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

OPINION: Why Italians have a hard time learning English - and how things could improve
Photo: Siora Photography on Unsplash
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.

  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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