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Not just teaching: The jobs you can do in Italy without speaking Italian

Not just teaching: The jobs you can do in Italy without speaking Italian
Teaching and, increasingly, working remotely for foreign companies are two popular ways for English speakers to make a living in Italy. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP
If you hope to find work in Italy but haven't (yet) mastered the language, we spoke to people who've already done just that to find out what the options are - and how difficult it really is.

Finding work in Italy can be daunting, especially if you don’t speak Italian. But some people have made the move and managed to secure employment without fully grasping the language.

Those with aspirations of living in Italy are often hit with a reality check when trying to find work in a country well known for its sluggish economy and high unemployment rate.

While Italy consistently features highly on travel destination lists, building a life here is a different story. In fact, foreign residents have ranked Italy one of the worst countries for working abroad and finances yet again in a new survey.

READ ALSO: ‘You might not want to stay here, it’s crazy’: What to expect when you work for an Italian company

According to the latest figures, Italy’s unemployment rate of 9% is above the EU average and one of the highest in the bloc, behind only Spain, Greece and Lithuania.

With these bleak figures, Italy might not seem an attractive place for English speakers to call home – especially as they may also face language barriers on top of a tumultuous job market.

But many people do still manage to make it work, despite the economy and their lack of fluency in Italian.

Some professions are ‘universal’

Italy has been rated the worst in Europe for English language skills. Therefore, learning Italian is certainly helpful to get by in the country and integrate, but it also means a native-level of English is highly valued.

From transferring to Italian offices with an international company to setting up your own business, foreign residents in Italy are finding ways to navigate the difficulties associated with moving to a new country without having a high command of the language.

READ ALSO: Job-hunting in Italy: The Italian words and phrases you need to know 

Jess Morton came to Italy from New Zealand when she was 18 years old. She worked in equestrian tourism, which entails handling and riding horses with tourists.

She came for the horses and the job, in fact, not necessarily because she’d dreamed of moving to Italy.

“This is one job you can go anywhere with, as the language of horses is universal,” she said.

“You can travel wherever you want. It’s a lifestyle career. As long as you know how to ride, as long as you know how to handle horses, there’ll always be a demand,” she added.

There are plenty of opportunities in this line of work, according to Morton. She herself has worked in Rome and is now based in Tuscany. Friends of hers work in Salerno and Sicily without knowing the language.

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Ten years since moving here, however, she has built up her Italian language skills after meeting a partner and having a daughter.

“It’s important to learn the language of where you live. You have to start somewhere, though. Not speaking Italian might put people off at the beginning, but you have to figure it out as you go,” said Morton.

Even though she didn’t speak Italian initially and it didn’t hinder her at work, she does admit that, over time, learning the language improves all aspects of life.

“Relationships will only get better as you speak the same language. It changes your whole experience. Also the way you see the country changes, as things make sense that didn’t at first,” she added.

Her profession is one that allowed her to get going in Italy, form a routine and meet people without having studied Italian. But learning it is inevitable eventually, you just have to “be brave enough to start”, she said.

She also found that, if you stay in Italy, you’ll need to build up your language skills to be taken seriously.

The city of Milan is the most popular place for foreigners to look for work in Italy – but it’s far from the only option. Photo: MIGUEL MEDINA / AFP

“You need to know technical language in this job for dealing with vets, for instance. So, language becomes important. Also, it’s a male-dominated career, so you’re not only coping with language problems, but also the perception of women,” she said.

“In those moments, you really do need the language to get through what you want and how you want it done. Otherwise, you can get taken advantage of. Speaking Italian shows you know what you’re talking about and that you’re not just here for a holiday gig,” she added.

Choosing Italy for its lifestyle now and learning the language later

In contrast, Andrew Findlater and his wife wanted an adventure and they pondered various destinations across Europe. They chose Italy due to its “quality of life, weather and standard of food” and took the plunge to move in 2018.

Italy ticked a lot of boxes for them and seemed an attractive choice. Although he hadn’t ever studied Italian, Findlater wasn’t put off, as he noted that it shared the Latin root with English and reasoned it would be easier to learn than languages like Hungarian, for example.

He found a job at an international school in Ferrara, Emilia Romagna, transferring his skills as a primary school teacher.

“Not knowing Italian is not a problem in a true international school, as English is the lingua franca,” he said.

READ ALSO: Will Italy really pay you to move to its ‘smart working’ villages?

However, where he works, students are 90% Italian. “Students have families going back 300 years in the city. They are rooted to the place of where they’re from. Therefore, to understand the children sometimes and understand where their mistakes are coming from, it would be useful to learn Italian,” he added.

Although Italian skills aren’t a requirement for carrying out his job, learning the language as he goes has helped.

He said his comprehension skills have improved over the past three years, but he still struggles with speaking, which can cause some issues with staff and parent meetings.

When talking to parents, a translator is provided. Developing Italian skills has never become essential then, but a translator doesn’t necessarily make communication easy.

“I understand what’s being said at this point, but I can’t respond in a certain way in Italian that’s respectful and gets your point across. When I listen to what the translator says, I think, ‘that’s not what I wanted to say’. They perhaps missed out positive points,” he said.

