is finished, it can be supplemented with the insertion of the exact words used by the children. In the next phases the work continues on the records themselves.

The collected data are checked monthly by Dr. Simona Nissim, Professor of the Tavistock Model at the Marta Harris Studies Centre based in Venice and Trieste, and are periodically presented to and discussed within a group.

Results of the observations


In her parents' opinion, Maria is a shy, diffident girl. She attends a kindergarten situated in an urban district with a majority Italian population. Her schoolmates are mostly children from nationally mixed marriages. Until the age of four she was the only child in her family, which speaks Italian. Maria's father is Italian. Her maternal grandmother is Italian but the grandfather was Slovene. Because of that Maria's mother attended Slovene schools. The initial decision as to which language Maria's mother would use with the child was made by the mother herself . She felt that Italian was the language most closely related to her own emotional experiences and her own mother's childrearing, which is why she mostly uses Italian and only seldom Slovene.

The choice of the Slovene kindergarten was made after having considered the following matters.

Father: We want to give Maria more than one chance in life, two languages and two cultures are better than one...I think it's fair to give Maria a better chance in life, that's why we've decided to send her to Slovene schools.

Mother: My mother is Italian but my father was Slovene; he wanted me to learn the language and I want to pass this language on to my children as well.

During the first period at the kindergarten, Maria's low competence in the minority language frustrated the whole family.

Example from the observation of 22.01.2002, Maria has been attending the kindergarten for 3 months and 22 days:

Maria reaches the teacher holding a tangerine in her hand. The teacher takes the tangerine but Maria protests: Lo porto a casa. / I'm taking it home.
Teacher: Ni za vse in bos dala malo vsakemu. / There are not enough. We'll give a bit to each child.
Maria understands but is not yet able to answer in Slovene. She repeats: Ma no! Lo porto a casa! / No! I'm taking it home!
She almost starts to cry. While the teacher starts to peel the tangerine, Maria insists: Lo porto a casa! / I'm taking it home!

Her parents were not happy either; they felt that they had considered the problems their daughter would have to confront to be marginal.

Father: I read that in an English kindergarten in London a non-English-speaking child can learn English in a month. That's why I expected that my daughter would learn Slovene immediately. But that's not the case. I was sure that children of Slovene parents only spoke Slovene, even if I knew they knew Italian. I thought that these children helped the Italian-speaking children by translating. But that's not the case; Slovene-speaking children often speak Italian. After the first two months we were so worried that we wanted to put her into another kindergarten. But then me and my wife decided to persist.

Maria's rate of acquisition of the Slovene language was comparable to those of her female peers. By Christmas, 2003, they were all quite skilful in Slovene. The language acquisition followed the phases described in the professional literature (for ex. Tabors and Snow, 1994). The following are examples that occurred within the time span of one year.

Example from the observation of 8.12.2002, about 11 months after the preceding one:

In Trieste, St. Nicolas brings presents during the night between the 5th and 6th of December. He brought a "hairdresser's kit" to the kindergarten. Sabina (Italian parents) and Sonja (Slovene parents) are playing with Giovanna (Italian parents) and Maria.
Giovanna is shampooing Maria's hair. Maria is sitting on a stool in front of the mirror and says to her: Malo sampona! / More shampoo!
Sonja, observing together with Sabina, says to her: Pazi, tisto je sampon in ga je dosti. Pazi, pazi, da se ne polije! / Watch out, that's shampoo, there's a lot of it. Be careful, be careful, you'll spill it!...
Giovanna: Ti susim lase? / Shall I dry your hair?
Maria: Ja. / Yes.
Giovanna is drying Maria's hair with a hair drier, but Sonja is impatient.
Sonja: Dovolj. Sedaj ti si koncala. Moras placat. / It's over. You've finished now. You must pay.
Maria: Na, na! Tukaj so covanci. / Here, here, take these cooins. (mispronounces the word)
Sonja: Covanci? / Cooins? (Repeats with an interrogative tone the mispronounced word)
Maria: Ja, covanci! / Yes, the cooins.
Giovanna: Ja, kovanci! Mora dat kovance! / Yes, the coins! She must give the coins!
Sonja: Miklavz mi je prinesel kovance iz cokolade. / St. Nicolas brought me chocolate coins.
Maria: Meni pa enega Ostrzka iz lesa. / I got a wooden Pinocchio.

Example from the observation of 20.11.2003, about 1 year after the preceding one:

The children are colouring hedgehogs.

