Integrating Philosophical Inquiry into the Italian Language Classroom through the Use of Very Short Fiction

Article excerpt

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. …