“You can lose a lot of the nuance and understanding with parents, which can lead to problems. You can be alienated from a lot of things that are usually essential as a teacher,” he added.

The Brexit effect

Although other team members can – and do – speak English to him, it’s easy for Italian to be reverted to as the default when the majority of staff are Italian. He noted that this is a shift since Brexit, as the school seems to value English native speakers less and has stopped recruiting from Britain.

With that, comes a lower British influence in the staffroom and now he finds himself in “delicate social dynamics” where he can’t join in with the jokes in Italian.

It’s a balance understood by Rossana Piroddi Molloy, who also moved to Italy from England in 2018. Her husband was offered a job in computing in Milan and she managed to find work as a nanny.

Neither of them speak Italian fluently and they both get by in their roles mainly speaking English.

Your job might not require Italian – but bureaucracy does

The British-born nanny looks after a 4-year-old boy and the parents would like him to grow up speaking English, meaning she could move to Italy without needing to learn the language. In fact, the emphasis is on her speaking English above all.

Even though she’s qualified and has over 10 years experience in childcare, she noted that a lot of families she’s met really value having English as your first language, with qualifications being less important.

Although English is her asset, she too notes that over time, learning Italian has become important. “Some situations arise where I wish I had the skills to communicate more effectively,” Molloy said.

“It also stunts my interactions with his parents. They don’t seem to mind that we don’t have in-depth conversations but I would like to be able to chat to them more at hand-offs,” she added.

READ ALSO: ‘Smart working’? Here’s what you need to know about going self-employed in Italy

WhatsApp seems to be an essential tool, bridging the linguistic gap, as it allows her to “share photos and stories on important information”.

As for her husband, he works with a multinational team and mainly speaks in English so isn’t finding too many snags in his IT job.

There are times he finds Italian meetings “frustrating”, though, as he can’t pick up the nuances of what’s being said. To overcome that, there is an Italian member of staff on hand to help prevent miscommunication.

For Molloy, she admits she was “naive” about the process and thought she’d have become fluent just by living here – something she now understands is challenging for adults.

Even though she can cope well in her job, she said she found the bureaucracy arduous without speaking Italian.

“After a certain amount of frustration and tears we would have happily paid through the nose to hire somebody to come with us to all our initial appointments for the doctor, bank, registering residency and so on, who could translate and argue for us on our behalf,” she added.

Photo: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images via AFP

That’s sometimes part of the package if you get a contract in Italy. For Findlater and his wife, they didn’t need to speak any Italian to register and set up.

“We were fortunate, as we had someone assigned from the school who held our hand through it all and took us to the government buildings to sort out our codice fiscale (tax code), rental agreements, open bank accounts, get ID cards and so on,” he said.

“Our landlady’s son spoke very good English and helped us too. Language wasn’t really an issue – it was more the bureaucracy itself that was complicated,” he added.

Living in an English bubble

For others, working in Italy has been a gradual process. Matthew in Turin first came to Italy five years ago and spent time freelancing in both the UK and Italy.

When Brexit loomed on the horizon, he went all in and began to live in Italy full time before the immigration process for Brits got even trickier.

He now works from home remotely, collaborating with universities in the UK and also has clients across the world, including Canada.

READ ALSO: How Italy’s ‘forfettario regime’ could slash your freelance tax bill

As his work is solely conducted in English, he can even sometimes forget he needs to speak Italian at all. “Sometimes after work I walk out onto the street and forget where I am”, he said.

As he doesn’t need Italian for his job, he says his language skills are “passable”, but that he can interact on an everyday basis without too much difficulty, adding that “you can’t expect people to be able to speak English to you”.

Even though he doesn’t need to speak Italian to make a living, he said it’s still “absurd” not to learn Italian if you live here. Admitting he gravitated to English speakers at the beginning, he can now join in with Italian conversations, even if he doesn’t get all the subtleties every time.

The process is one echoed by many English speakers moving to Italy: it’s okay to come here with not much grounding in Italian at the beginning, but then the need to learn the language becomes obvious.

‘Going backwards to go forwards’

Stephanie Rubinato from America has been living in Treviso for three years. After trying the teaching English route, she decided to go solo and set up her own video production company.

She now creates online videos for businesses and mainly deals with clients in the US so she can operate without struggling through Italian at work.

Photo: Annika Gordon/Unsplash

However, she does also deal with an Italian creative agency and has noticed how she wants to up her language skills, specifically to work on her grammar, in order to better express herself with Italian colleagues.

Though not easy, Rubinato believes it is worth it: “It felt like a long road to get here but I’m so passionate about what I do now.”

“Taking the time to really learn how I could bring my skills here in Italy and build a career has been so rewarding,” she said.

Even though most expressed regret at not having learned Italian before arriving, they all agreed being here is the true education, which will eventually help you settle in to the true Italian culture.

“I really found that pushing yourself out of your comfort zone helps you learn a language, as it sticks in your head so much more than a classroom setting.”

“You’ve got to make mistakes and you can’t want to be perfect straight away. It’s like going back to being a child, but you have to go backwards to go forwards,” said Morton.

The unanimous message seems to be, ‘go for it’. Findlater added, “I regret the Britishness of worrying and not grasping the nettle, it’s better to just get involved.”


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