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Electronic Platform for Adult Learning in Europe



Historical settings as a fuel for language learning

by Daan Wouters
Language: EN

Firenze is one of thé most important historical cities in Europe, with a density of museums and historical landmarks that is paralleled in few other cities around the globe.  What opportunities does this historical setting offer for language learning? 
We tried to find out during a 4 day visit to Firenze, within the theme of ‘Authentic learning in the 21st century). 

We are ‘PCVO Het Perspectief’, a school for adult education.  Based in the historical city of Gent, we are always and increasingly looking for ways to incorporate the historical surroundings of our school (museums, historical city centre) into our lessons, and especially our lessons  ‘Dutch for immigrants’ (Nederlands voor anderstaligen), Dutch being the home language in my region (Flanders, Belgium). 

We were very eager to find inspiration and thus I got permission to go to Firenze to explore the language learning landscape there.  I visited 4 private language schools, Annelli Mancanti (an organization that caters for the needs of immigrants) and Stazione Utopia (organizing educational activities in museums). 

A first thing that struck me, was the organization of adult education and second language learning in Italy.  Whereas in my country learning Dutch as a second language is practically free for most students, in Italy there is no support from the central government and thus learners are obliged to find their own way, which leads them to rather expensive private language schools charging around between 600 and 700 euros a month for courses of 20 lesson hours per week. 

I visited 4 of these private language schools and I must say it was a very pleasant experience.  Groups are small and the atmosphere is very hands on. With most schools and classrooms being situated in the grand old houses that were formerly owned by rich Florentine families, many classrooms consisted of a few tables put together, which seemed to create extra involvement both on the learners’ and the teachers’ side. 

I wasn’t impressed by the materials or lesson schemes, which seemed rather old school, but I was pleasantly surprised by the large amount of time and energy that was invested in teacher-learner relationship, as an inherent part of the lesson in which everything discussed was applied immediately to student’s lives. The Italian teachers I observed are very student-oriented on a micro level.  Of course this is made possible by the rather small size of the groups, but still the informal atmosphere was largely thanks to the teachers’ learner-oriented attitude.

All of these private language schools (my favourite one was Scuola Toscana , because of the very laidback atmosphere and friendly owners) offer their students trips outside the classroom, open to learners of all levels and in Italian, at a small extra cost.  Destinations are of course the monuments and neighbourhoods of Firenze, but also cities in the wider region (Pisa, Siena, …) and some schools offer learning weeks on a different location.  Also cooking, photography and architecture are popular extra lessons.

As said, these private language schools cater to a specific group of educated, well-off people.  Which means that people who can’t pay 700 euros a month for language lessons are bound to learn Italian somewhere else.  They are the people visiting organisations like Anelli Mancanti (‘the missing chains’), an organization run by volunteers that organize lessons for immigrants. 

Anelli Mancanti ( is housed in a building with less grandeur than the classrooms of the private language schools, but their work seems invaluable.  They offer immigrants the chance to learn Italian at an affordable price (5 euros per level) and also offer medical assistance (free doctor’s visit) and during winter they cater a safe and warm place to sleep for people that don’t have a place to sleep.

The lessons are given by volunteers, which are often young teachers (doing this to gather some experience) or teachers that have a day time job in a private language school and teach for free in the evening. One of the people combining the 2 (teacher for a wage and as a volunteer) is Lorenzo, a sympathetic teacher I met at Sucola Toscana and who also participates in an amateur theatre group performing Dante’s pieces. 

Apart from Italian, also English and Russian are taught at Annelli Mancanti.  The Russian course is given by an ex-Italian student of the organisation. This way, the number of courses taught at Anelli Mancanti grows in an organic way, based on informal detection of needs, interests and using learner’s capacities and background to help other learners learn new things.

When in Firenze, it was obvious for me that I also needed to visit the educational department of one of the museums.  At the conference about European heritage I had visited in Palermo in September 2018 (/en/blog/uplifting-seminar-palermo-about-social-dimension-cultural-heritage) I had met Chiara Damiani, and she was so kind to let me visit her organization Stazione Utopia and the Grande Museo del Duomo where she holds office. 

Stazione Utopia ( are aiming to use museums as a learning environment not just for learning about art and history but also for learning languages and for social promotion and inclusion of groups that for various reasons have difficulty taking part in cultural life (migrants, people with financial restrictions, people with disabilities).

One of their projects, ‘Amir Project’ (, consists of immigrants organizing museum workshops or museum visits in Italian.  A strong motor for inclusion and for language learning, it turns out.  In another project, language learners (of Italian, English, Spanish) visit the museum to learn their target language at different levels.  Lessons are around 2 hours long and tasks can be something like this: ‘Go to painting X.  Do you see a crown?  A crown is a piece of headgear for kings and queens.’

While I was in Il Grande Museo del Duomo for the meeting with Chiara Damiani, I also took part in a workshop for children about Brunelleschi’s Duomo.  It was quite impressive to observe how these 9-year-old children managed to rebuild the Duomo (using wooden blocks) after listening to info about how Brunelleschi played his great trick.  An architecture lesson for 9-year-olds that reminded me of the strong power of task-based learning. 

After 4 days in Firenze, I could conclude that we are heading in the right direction at PCVO Het Perspectief, increasingly using cultural heritage as lesson material (and not just as a chance to organize extra-curricular activities).  I learned that the blend of second language learners in Flanders (where American expats and Syrian refugees are in the same class) is not as self-evident as I thought it was. And as a teacher and a learner of Italian as a second language, it was a very interesting experience to take part in 5 different language lessons during this week where I was ‘one of the students’. 

A rewarding 4 days in one of Europe’s most interesting historical cities. 

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