OPINION: Why Italians have a hard time learning English

Italy's poor rankings in international comparisons of English language skills don't come as a surprise to many in the country. Silvia Marchetti explains why Italian students are at a disadvantage and what must be done if the situation is to change.

One thing that often strikes foreigners visiting Italy is how badly Italians speak English – if they do at all, that is. We’re not savvy when it comes to other languages.

Each time I hear Italians attempting to do so, especially politicians and reporters, I can’t help but laugh, shake my head and feel embarrassed. They can barely string words together and their accent is a killer.

READ ALSO: Italy has one of the worst levels of English in the EU, study finds

English has always been perceived as totally different from Italian and extremely hard to learn, as opposed to French and Spanish that belong to the same neo-Latin language group. 

English language knowledge among Italians is extremely low. According to the latest studies, Italy ranks 32nd out of 35 European countries, way behind not just Scandinavian countries but also Poland and Portugal.

And it’s not just for colloquial English. When it comes to professionals, particularly those working in trade and other sectors who should know English, Italy lags behind Europe’s other leading economies.

Only 20 percent of Italian professionals have a very basic knowledge of English; lower than the level among middle and high school students (30 percent).

In rural areas, where schools tend to be smaller, only 25 percent of students are able to speak some sort of English. Just 10 percent of Italian pupils apparently speak English very well: these mainly attend private schools. 

It’s a structural problem. English language teaching in schools should be reinforced with more hours per week and it should be taught exclusively by native speakers, or at least teachers who are fluent and know it as well as their mother tongue. Online classroom chats with native English-speaking kids should also be encouraged. 

Photo: Francois Nascimbeni

I learnt English while attending Anglo-American schools abroad. Nobody spoke Italian. At the age of 4 I was thrown into a classroom with kids from 20 other countries, and English and American teachers. I had no choice but to learn it. On the first day I had to go to the loo but didn’t know how to say it, so held it for hours. After a few weeks of total mutism, my parents told me I started babbling all of a sudden in English. 

Mine was a full immersion, so given that we can’t expatriate Italian kids to learn English abroad, we must take that linguistic world to them through mother-tongue teachers. 

My friends back in Italy used to make fun of their English teacher. A sturdy Italian woman from the south who desperately tried to speak English with a strong Neapolitan accent. Today, they can’t string a sentence together in English. 

Public school English teachers tend not to be very competent. You need to go to university to find professors (of English literature) who speak fluently.

READ ALSO: ‘The job can come as a shock’: What it’s really like working as an English teacher in Italy

A relative of mine, for instance, was an Italian language high school teacher. When she started working she was sent to teach English at a little rural school in Italy’s deep south. She didn’t know English. One day two American tourists came by asking for information and the headmaster went to call for her: she hid in the bathroom.

 After a few weeks she asked to be transferred because that simply wasn’t the job for her, saying: “How could I possibly teach English to kids when I don’t know it myself in the first place?”

I wonder how many teachers are honest enough to admit this. Let’s face it: if there are ‘bad’ pupils it’s also because there are some ‘bad’ teachers around. 

Today nearly all public school teachers are Italian and they speak poor English with a strong accent, thus influencing pupils’ attainment levels. 

Few are native speakers because there are no incentives to attract teachers from English-speaking countries. Salaries are really low. 

After years of middle school teaching, teachers are paid 1,500 euros a month, net. Those who recruit them in the first place don’t know English themselves. So English teachers in Italy prefer to give private lessons at home, making quite a lot of money. 

READ ALSO: Why is Italy ranked among the worst at speaking English in Europe?

Italy doesn’t attract talent, it pushes it away. There’s a severe brain drain of professionals and skilled workers who flee the country, lured by brighter careers and a higher remuneration abroad. 

According to data from Italy’s audit court, in the last eight years there’s been a 42 percent increase in the number of university students, scientists and researchers who have ditched Italy and gone to work abroad.

The truth is, we need a cultural jolt. A revolution.

Speaking English is still not considered a ‘must’ in Italy; a colloquial level is sufficient when applying for a job (if foreign languages are required at all) and the outside world is… out there. Italians live in Italy and Italian is their language. Basta

To improve things, fluency in English should become compulsory when applying for skilled jobs, both in the private and public sectors. Even if that job doesn’t necessarily require speaking to foreigners. 

The state should also introduce an English exam for all professions – be it doctors, lawyers, journalists – and public offices. But that takes us back to square one: who evaluates language skills? If not native speakers, then the language attainment level would still be very low, no matter how many exams there are.


I have met white collar workers and people in institutional roles having to take English courses at the office, at the age of 50, in order to travel and speak to foreign press.

