From the PACKET Magazine Back to School Issue August 2008
Language lessons meet la dolce vita at Dorothea's House in Princeton
BY MARY ANN CAVALLARO
To most, a trip to Italy means time off from work, outrageous ticket
fares and major headaches at the airport.
But to students at Dorothea's House - Princeton's own "Casa di Culture Italiana," as the center's name states - - traveling to the boot may be as easy as uno, due, tre.
Dorothea's House is open to the public and offers Italian language
classes on weekdays and weekends. The center gives area students a
chance to learn Italian from teachers who really know their stuff.
One instructor, Elena Grianti Schechter, is a Milan native whose passion for
languages has propelled her as far as graduate and doctorate degrees.
In Italy, Ms. Grianti Schechter taught Italian as a Second Language to
non-Italians living in Italy. Five years ago, she joined Dorothea's
House to teach the center's children's language program.
Gilda McCauley, coordinator of the language classes, posits three reasons why
people in the Princeton area choose to take up Italian. First, many
people hail from Italian backgrounds; thus, they attend Dorothea's
House to revisit their cultural roots. Second, folks planning to travel
to Italy want to feel confident about communication on their trip.
Third, some just love learning Italian.
Ms. McCauley was born in Italy, as well, and immigrated to the United States at age 2. Growing up, she spoke Italian with her grandmother, but at age 8 she started feeling
pressure to be and act more "American" and fit in with her friends. For
years, she pushed her Italian heritage into the background of her
autobiography, but later discovered that she yearned to reconnect with
her family, native country and language. Frustrated language learners
take note: The first time Ms. McCauley went to Italy she realized her
Italian was grammatically incorrect - especially those pesky irregular
verbs. "I still study today to keep it up, " she says.
Having a young daughter helps Ms. Grianti Schechter imbue her teaching experience with enthusiasm and first-hand experience, especially to young students who
might be resistant to the whole idea of learning another language
altogether. To help kids overcome this, Ms. Grianti Schechter uses
games, fairy tales and Italian translations of popular movies such as
Harry Potter. Older children are offered more traditional lessons. Ms.
Grianti Schechter's greatest reward, she says, is seeing children "who
came to class knowing zero eventually learning to read a little."
When the center first began offering kids' language classes, parents often
asked to sit in. To meet the demand, Dorothea's House began hosting
separate classes just for adults.
Ms. Grianti Schechter enjoys teaching the adult classes, as well; students are motivated, eager to learn, and often return to Dorothea's House to continue their studies. Adult
learners, she observes, thirst to learn not only the language, but the
exciting, dynamic culture it originates from.
"They want to know what we Italians do to celebrate," she says. While many of her students arrive with stereotypes about Italian culture - eating pizza and
drinking wine all day, for example - Ms. Grianti Schechter puts a more
realistic spin on their ideas. "Italians think more about food and
health. With many Italian married couples both working, Italian living
continually comes closer to that of the United State's lifestyle," she
Some adult students have signed up for classes to learn how to
communicate with Italian relatives. Ray Giudice, for example, attends
classes for two reasons: the up-and-coming Italian destination wedding
of his son, and his parents were both born in Italy. As a teen, Mr.
Giudice put Italian aside to speak English and "be American." Now,
though, he aims to retrace his steps and learn to speak Italian just as
well as he understands it.
He's so passionate about Dorothea's House that he vows to make it in, "even if he has to hobble into class on crutches" after an upcoming foot surgery, Ms. Grianti Schechter says.
Ms. McCauley has noticed in-creased enrollment recently, citing
returning students as the number-one cause for the surge. In response,
the center now offers Italian conversation classes to supplement its
basic language classes. Fall 2008 classes start Sept. 17. For more
information, visit dorotheashouse.org.