Italian writer inspires Afghan learner | ELPNZ

Italian writer inspires Afghan learner

03 October 2007

Writing the draft of his first novel was the trigger that set Christchurch author Beniamino Petrosino on the road to becoming an ESOL home tutor. 

Noticing the difference between spoken and written English

BeniaminoThe Italian-born former chef had lived in NZ since 1983 and believed he had a good grasp of the language. "I thought my English was pretty good. It wasn't until I showed my friends and family the first draft of my novel they told me, "This is no good. You're going to have to improve your English first."

The news came as an unpleasant surprise. Beniamino had run several businesses, but had never realised when he was making mistakes in grammar and syntax. He puts this down to the "Anglo-Saxon politeness" of New Zealanders.

"No-one ever corrected me when I spoke," he says, "and even my closest friends were too polite to say when I was making mistakes."

Writing in a second language

Beniamino struggled on until he completed his novel, which is partly based on his Southern Italian childhood. He says his written English improved a lot through the writing and, when he heard about English Language Partner Christchurch, he decided to become a tutor.

"I was determined to try and stop the same thing happening again. I wanted to give someone like myself an opportunity to learn English much earlier than I did, so that they don't have to go through almost 20 years of grasping at the language when they can actually achieve it much quicker."

Gaining much from tutoring

However, he admits his reasons for becoming a home tutor were not entirely altruistic. "I had two motives. I thought, I can help myself while I'm helping someone else, and improve my own English too." Last August, Beniamino was matched with learner Khanzadah Sharifi, an Afghan refugee who is strongly motivated to learn English so he can help his wife and eight children adjust to life in Christchurch when they eventually arrive from Afghanistan.

The two men meet regularly, often more than once a week. "We are both learning at the same time. Our relationship is not "teacher-pupil", says Beniamino. "We are both learners and it means our lessons are very relaxed. If we come across something I don't understand, I ask a native English speaker to explain it to us." 

"It's working beautifully. When we met, he had very little English at all, but now Khanzadah is much more relaxed and confident." Beniamino has been able help Khanzadah by drawing on his own experiences as an immigrant. Beniamino followed his Kiwi girlfriend to New Zealand and, as a trained Italian chef, soon found work in an Italian restaurant. "Athough I was able to speak English at work, my partner spoke fluent Italian, and we mixed a lot with the Italian community, so I still didn't have to speak a lot of English."

Mixing with the new community

Beniamino says the same situation develops among the local refugee communities, and he encourages his learner to mix with Kiwis and practise English as much as possible. To this end, Khanzadah recently moved out of the house he was sharing with other Afghan men and into his own flat. "I told him, when you go to the supermarket, make sure you go by yourself," Beniamino says. "Go to the dairy, get on a bus, go to the library, and when you don't understand something, don't be afraid to ask someone. As long as you speak up, New Zealanders are very friendly and very helpful." Beniamino has advised Khanzadah to regard learning English as a job. "I've told him that during the week he should really work at it and speak it as much as possible, and on the weekend, go and see his Afghan friends, talk Farsi and relax!"

Both Beniamino and Khanzadah are full of praise for the support they receive from English Language Partners' coordinators. "I couldn't do without the help of Lyn" (coordinator Lyn Mattson), says Beniamino. 

Khanzadah says the day Lyn matched him with Beniamino was a very happy day for him. "We are brothers," he says.

The book that brought the two together - Beniamino's novel "The Passage of the Frog and the Wild Strawberries of 1942"- has been published to positive reviews in many of the country's major newspapers. Benjamino Petrosino: The Passage of the Frog and the Wild Strawberries of 1942 Published by Hazard Press From the NZ Herald review of January 2004: "He portrays a rimitive, superstitious world that traces the effects of ignorance and poverty on the numerous descendants of the murderous Count. His curse is considered responsible for all the family's troubles, although the age-old exploitation and neglect of the south by an indifferent state cops the real blame....a compelling read."