Cinemas in Italy should also feature movies in the original English language, which is the standard in many European countries like Belgium and Holland where only translated subtitles are shown on screens. It might be a good way to improve Italians’ knowledge of English for they’d be forced to learn it if they want to see the latest US box-office hit.

However, I’m quite pessimistic. Sad to say but, no matter how many changes are made, I think there might be some improvements but the big picture won’t change.

In order for a real revolution to happen, you need to change the mindset in Italy and give more value to merit and education: which is like making Alice in Wonderland real. 

And that’s another thorny issue, with a huge political dimension. Currently, in order to enter parliament aspiring MPs aren’t required to have a university degree, nor even a high school diploma. Let alone an English language certificate. 

So I really don’t think there will be such a cultural revolution in the end, meaning the majority of Italians will likely never become fluent. And English-speaking people in Italy will just have to continue their efforts to learn Italian in order to better communicate.

Member comments

  1. Even before moving to Italy in 2012 my wife and I learned Italian. Of course, we are continuing to learn! My wife is not a native English speaker and we also speak several other languages to varying degrees of fluency. Unfortunately we have had cause to be involved with the ludicrously inept Italian judicial system and have been offered “professional translators”. Our dogs speak better English! We have offered our time to help the children of our Italian friends to learn English. Apparently they have been told that their children must stick to the curriculum and cannot waste their time speaking English with English speakers. My wife is qualified to teach English as a foreign language! Yet Italy wonders why its brightest and best young people leave the country and they gaze on in jealous wonder at the wealth that we English-speaking foreigners have.

  2. I have definitely noticed the lack of English capability in Italy. I ascribe it to several factors. First, there is a large enough native population to create an Italian only ecosystem. Secondly, there is a robust dubbing industry in Italy with the dubbing actors being well known personalities. Unfortunately, English has become the lingua franca of diplomacy, technology, science and medicine. Being monolingual in Italian constrains those who harbour ambitions in the aforementioned fields. As the article states, employing teachers with a high level of English proficiency coupled with the option of subtitles rather than dubbing of English media would help improve this situation. English as a second language is spoken by approximately 1 billion people, a testimonial to its influence. Italian is a beautiful language with a lovely musical cadence but an increase in English proficiency would surely ameliorate the country’s future.

  3. Its getting better though. When I started visiting my family’s ancestral village south of Naples almost 17 years ago – no one spoke English. Now, there are several younger residents that are fluent, without an accent. And a few more that can get by in English but with an accent.

    I live in the Netherlands where 73% of Dutch speak English. The one huge difference I see between Italy and Holland, here US television is subtitled in Dutch. So Dutch children grow up hearing English from very early in life. In Italy all English language programming on TV is dubbed over in Italian. If they just stopped this practice English proficiency would rise dramatically.

  4. Actually, it always surprises me how many people here in Italy speak English. Just yesterday I was in a motorcycle shop looking for a part for my Vespa. And the fellow at the counter switched to English to help me find the correct piece. And when I go to the pharmacy around the corner we have totally fluent conversations in English. And this happens to me all the time in Italy’s “deep south”.

    Once I attended a scientific lecture at the university. All the Italian professors and students there spoke great English. In fact, it was the American giving the lecture that nobody could understand. With puzzled expressions they whispered to me, “but what is he saying?” And I had to explain that the American was speaking not in international English, but rather in a Californian dialect which few understood.

    1. Californian dialect ?

      I lived in LA for 20 years, and traveled throughout California. What is the California dialect you’re speaking about ?

  5. The best and most simple way is indeed to stop dubbing movies, television shows, soap operas, anything in english stays in english. subtitles only. Many people worldwide learn their english from watching TV shows. It works. It’s simple. It’s cheap.

    1. When I first arrived in Italy 16 years ago, I came across an estate agent who had learned English this way. I was very amused to overhear a conversation he had with a rather uptight older English couple when he was telling about this “fucking fantastic house!”
      Dangerous advice!

  6. Brexit will make it even less likely that students in Italian state schools will have mother tongue English teachers. I’m a British citizen with a degree and a postgraduate certificate in education in EFL/ESL. Because of EU directives on employment qualifications, with my British qualifications I was able to get recognition from the Ministry of Education in Italy to teach in middle schools. (They wouldn’t recognise my qualifications for high school teaching because I hadn’t studied English or foreign languages at university.) With Brexit I suppose such recognition will now become impossible for British citizens wishing to teach English in Italian state schools

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‘Hellish odyssey’: Why cancelling my Italian phone contract took six months

Ending a contract with your phone or wifi provider in Italy can be trickier than you might expect. Reporter Silvia Marchetti shares her "nightmare" experience and explains the steps to be aware of.

'Hellish odyssey': Why cancelling my Italian phone contract took six months

Signing contracts with phone providers takes just a few minutes but getting rid of them by shutting down landlines and Wi-Fi services may take months.

