From the archives: The origins of Italian at the VSL in 1935 Catherine Bryant


When I started researching the school’s history for my PhD, I discovered the fascinating story about the origins of Italian teaching at the school.


Mr J.A. Seitz, Chief Inspector of Secondary Schools

In 1935, there had been a strong push for the establishment of Italian and a high profile meeting was held in Melbourne, which was attended by many academics and influential figures in the education field.  The President of the Dante Alighieri Society also supported this move, and wrote to the Education Department, urging them to introduce Italian into the Victorian education system. Mr J.A. Seitz, the Chief Inspector of Secondary Schools, supported the establishment of Italian.

Study of Italian

The Argus, 3 June 1935

The first Italian classes were held on Saturday 8th of June 1935 at MacRobertson Girls High School as a “special experiment”. The idea was to trial the classes as a pilot, to ascertain the level of interest among Victorian students. If the classes were overwhelmed with enrolments, Education Department officials would consider rolling the Italian curriculum out to a small number of mainstream schools. The decision to establish Italian was a historic one, because up until that time, Italian was not being taught in any Victorian government schools. These events were reported in the Melbourne newspapers (see article).

The high profile Italian businessman Gualtiero Vaccari supported the Italian classes by donating fifty guineas in prize money. The prizes were awarded through the Italian Consulate to the highest achieving students and to the first day school to introduce the language into its curriculum. One of the prizewinners was Miss Wilga Rivers, a student at MacRobertson Girls’ High School.  She later recalled “the enthusiasm of the students and the happy atmosphere in the class”.  With her knowledge of Italian, she went on to study other languages and she later lived in the U.S. where she completed a PhD. In 1973 she became one of the first women to be appointed a full Professor at Harvard University, where she played a key role in the languages department.


MacRobertson Girls High School, where the first Saturday classes were held


The Dante Aligieri Society also supplied the early teachers. In 1935, one of the original teachers was Dr Bartolini, and the teacher in charge was Miss Helen Byrne. A graduate of the University of Melbourne, Byrne had just returned from a year at university in Perugia on a postgraduate scholarship. She had just gained a “diploma per l’insegnamento del Italiano all’estero” which gave her the right to teach Italian in foreign schools. From 1941 onwards, Mr Virgil Cain taught Italian at the school, which he did in earnest until 1964.

In 1935, it was not only children who attended the Italian classes. A special class for teachers was also formed. Education Department officials recognised that this was an important long term step towards helping the language to be established on a solid footing in Victoria. The teachers were charged £1.1.0 per term for 12 lessons.

Ital Grammar

Russo’s Practical Italian Grammar, one of the early Italian language textbooks

At that time, languages were taught in a traditional way, which was the grammar translation method. The emphasis was on syntax and grammar, and classroom activities often involved dictation and translation. As Jim Wheeler, a student of Italian from 1945 remembered:  “The language of instruction was English. I doubt that I ever heard our teacher speak Italian. I had no practice at speaking Italian except for frustrating attempts at the local Preston greengrocers – where they spoke Sicilian.”

The early attendance rolls of the Saturday classes show that it was English background speaking children who enrolled in the classes.  Language study in the 1930s and 1940s was still considered important “training for the mind” and it was often a prerequisite for university entry. In this sense, language study was an elite pursuit. Students who gave up their Saturday mornings to attend the Italian language classes generally came from middle class families and they had already excelled at either French or Latin in their day schools. It would not be until 1956 that this emphasis on Italian ‘high culture’ would gradually begin to shift and it would start to contain features of a community language.

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