Teacher: Sonja, barva sprica vse naokoil. Maria, vzemi roza barvo in pobarvaj.../ Sonja, the colour's sprinkling all around. Maria, take the pink and colour ...
Maria: Uhhh, ja, smrcek. / Uhhh, yes, the snout.
Teacher: Da!/Yes!
Maria: Moj brat.../ My brother ...
Sonja: Tvoj brat? / Your brother?
Maria: Rece kaka (ha, ha, ha) in mama in papà. / Says kaka (ah, ah, ah) and mama and papà.
Sonja: In Maria? / And Maria?
Maria: Ne rece se Maria. Tudi hodi. / He can't say Maria. He also walks.
Teacher: ze hodi? Hodi sam? / He can already walk? Alone?
Maria: Ga je treba drzat za eno rocko in tudi za obe roki. In tudi pade. Pade sam in potem se dvigne sam. /You have to hold him by one hand and also by both hands. He also falls. He falls alone and then gets up alone.


In his mother's opinion, Giorgio is a friendly and curious boy. He attends a kindergarten in a residential area just outside Trieste with a strong Slovene presence. His schoolmates are prevalently good Slovene-speaking children. His mother is Italian and his father is Slovene. They use Italian at home, but since his birth Giorgio has been exposed to the Slovene language at the paternal grandparent's home, because they take care of him in the afternoon. From the beginning he could understand Slovene but he does not actively choose this language. The initial decision as to which language the father would use in the family with the child was made by his wife. The father decided that his own parents and later the kindergarten would provide the environment for the acquisition of the minority language.

Mother: At home we don't speak Slovene, because I told my husband: we're in Italy here and only Italian must be spoken, you can speak Slovene but outside this house, because I don't understand it, so I don't allow Slovene to be spoken in my presence. As he's practically never alone with Giorgio, I'm always present as well, he never speaks Slovene to him... I want Giorgio to become a real Italian, he must know what happened on his land, he must know Italian history and politics and literature, because first of all comes his nation, which is Italy, then the others, but much later indeed!...Why did I marry a Slovene? Slovene? Who married a Slovene? My husband is not Slovene, he is Italian. Ask him and he'll tell you he's Italian. He can speak Slovene just by chance... I would've even married a Croatian if I'd fallen in love with one, which is saying a lot.

Since the very beginning Giorgio showed he could understand Slovene well, but he never spoke it.

Example from the observation dated 20.10.2001:

Giorgio (at the kindergarten for one month and 20 days) - when asked why he does not speak Slovene, answers : Io non parlo quella lingua lì! / I don't speak that language!

In a conversation, his father gave the following information.

Father: My wife doesn't speak Slovene, and I, when I come home, I feel tired and have no energy. I thought I'd speak to him when he started going to the kindergarten, that he would be taught there. But I can see it's taking time and I don't have the patience, that's why I continue to speak Italian.

In the following years, as a rule Giorgio answered the teachers in Italian, and in peer play he exclusively used the Italian language. His attitude to Slovene did not change. The teachers consistently used Slovene, summarized his messages in Slovene or continued the conversation in Slovene. According to Lanza (1997, 2001), the strategies applied were 'Adult Repetition' and 'A Move On Strategy'.

A sequence of examples taken from observations of Giorgio:

Example from the observation dated 11.11.2002:

We are in the middle of a game. The children are preparing lunch and then naming different plastic foods in Slovene. The children are enjoying themselves very much, and Giorgio gets involved in the game, too. It is the turn of a plastic fish.

Dario: Po slovensko je riba. / In Slovene it's riba (fish).
Nives and Boris repeat amused: Riba, riba. / Fish, fish.
Giorgio says in a loud voice: In sloveno è merda! / In Slovene it's shit!
A terrible chilly atmosphere fills the classroom. Dario, Nives and Boris, without saying a word, jump to their feet and physically distance themselves from Giorgio, who in the meantime continues to repeat: In sloveno è tutto merda, merda, è merda. / In Slovene everything is shit, shit, is shit!

Example from the observation dated 06.02.2003, about 15 months later:

The children are listening to a Slovene fairy tale on tape.
At the end of the tale Giorgio turns to the observer and says: Io a casa ho solo cassette italiane (pause) . Mia mamma non sa lo sloveno . / I only have Italian tapes at home (pause). My mother doesn't know Slovene.
The observer asks: Bi rad eno slovensko? / Would you like a Slovene one?
Without waiting for Giorgio to answer, the teacher, who is also present, says she can lend him one, but Giorgio answers: Forse è megio di no . / I don't think that's a good idea.



When the choice of the Slovene school is made without prejudices or is a result of the consideration of the parents that their child belongs to two ethnic groups, a balance is reached (Maria's parents). Therefore, the child can internalise a parental couple in which there is agreement over the languages that can be used or learnt.

