SHARE
COPY LINK

SCHOOLS

OPINION: Why Italians have a hard time learning English – and how things could improve

Italy's poor rankings in international comparisons of English language skills don't come as a surprise to many in the country. Silvia Marchetti in Rome 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.

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 reports, Italy ranks 36th in the world and 26th in Europe, way behind not just Scandinavian countries but also Poland and Portugal.

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

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 two leading economies, France and Germany.

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

In rural areas, where schools tend to be smaller, only 25% of students are able to speak some sort of English. Just 10% 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. 

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

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.

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. 

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.

READ ALSO: 

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

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members

ITALIAN LANGUAGE

UPDATED: Some of the best podcasts for learners of Italian

Listening to podcasts is a great way to immerse yourself in a new language. For everyone from beginners to advanced learners, here's a list of audio shows that will help improve your Italian.

UPDATED: Some of the best podcasts for learners of Italian

After we published a list of top 10 podcast recommendations for Italian language students, several readers got in touch with their own suggestions.

Below you can find our updated list of the best podcasts to listen to when learning Italian, featuring additional reader recommendations. Enjoy!

For beginners to intermediate learners:

In 2022, there’s a vast range of podcasts for people wanting to learn Italian from scratch – here we’ve selected just a few.

Since beginners will often struggle to understand even slow Italian, almost all these podcasts come with a paid subscription tier that provides access to transcripts and other accompanying materials.

That said, you don’t need to pay anything to simply listen to most of these shows. Give them a try, and see what you can pick up for free.

Coffee Break Italian

The creators of this show are on to a winning format: stop native speakers of a language in the street to ask them questions on a given theme; slowly repeat their answers and translate them into English; replay the interviews so the listener can fill in the gaps they missed the first time around.

It’s a simple but highly effective technique, allowing learners to acquaint themselves with the language as spoken by real Italians while giving them the tools they need to extract meaning from strong accents and colloquial turns of phrase.

News in Slow Italian

This podcast does exactly as advertised: gives you the week’s major international news in a (very) slow Italian.

READ ALSO: Ten of the best TV shows and films to help you learn Italian

It’s good for keeping up with current events as well as learning the language. One particularly useful function of the paid tier is that it allows you to hover over certain phrases in the transcript and see the English translation.

Easy Italian News

Can’t get enough of people slowly reading the news to you in Italian? You’re in luck, because Easy Italian News is another resource that does just this.

Unlike News in Slow Italian, Easy Italian News purports to be entirely free and donation-based, so you have access to the entire transcript as you listen. New episodes every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

Italiano Automatico

Alberto Arrighini has taken his highly popular Youtube channel, Impara l’Italiano con Italiano Automatico, and made each episode available to listen to via the Italiano Automatico podcast.

While those who opt to listen via the podcast will miss out on the captions and slides Arrighini provides in his Youtube videos, it’s ideal for busy listeners who want to learn on the go. 

Each episode is roughly 10 minutes long and tackles different aspects of Italian such as regional accents, conjunctions, and answers to questions like when to use essere vs stare.

Which podcasts can help you learn Italian?

Which podcasts can help you learn Italian? Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash.

Quattro Stagioni

This bite-sized podcast from Alessandra Pasqui takes the form of five-minute long episodes covering everything from recipes to travel diaries from Italian cities to biographies of famous Italians.

The programme’s short length makes it perfect listening for walks to the shops or when waiting in line at the post office.

Simple Italian

Simone Pols hosts this programme for intermediate Italian speakers. It’s another basic set up: Pols takes as his starting point a theme or a recent experience and spends around 20 minutes taking about it in slowed-down Italian.

READ ALSO: Seven songs that will help you learn Italian

Recent episodes including his musings on include why it’s important to say no, the definition of beauty, and what he learned from spending six weeks in Palermo.

Italianglot

In Italianglot, Carmine Albanese, a Neapolitan Italian who is also a polyglot fluent in English, French, Spanish and Modern Greek, educates listeners about all aspects of Italian history and culture in his native language. We note that Italianglot promises to help you learn Italian with “minimal effort”, which sounds good to us.

The reader who wrote in to recommend this show says it’s particularly suitable for intermediate learners, but it’s worth noting that it also goes all the way up to C1/C2 level for those with more advanced Italian.

L’italiano vero

L’italiano vero, or ‘True Italian’ boasts of being “the first Italian-learning podcast that speaks to you like a real Italian”, with hosts Cubo and Paolo teaching practical Italian phrases to use in real-life situations like going shopping or having a coffee.

