Students in Lisa Adair’s second-year Italian class at Hammonton High School were discussing “Spugna Bob con Pantaloni Quadrati” last week. They were writing about the adventures of cartoon character Sponge Bob Square Pants, using the past tense of verbs.

Adair started the class with a music video by Italian singer Antonella Lo Coco called “Cuore Scoppiato” (“Exploded Heart”).

“Pay attention to the list of verbs. They are all in the past tense,” Adair told her students as they examined the song’s lyrics, which ended with a list of ways the singer’s heart was broken and battered.

Adair uses popular culture to teach, speaks mostly in Italian to her students, and requires them to do the same.

“Non capisco inglese” (I don’t understand English), she told students who tried to use it too much.

Adair, who lives in Egg Harbor Township, grew up in Toms River speaking both English and the Calabrese dialect of Italian. She is one of two teachers of Italian at Hammonton High, which offers four years of the language.

It’s the second most popular language taken after Spanish, World Languages Supervisor Thomas Fischer said. There is one German teacher. The district does not offer French or Latin, both common in other districts.

About 44 percent of Hammonton residents have an Italian background, according to the 2010 U.S. Census and its latest Community Survey. The town has the highest concentration of people of Italian descent in the state, and by some accounts the second-highest concentration in the United States.

So it makes sense its high school would offer Italian.

But Hammonton is not alone.

It is one of at least seven public high schools and one intermediate school in Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland and southern Ocean counties that teach Italian, according to an anecdotal list put together by the state Department of Education. A much higher number and percentage of high schools in the northern half of the state offer the language, according to the DOE.

Mainland Regional High School in Linwood, Oakcrest High School in Mays Landing, Atlantic City High School, Barnegat High School, Vineland High School, Ocean City High School, and Ocean Township Intermediate School also offer Italian.

About seven years ago, Italian became the most recent language to be added to the offerings at Ocean City High School, Principal Matthew Jamison said. That school also offers Spanish, French, Latin, Greek and American Sign Language, but not German, he said.

OCHS World Language Supervisor Terri Brennan said the community had requested Italian classes for a long time. A former principal, the late Mike Cipriani, had hired Giovanna Capizola to teach Spanish and Italian, she said.

Italian has been so popular with students, Capizola now teaches only that language, Brennan said. Next year, for the first time, the school will expand from offering Italian 1 and 2 to a third year, with plans to add the fourth year soon. Still, Spanish dwarfs all other languages in popularity. There are six Spanish teachers at OCHS, and just one teacher of each of the other languages.

About 16 percent of people living in Ocean City are of Italian backgrounds, according to the Census Bureau, while about 25 percent are of German ancestry. But Jamison said he has not been lobbied to add German.

Community interest doesn’t just come from having a large population of an ethnic background, Jamison said. It can also come from perceived advantages to learning a language.

In response to a student survey about what languages they wanted to study, Mainland started offering Italian four years ago. The program has been so popular, this year the school hired a second Italian teacher, said World Languages Supervisor Kristen Lavery. Her own sons are taking Italian there, she said.

The school dropped German around the same time, because of a lack of interest, she said. It still offers French, Latin and Spanish. Lavery said there are 10 units of Italian taught each semester, and similar numbers of students take each of the four languages.

Vineland High School offers Spanish, Russian, Italian, French, Latin, German, and American Sign Language, said Senior High School Principal Thomas P. McCann.

Spanish is the most popular language chosen, followed by Russian, then Italian, he said.

The Russian program is strong, in part, because of a large Ukrainian and Russian community living in the area, said Russian teacher Valeda Jackson. But it also appeals to students interested in a military or national security career, she said. It is considered one of the four critical languages by the U.S. Department of State, along with Arabic, Farsi, and Chinese.

So it’s the only language at the school covered by the National Language Initiative Security for Youth. Students can travel to Russia on free exchange programs to study the language, she said. Several of her students have taken advantage of that program, she said. And the school has done well for years at the Delaware Valley Competition in Russian Language and Civilization, held this year March 19 at Temple University. Jackson is still waiting for results of the competition.

In Vineland, Latin and German are losing students, McCann said.

“Latin may be something that we’re looking at (to eliminate),” McCann said. “The kids that take it, love it, but the numbers are going down.”

The district had Japanese for a while, but stopped offering it about five years ago when interest dwindled, he said.

Adair, the teacher at Hammonton High, grew up speaking the Calabrese dialect of Italian because her parents were born in the Calabria region in the south, next to Sicily at the toe of the boot.

Many of her students come from Italian families that have been in the U.S. a few generations, and have lost touch with the language of their forebearers. Most said no one in their immediate family is fluent in Italian anymore.

In Adair’s Italian 3 class, Junior Jenna DeStesano, of Hammonton, said her great-grandmother was the last in her family to speak the language regularly. Only sophomore Michael Morano, also of Hammonton, said he has a parent — his dad — who speaks it.

Some of the students in Adair’s third year advanced class are Hispanic. Their fluency in Spanish helped them learn Italian easily, they said.

Junior Adolfo Ramon, of sending district Atco in Waterford Township, told a story in Italian of being pulled over by a policeman while driving. He only needed help in coming up with the word for ‘car registration.’

“I already speak Spanish. It absolutely helps,” he said of learning Italian. Since both are Latinate languages, there are many similarities with words and grammar, he said. He plans to continue studying Italian in college.

Junior Carolynn Weeks, also of Atco, has no Italian ancestors, but took Italian for the love of it, she said.

“I always thought it was such a beautiful language,” said the music student who plays piano and violin. “And a lot of music terms are in Italian.”

Also in the class is a recent immigrant to Hammonton from Italy, Johnathan Riad, 15, who is fluent in Italian. His English is good, but still improving, he said.

He lived several years in Venice, then Florence. His family is in the textile business and has moved to Hammonton to open a business.

Riad gave a presentation to the class in his native language about the MOSE Project, which is an effort to keep floodwaters out of Venice with a system of gates to isolate the Venetian Lagoon from the Adriatic Sea during extreme high tides.

Contact Michelle Brunetti Post:

609-272-7219