by Alessandra Cardone
PISA, Italy, May 15 (Xinhua) -- In the small foyer of the Lumiere Theater on Monday, several students kept walking up and down, frantically repeating some sort of speech by themselves, and under their breath.
All of the youths were murmuring Chinese words. It was time for them to prove how hard they had worked in the last months, and how good they were now in mastering a complex but fascinating language.
The Italian finals of the 11th "Chinese Bridge" Chinese Proficiency Competition for Foreign Secondary School Students saw 36 boys and girls from 16 high schools across the country competing.
For the winners, they get the opportunity to represent Italy this summer in the final stage of the international language contest, which is promoted by the Confucius Institute Headquarters (Hanban) annually.
In the all-day long event, they were asked to take part in a written test, to address the audience in a two-minute oral presentation essay, and to bring various Chinese art pieces on stage.
Among the teenagers waiting for their turn to perform, the mood was tense but cheerful.
Sixteen-year-old Michelle Montuschi from Malpighi secondary school of Bologna started learning Chinese four years ago, and tried to explain why she took such a path.
"One reason why I am so fascinated by the Chinese language is that I find their culture engaging," the girl told Xinhua.
"Their mindset is very different from ours: they seem to be always very focused on their goals, and very determined to reach them. And this sounds exciting to me."
Giovanni Montefoschi, 17, already spent one year at a high school in the city of Shijiazhuang, north China, thanks to a scholarship, and said he enjoyed his stay much.
Despite that, he said he was still not proficient in Chinese as some of his Italian schoolmates. "I will keep learning it, though, even if I am planning to study engineering at university."
After his short comments, the student quickly brought his mind back on his oral presentation, which was about to begin. He kept speaking about himself in Chinese, assisted by his teacher, and -- as any good Italian would do -- accompanying his words with wide hand gestures.
Italian secondary school pupils showed a better proficiency in Chinese compared to university students, according to teachers with Italy's Confucius Institutes organizing the initiative.
"Italian students are usually a little slow in their pronunciation studies, because here they attend large classes, and cannot work in small groups," professor Zhang Hong, Chinese director of the Confucius Institute at Sapienza University in Rome, told Xinhua.
"When they have the chance to spend a sojourn in China practicing conversation and pronunciation, however, they really improve a lot."
The Italian education system was quite unique, according to the teacher. "Here students learn a lot in terms of Chinese culture and literature, they gather much more knowledge compared other foreign students engaged with Chinese," Zhang explained.
She stressed this approach -- if combined with a strong practice experience in China -- could produce very good results.
Tiziana Lioi, teacher at the University of International Studies and the Confucius Institute of Rome, and a member of the jury made of Chinese and Italian experts, agreed.
"Compared to my first experience as a juror here, three years ago, the general level of knowledge among students has improved, and I am pleased with it," she told Xinhua.
She could tell from the way students spoke before the audience, with fluidity and calmness, and from their ability to dance, sing, or put up comical sketches in Chinese on the stage.
"As a teacher, the most important aspect of this contest for me is the load of work students need to face to reach this final stage: if they appear comfortable today, it means they truly have put their best efforts, and improved," Lioi explained.
Beyond the fascination of a distant language, finally, another crucial factor would help attract Italian students: for them, more than for older generations, China was linked to an idea of development.
"In today's China, I see a reality that is more forward than ours from some points of view," Giovanni Stoppoloni from Rome Convitto Nazionale Vittorio Emanuele II told Xinhua.
The student lived and studied in Shanghai from September to January, after learning Chinese at school for four years.
"In Shanghai, for instance, I got used to do everything with my mobile phone, as many Chinese do...payments, bookings, work, and food deliveries. It is not yet the same in Italy, and when I came back, I missed it," he said.
"Beyond this small example, I think China will keep providing models of development in many sector in the future, and also for us in Italy."