The person who wrote in to champion this show says “I like their senses of humour, and at the same time seriousness about teaching aspects of Italian and Italian life.”

Added extras like episode transcripts require a Patreon subscription, but with their lowest tier starting at €1 a month, you may well find it’s worth the expense.

Italiano con Amore

This podcast comes highly recommended by one reader, who says of host Eleanora Silanis, “She’s delightful and always has interesting subjects. Her diction and her accent are perfect and she speaks just slowly enough to catch every word but not so slowly that it’s tedious.”

The basic podcast is available online for free, and in addition three course levels are offered: ‘Classico’, ‘Plus +’, and ‘Portofino’. This one’s a bit more pricey than the others, but comes with a range of benefits including a workbook and live lessons for higher-tier subscribers.

For advanced learners: 

These podcasts were made for native Italian speakers, but you don’t need to be one yourself to enjoy them.

Practically non-existent until just a few years ago, the Italian podcasting industry has flourished in recent years. Whether you’re into true crime, long-form narrative journalism or science, these days there’s something for everyone.

Here are just a few well-known Italian podcasts for advanced speakers wondering where to start.

Veleno

This 2017 podcast is often referred to as ‘Italy’s Serial’, both for its in-depth investigative journalism and the fact that it’s credited with introducing large swathes of the population to the concept of podcasts altogether.

The story centres around a Satanic Panic that gripped the Bassa Modenese territory in the late 1990’s, leaving huge destruction and grief in its wake.

READ ALSO: The top five free smartphone apps for learning Italian

It’s an impressive piece of longform narrative journalism that makes for uncomfortable listening in some parts and will make you burn with righteous indignation in others.

Radiografia Nera

The Radio Popolare news station didn’t exist before 1976: but what if it had? 

That’s the starting point for this podcast from Tommaso Bertelli e Matteo Liuzzi, who in each episode recount a different crime that took place in post-war Milan up until the year the station was founded, sourcing most of their facts from archived court documents and police reports.

You’ll hear plenty of stories about bank robberies and stick-up jobs, but also learn of broader historical crimes such as attempted coups.

The hosts have a rapid-fire style of delivery, so Italian learners may want to slow the podcast down or go back and listen more than once to fully grasp the whole story – but it’s good practice if you want to challenge yourself.

XXX. Photo by Siddharth Bhogra on Unsplash.

Limoni

L’Internazionale‘s Annalisa Camilli has won awards for her in-depth reporting on migration to Italy, but there’s one story from her past that she always kept at arm’s length – until now.

In Limoni, which was released to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the G8 protests in Genoa, Camilli looks back at what happened at the 2001 event in which hundreds of protestors were injured and over forty unarmed people were set upon and tortured by police as they prepared to go to bed.

Camilli, who attended the protests as a young person, examines the events in light of information that has come out in the years since, bringing a new clarity to what happened and why things went so badly wrong.

Il gorilla ce l’ha piccolo

Despite its irreverent name (which translates roughly as ‘Gorillas have small d**ks’), this animal-focused podcast contains a genuine treasure trove of information about the animal kingdom.

Presented by the biologist Vincenzo Venuto, each episode takes a broad relational theme, such as families or cheating, and examines how these things play out among various animal species. In looking at how animals handle aspects of sex, birth, ageing, death and grief, Venuto gives us a greater insight into our own species.

Problemi

From Jonathan Zenti, creator of the excellent (sadly only three-episode-long) English language podcast Meat, comes Problemi. In each episode Zenti talks about something he has a problem with, helped along by interjections from one of his own voice-altered alter egos.

In other hands, this might sound like a relatively dull basis for a podcast, but not in these ones. Zenti’s persona as a host is prickly and impious, but equally capable of deep compassion. His lack of interest in self-censorship and sometimes uncomfortably frank disclosures can make this mostly humorous show surprisingly painful at certain moments. It’s one of the few I’ll sometimes return to.

Demoni Urbani

Another true crime podcast here for fans of the genre. Hosted by actor Francesco Migliaccio but authored and produced by an entire creative team, Demoni Urbani (‘Urban Demons’) aims to peel back the surface to reveal the ‘heart of darkness’ beating away in various Italian metropolises.

While the first series focused solely on Italy, later episodes have gone international, narrating the stories of crimes committed as far away as Japan and the former Soviet Union. The reader who wrote to endorse this podcast recommended it for its “great true crime stories. Excellently told.”

Do you have any recommendations for an Italian podcast we haven’t mentioned here? If so, please email us with your suggestion.

SHOW COMMENTS