At the age of three, the students of an infant school here have become the first among their counterparts in Italy to get familiar with Chinese culture and language.
"We could not choose a better period than the Spring Festival to start teaching Mandarin as our third curricular language beside Italian and English," Renata Cirina, head of the infant school at San Carlo College, told Xinhua on Tuesday.
"We have been teaching Mandarin in our college's schools since 2005, but we think now that the time has come to start earlier. The knowledge of Chinese has become an important asset for young generations, and small kids are the quickest to learn new languages," she said.
The project in fact is much more than teaching Mandarin. Besides two Chinese native speakers as teachers, each educator at the infant school plays a role in building the cultural context that will be the basis of language learning.
A different cultural topic will be presented and explored before every language lesson, Cirina said. "Because when the kids have been put in contact with China, it becomes easier for them to assimilate the very first sounds of Mandarin."
"We believe in principle that cultural exchange is what really makes people dialogue, and that's why we have chosen to first introduce China's culture to our kids and then teach them the language," Cirina said.
A world map, ancient Chinese stories and red lanterns to greet the upcoming Chinese New Year are some of the playful ingredients the school uses to prepare its kids for Tuesday's first lesson.
Among the planned activities, there will be a party with Chinese kids to celebrate the Spring Festival together, exchange gifts and share customs.
Cirina said her school started building a network with Chinese institutions in Italy with the aim to build partnerships for future exchanges.
Furthermore, kids who start learning Chinese at early age would be better prepared for the Youth Chinese Test, an international test of Chinese language proficiency that assesses young foreign students' abilities to use Chinese in daily life, said the project's director of studies, Silvia Pozzi.
Pozzi, a Chinese culture and language professor at the University of Milano-Bicocca, said she paid particular attention to the selection of the mother-tongue teachers who play a key role in a high-quality approach to the Chinese culture and language.
"Our mother-tongue teachers only speak in Mandarin to kids," Pozzi said.
Thanks to the preparatory work done in advance, though obviously the students could not understand most of the words, they develop a natural feeling toward China that is soon perceived as closer, the professor noted.
The San Carlo College project not only provided an example for other schools in Italy, but also encouraged a growing number of Chinese nationals living in the Mediterranean country to specialize in infant teaching activities to help convey the Chinese culture and language in the world, Pozzi said.