It can be a real nightmare, as all telecom carriers have pretty much the same rules of cessazione del contratto (contract termination). 

You find yourself left hanging while automatic answering machines and ‘virtual assistants’ drive you crazy. Then, when you manage to get through to a real person, you spend hours talking with different customer service call centers across Europe to make sure your request has gone through.

But in the meantime, while you wait to sever ties with the phone company, you keep paying the monthly bills until it is certain that you are no longer their client.

They make it really hard for you. I spent half of this year chasing after my phone carrier to cancel the contract as I was paying for very poor, glitchy WiFi. The real problem is having to deal with many different call center staff to whom you have to explain the whole story from the beginning, and they often don’t speak Italian or English well.

READ ALSO: How to use your Italian ID card to access official services online

The first thing I did is to call the customer service and communicate that I no longer wanted to be their client explaining the reason, they said, ‘OK, it is done, no worries, within the next 30 days (the time needed to process the request) your contract will end’. 

Make sure you always ask for the ‘numero pratica’ (procedure number) for when you need to follow up. 

But of course it couldn’t be that simple. They told me I would be getting a confirmation sms on my mobile within the next 72 hours. That never happened, so I called back and this time they said I had to wait for the operator itself to call me to ask if I really wanted to cancel my contract, to double confirm the request. 

I received two phone calls after three weeks, during my working hours when I couldn’t answer, and each time I called back I was told I had to wait for another call.

Few people are aware of the tricky fact that if you do not verbally re-confirm the termination request it is void.

Months passed by and nobody called. Four times I picked up the carrier’s call and the connection broke off just as I said ‘Buongiorno’, so I called back the customer service and was told (by what must have been the ninth person I spoke to) that a verbal cancellation request isn’t enough, and the only way to make sure it went through was emailing the request to the company with my landline number and a copy of my ID.

I sent an email and it bounced back, so I sent a PEC, or ‘certified’ email – including the numero di pratica – and made sure I received confirmation that it had safely landed in the recipient’s mailbox.

You’ll need to beome familiar with Italy’s registered email (PEC) system. Photo: Mario Laporta/AFP

I waited, another two months went by and I had to keep paying the bills as my WiFi and phone services were still ‘on’ but no internet whatsoever. So I decided not to pay them anymore, or delay the payment deadline. That’s when the carrier started sending a private postman to deliver a notification of unpaid pending bills. 

It turned into a six-month hellish odyssey, almost every morning I called the customer service asking about my request status and they would reply I had to wait for the verbal confirmation call from the carrier. I gave them three other numbers they could reach of my relatives to increase the chances that if the operator did call, someone could confirm the deactivation.

The most frustrating aspect, as with most bureaucratic issues in Italy, is that la mano destra non sa cosa fa la sinistra (the right hand doesn’t know what the left one is doing) meaning each call center agent would say the opposite from another, unaware even that I had forwarded a PEC. So you start quarrelling over the phone, and it does no good.

In August, finally, after re-sending the PEC four times, someone from the phone company reached one of the numbers I had left, belonging to a person who lives with me, who verbally confirmed that I no longer wanted to be their client. Three weeks later my landline and WiFi were dead.

READ ALSO: Disappearing PECs: How lost emails can land you with big fines in Italy

As a result, I now solely rely on mobile connection and ‘fear like the plague’, as my granny used to say, getting entangled again in another phone carrier’s trap. 

This has taught me never to believe when a provider says all you need to do is tell them over the phone ‘hey I want to cancel my contract’, and then wait for their call to confirm it.

There’s an ancient Latin saying: verba volant, scripta manent (spoken words fly away, written ones remain). Sending an official request via PEC to the correct addresses, with numero di pratica, is the best thing to do. 

Calling up a few times to make sure your pratica has been approved is key, if so, make sure you ask the person you talk to send you via email a confirmation that on set date your landline will cease and you will no longer be paying bills.

If too much time goes by, and you keep getting bills, feel free not to pay them. When the phone carrier realizes this it will simply cut off your landline, which is exactly what you want, and there are no legal risks given the PEC was delivered months before.

This however is possible only if you pay the monthly bills by credit card or bollettino postale (postal payment slip). If you have a direct debit (RID) it’s best to rush to your bank to deactivate it when you make the official cancellation request. 

Credit cards can also be tricky: every month for five years I created a ‘virtual card’ to pay my bills and avoid fraud, but often the carrier’s online payment platform wouldn’t accept it. In the end this also wore me out. 

Phone and internet companies should make customers’ lives easy, not complicate things. In Italy however few things run smoothly. 

If you’ve cancelled a phone or internet contract in Italy, what was your experience? Have you got any tips for other readers? Please let us know in the comments section below.