"A tu per tu" (face to face) with Susanne Stigen Pescia, an Italian language teacher in Switzerland who grew up with ABBA music

Susanne Stigen Pescia
Susanne Stigen Pescia

Servizio relazioni internazionali e mobilità

7 Ottobre 2019

Being USI Università della Svizzera italiana the only University of Italian language and culture in the Swiss Academia, since 2006 it is particularly committed in the organization of free of charge Italian language courses, both intensive and extensive (over the entire semester or academic year). The programme at all CEFR levels is designed for USI students and USI professionals who want to develop and improve their practical Italian skills.

The Lugano campus also offers an official Italian language proficiency test twice a year (in April and October) in cooperation with Società Dante Alighieri in Italy.

To date, Susanne Stigen Pescia and her team have taught Italian to about 5'000 students.

Thank you Susanne for your availability. Please tell us something about yourself and your background.

I was born in Sweden but my parents moved to Switzerland when I was two years old. I attended all compulsory schools in Lugano and finally graduated from the University of Zurich. After graduation I lived in Bern and London and came back to Lugano few months before the birth of my second child. When I answered USI’s job advertisement published on a local newspaper I didn’t imagine that I would love my job so much. Switching over from English to Italian to communicate with students coming from all around the world is the most rewarding aspect of my job. Their tenacity and enthusiasm in learning the language and effectively integrate into University life strikes me every semester.

You and your colleagues teach to a large number of students at very different levels and for different periods (from crash courses to semester-long ones), what are the challenges?

Our courses are optional and the amount of hours in class is very limited. However, our aim is to provide participants with the opportunity to acquire as much knowledge of the language as possible in a correspon­ding amount of time by offering self-study exercises every week. Our main challenge is to constantly keep the motivation high so that the students reach the highest level possible. As culture is a major and inseparable component of knowing a language, we also organize activities to get to know our region. In between the course we offer city tours, walks, performances at the Cultural Centre LAC, visits of art exhibitions, Italian film viewings and aperitifs. Usually students fell in love in our culture and traditions and quickly integrate in our Canton.

Beyond the language, you also teach several aspects of the local culture. Can you tell us a bit more how the courses are structured?

Depending on the level of the class we introduce facts and curiosities regarding both canton Ticino and Switzerland. Literature, architecture, art, history, geography, movies, cooking and music are only some of the subjects we like to present. Students are asked to prepare presentations on topics we have treated in class like World heritage sites, famous regional architects, local authors or traditional food. Of course we don’t forget the dialect. When walking around the streets some participants recognize it and are often eager to learn some words.

What is that you like most in your daily job?

I love the contact with students. To welcome them in our Canton and to help them discover our language, our region and our culture is extremely satisfying thanks to their curiosity and involvement. I learn so much from them every semester. And I feel really sorry every time they leave at the end of their studies.

Are students aware that there are differences between the Italian spoken in Italy and the variety spoken in Switzerland?

Of course, especially in the higher levels. In particular we present common political and administrative Swiss words which differ from the Italian ones like “Consiglio federale” for “Government” or “Cassa Malati” for “Health Insurance”, but we also introduce everyday language differences like “Azione” deriving from the German “Aktion” for “Special offer” or the French word “Classeur” for “File”. The discussion becomes particularly interesting when Swiss students coming from the German or the French part participate because they experience the same linguistic differences with the German spoken in Germany and the French spoken in France.

USI’s Italian classes are very successful. What is that the students appreciate most?

The friendly and welcoming atmosphere in the classroom. Thanks to the small groups every student quickly feels at home and makes new friends.

Does being of foreign origins help you in seeing Switzerland and its culture from a different perspective, “through the eyes of foreign students”?

In fact I believe that empathy is the magic word. I always try to put myself in someone else’s shoes and to look at any situation from another perspective. Moreover, my curiosity helps me discover the needs and expectations of the students.

Are you Swedish? Bern is so beautiful! How often do you experience this confusion?

Inside the university, never. The two countries have similar names, wonderful nature and last but not least pursue similar political objectives, but geographically they are very different. The major natural features of Switzerland are the mountains with its famous 48 alpine Four-Thousanders, whereas on the other hand Sweden counts one hundred thousand lakes and more than two hundred thousand islands. Most of the international students coming to Switzerland love mountains and sports. Their favorite pastimes are often hiking and biking uphill and downhill whereas Sweden is mainly flat. No confusion is possible! But of course I experience some confusion sometimes when I travel, especially when I bring my two passports!

We would also like to take this occasion to thank the other Italian teachers, Lara Faccio and Pamela Trincado, who put effort and passion and help USI students to be more comfortable in the Italian language, to benefit at most from their experience in our region!