In mixed marriages the enrolment of children in Slovene schools is emotionally demanding, and sometimes it may occur after long and difficult negotiations between the spouses. They may consider that the choice of school presupposes the choice of the ethnic identity for the child, preferring the ethnic identity of one parent to that of the other. Sometimes it seems difficult to consider that the child can identify with both ethnic groups and develop a double sense of belonging. It is probably also difficult to tolerate that your own child will not be taken care of and socialized into the group that you belong to but rather into another (the Slovene one), which is unknown and perceived, if not as persecutory, certainly as disturbing (the Freudian unheimlich).

The data collected in the interviews with the other families reveals that in families in which neither of the parents is Slovene the choice of the Slovene kindergarten in no way presents an identity problem. The non-Slovene parents simply think that their children will learn another language if they attend a Slovene school and certainly do not "fear" that their children will become Slovene. We also noticed that the decision of non-Slovene parents to choose a Slovene kindergarten is usually consensual. The motivation behind their choice does not seem to affect the learning process and the use of Slovene in the peer interaction of these children. The determining factor is the common consent of the parents. Indeed, even when the family chooses the Slovene kindergarten for convenience solely, that is, without any ideological or intellectual motivation, the child will learn and use Slovene if the couple is in agreement with this choice and if the attitude of both parents towards the Slovene language is devoid of prejudices and emotional blocks - which can be observed in couples that have moved to Trieste from other parts of Italy or other countries. It can be argued that these people have acquired an increased ability to tolerate diversity and the unknown in others.

The learning process and the use of Slovene are affected when the child introjects a non-coherent and thus ambivalent parent couple. It occurs when the Slovene parent has abandoned the use of Slovene at home and hopes that the school will perform this missing role of transgenerational transmission (Giorgio's father), and also when a non-Slovene parent perceives the enrolment in the Slovene kindergarten as an abuse at some psychic, and thus unconscious, level or as a threat to his/her ethnic identity or to its possibility of transmission into posterity. The same happens when an Italian parent makes a rational choice but is immersed in the stereotypes typical of the Trieste culture (Giorgio's mother). He/she may not have elaborated them yet and perhaps never will.

In all phases of the child's socialisation in a Slovene kindergarten, his/her language development is affected by the ability for mutual negotiations, the making of joint decisions and the consistency of the parents.

In the first interviews, aimed at defining the motivation for the enrolment of a non-Slovene speaking child in a Slovene kindergarten, almost none of the parents mentioned that the decision for a Slovene kindergarten took into consideration the perspective of the child, that is, possible problems he/she would have to confront for not speaking Slovene.

Subsequent interviews, conducted in the following two years of kindergarten attendance, revealed that at enrolment the expectations of the parents in relation to the child's future language development in the Slovene language were not shaped. All had read or heard about theories of automatic and unproblematic foreign language acquisition. They expected that the child would not only start to speak Slovene, but also that he/she would immediately have a fluent knowledge of Slovene. Soon they realised that language acquisition involves a cognitive effort and that attending a Slovene kindergarten exposed the child to additional frustrations. In addition, they realised that a Slovene kindergarten in Italy does not offer the opportunity for 'full immersion' in the Slovene language, which led to feelings of disappointment and disorientation with beginner non-Slovene speaking enthusiasts, as is confirmed by the presented case (Maria's father).

The parents (Maria's parents), who acted consensually and consistently with the decision taken, also offered sufficient support and motivation for the child to learn the Slovene language.

Significant problems remained to be confronted by the children whose parents were unable to get over the disappointment and assume an explicit and coherent attitude to Slovene. These are frequently parents of Slovene nationality (Giorgio's father), who have previously abandoned the use of the Slovene language in the family circle and who hope that the kindergarten will replace them in the process of the transgenerational transmission of their mother tongue. In fact, these individuals do not only process the disappointment in relation to the pace of the child's language development. In this case, processing entails the awareness that an institution cannot entirely replace the functions that the parents have abandoned. Concomitantly, the institution cannot relieve them of possible feelings of guilt related to the consequences of the deracination of their own roots. However, the resumption of the function of the transgenerational transmission of the language and ethnic identity presupposes that these parents reconsider and discuss the role of the language within the family, and sit down with their spouse at the negotiating table, which can lead to painful intrapsychic and family conflicts that an individual is not, or feels not to be, sufficiently up to. In this case, the choice to completely abandon the use of the Slovene language also with the child appears as the less painful solution to the economy of one's own psyche than a different choice that could unhinge the internal balance and/or endanger the marriage.

Giorgio and his family represent an extreme case in this context. He is now attending the third year of kindergarten, and although he can understand Slovene perfectly, he does not speak it, and no child dares speak to him in Slovene. He and all of his schoolmates act in compliance with the categorical imperative of his mother, according to whom the Slovene language must not be known.

A stereotype present in the Italian culture in Trieste sees Slovenes as a group without history or culture, made up of poor uneducated people who speak Italian badly and belong to an inferior social class.

At an unconscious level, the Slovenes also accept this stereotype and partially identify themselves with its negative connotations. The Slovenes defend themselves from feelings of inferiority by assuming the identity of the "good victim" persecuted by the "bad" Italians. Nor is the Italian identity in Trieste very strong. In the 19th century, the development of the harbour activity in Trieste attracted people belonging to other ethnic minorities. These included Germans, Hungarians, Greeks, Serbs, Armenians, etc. Their descendants assimilated, but the heterogeneity created a feeling of insecurity in terms of its Italian identity among the population of Trieste: the people of Trieste are afraid that they are not considered truly Italian by the rest of the Italian population. As a consequence, they define their ethnicity by negation: they are Trieste Italians because they are not Slovenes. To speak Slovene means to belong to the Slovene group. Therefore, a Trieste Italian "must not know" Slovene if he wants to be really Italian. In fact, if someone is heard speaking Slovene, people tell him: "Ah, you're Slovene!" and not: "Ah, you speak Slovene!", unlike what would happen if that person spoke any other language (Fonda, 1987,1988).

In Giorgio's and his mother's case, it is clear that the individual and the collective converge, but the material collected does not enable us to make hypotheses about how this happens. We do not know Giorgio's mother well enough and we do not know what kind of internal states influence her actions and her attitudes, and to what extent her psychic functioning is influenced by social stereotypes, that is, how these two aspects - the individual and the collective - intersect. It is clear, however, that the demarcation between the self and the non-self is unclear and that the individual is like a store for parts of the collective identity (Fonda, ibid.).



The characteristics of the parental couple that the child has internalised 1) seem to affect the learning process and the use of Slovene and 2) in the kindergarten assume a power of input in other children's language choices during free peer play, which is greater than the mere competence reached in the single code. Within small groups there is a hierarchy that also follows the rule of conforming to the parental rule, of which the child becomes the bearer. The children collude with the schoolmate who is the bearer of the strictest linguistic behaviour rules. It seems as if the parent who imposes the most absolute and unreserved rule would enter through the child into kindergarten interactions among peers and as if these children would comply with this categorical imperative.

The present data suggest a link between the child's individual characteristics and the characteristics of the internalised parental couple in the process of language acquisition. We find intriguing Pérez-Foster's (1998: 64) opinion "that early object relation and the specific language they were negotiated in are critically yoked and intertwined and, as such, internalised within the complex and variegated matrix of self representations. Internally, each language codifies or symbolizes the self with other. In the world of lived experience, each language evokes that self construction with the other in all of its affective, cognitive, behavioural and imagistic elements, carrying with it the dynamic parameters of self-expression and inhibition established by the internalised object relation". Furthermore, the present data suggest that the lingual code in everyday life is something that has to be socially negotiated by a child both at the external collective level (in the kindergarten) and intrapsychically. At a psychic level, the negotiation passes through his/her internalised parental figures, but at the same time, due to the fact that parent's individual aspects intersect with the broader social environment, something subtler is involved.

The results of the second research question about the reasons why the attitude of the parents cannot be altered by the mediation of information about child bilingualism or by the persuasion to promote the Slovene language through books, the TV, etc., indicate that the nature of the parents' needs is emotional, linked to their own history and internal conflicts, and the needs to preserve the balance that is functional to their own psyche and family. For these parents, as elsewhere around the world, it probably holds true that: "It was not a matter of insufficient access to satellite TV, videos, and so on. When asked what kind of help might have made things easier, none of the mothers mentioned these. Their considerations were based on personal needs and interpersonal relations, which were much more fundamental." (Okita, 2001: 222).

© Susanna Pertot (SLORI - Slovenski raziskovalni inštitut v Trstu/Slovene Research Institute in Trieste)


AMATI MEHLER Jacqueline; ARGENTIERI, Simona; CANESTRI, Jorge (1990a): La Babele dell'inconscio. Raffello Cortina Editore. Milano.

BICK, Esther (1964): Note on infant observation in psychoanalytic training. Int.J.Psycho-Anal., 45: 558-566.

CARLI, Augusto (2002): Fra mantenimento e obsolescenza. Alcune note sulla situazione dello sloveno a Trieste. Plurilinguismo, 7.

DE HOUWER, Annick (1990): The acquisition of two languages from birth: A case study. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, U.K.

DE HOUWER, Annick (1999): Environmental factors of early bilingual development: The role of parental belief and attitudes. In: Extra G.; Verhoeven (ed.), Bilingualism and migration. Mouton de Gruyter, Berlin, 75-94.

DÖPKE, Susanne (1992): One parent one language. John Benjamins Publishing Company, Amsterdam/Philadelphia.

FONDA, Pavel (1987): Premisljanje o narodu. Nasi razgledi, 6:159-160.

FONDA, Paolo (1988): L'allucinazione negativa ovvero il vissuto del pericolo. In: Trieste così com'è. Dedolibri. Trieste, 97-113.

GOODZ, Naomi S. (1989): Parental language mixing in bilingual families. Infant Mental Health Journal, 10: 25-44.

JUAN-GARAU, Maria; PéREZ-VIDAL, Carmen (2001): Mixing and pragmatic parental strategies in early bilingual acquisition. Journal of Child Language, 28: 59-86.

KASUYA, Hiroko (1998): Determinants of language choice in bilingual children: The role of input. The International Journal of Bilingualism, 2 (3): 327-346.

KLEIN, Melaine (1921-1958): Scritti 1921-1958. Bollati Boringhieri ed., Torino, 1998.

KLEIN, Melaine (1963): Il nostro mondo adulto e altri saggi. Martinelli & C., Firenze, 1991.

LANZA, Elisabeth (1997): Language mixing in infant bilingualism: A sociolinguistic perspective. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

LANZA, Elisabeth (2001): In: CENOS, Jasone; GENESEE, Fred (ed.): Trends in bilingual acquisition.. John Benjamins Publishing Company, Amsterdam / Philadelphia, 201-229.

MILLER, Lisa, RUSTIN, Margaret; RUSTIN, Michael, SHUTTLEWORTH, Judy (1989): Closely observed infants (ed. by). Gerald Duckworth & Co. Ltd., London.

MINISTERO DELLA PUBBLICA ISTRUZIONE, Orientamenti dell'attività educativa nelle scuole materne statali, Decreto Ministeriale del 3 giugno 1991.

NICOLADIS, Elena; GENESEE, Fred (1998): Parental discourse and codemixing in bilingual children. International Journal of Bilingualism, 2 (1): 85-99.

NISSIM, Simona (1999): L'osservatore e il gruppo di discussione: la neutralità come capacità negativa. Convegno Nazionale sull'"Infant observation" Osservazione e Trasformazione. Firenze, 22 maggio 1999.

OKITA, Toshie (2001): Invisible work. Bilingualism, language choice and childrearing in intermarried families. John Benjamins Publishing Company, Amsterdam/Philadelphia.

PARADIS, Johanne; NAVARRO Samuel (2003): Subject realization and crosslinguistic interference in the bilingual acquisition of Spanish and English: what is the role of input?. Journal of Child Language, 30: 371-393.

PÉREZ FOSTER, RoseMarie (1998): The power of language in the clinical process. Assessing and treating the bilingual person. Jason Aronson Inc., Northvale.

PERTOT, Susanna (1996): J1 proti J2: iskanje referenènega modela / L1 versus L2: in cerca di un modello di riferimento. IRRSAE F-VG, Trieste.

QUAY, Suzanne (2001): Managing linguistic boundaries in early trilingual development. In: CENOS, Jasone; GENESEE, Fred (ed.): Trends in bilingual acquisition. John Benjamins Publishing Company, Amsterdam / Philadelphia,149-199.

SAUNDERS, George (1988): Bilingual children: From birth to teens. Multilingual Matters, Clevedon.

SAXTON, Matthew (1997): The Contrast Theory of negative input. Journal of Child Language, 24: 139-161.

TAESCHNER, Taute (1983): The sun is feminine: A study of language acquisition in bilingual children. Sprimger, Berlin.

TABORS, Patton O.; SNOW, Catherine E. (1994): English as a second language in pre-school programs. In: GENESEE, Fred (ed.): Educating second language children: The whole child, the whole curriculum, the whole community. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge NY (pp. 103-125).

8.2. Das "allgemeine Menschenrecht" auf mehrsprachigen Elementarunterricht

Sektionsgruppen | Section Groups | Groupes de sections

TRANS       Inhalt | Table of Contents | Contenu  15 Nr.

For quotation purposes:
Susanna Pertot (Trieste): Slovene Kindergartens in Italy: An Observational Study of Slovene Language Acquisition by Pre-School Children. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 15/2003. WWW:

Webmeister: Peter R. Horn     last change: 3.5.2004     INST