What's the point of learning Italian?

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A British Council study last week placed Italian in the top 10 most useful languages for Britons to learn. The Local spoke to Vilma de Gasperin, a senior language instructor at the University of Oxford, to find out why, despite competition from the Asian economies, Italian is still a useful language to know.

Has the number of students wanting to learn Italian changed in recent years?

In the ten years I have been teaching at Oxford, the number of students studying Italian has stayed more or less the same. It fluctuates between 30 to 40 per year.

However, the number of students starting Italian from scratch at Oxford has increased, because unfortunately not many schools offer the chance to study Italian. Very often the students make up for this through individual study before coming here.

I would say that the fact that Italian studies has remained stable is a very positive sign, given the growing interest in Asian languages, and indicates that interest in the subject hasn't diminished.

What type of work do students go on to do after studying Italian? Does the knowledge of the language help them find these jobs?

The type of work students go into after university varies a huge amount. Aside from those who continue with further studies (in law or other specializations, as well as masters and doctorates in languages and literature) the students are employed in finance, voluntary organizations and commercial companies, for example, as management consultants or analysts, to name a few.

In some cases, knowledge of Italian is indispensable, for those who go to work in Italy or have business contacts in Italy.

For others, perhaps they won't use Italian in their work, but they will have gained many transferable skills. Employers know very well how valuable the knowledge of foreign languages is, as well as the other abilities which you get through language learning.

So how can Italian be useful in the world of work?

Italian is not only useful but necessary for anyone whose job will lead them to have contact (commercially or culturally) with Italy and/or Italian speakers. If you want to enter the world of financial, commercial or cultural enterprises in our country, knowledge of Italian is essential.

We can't keep deceiving ourselves that it's enough just to know English; if you want to go beyond a superficial level, you have to know the language of the country.

As one of my final year students who wants to go into real estate after university, told me: if you want to do business with Italian speakers and, more importantly, get a good deal, it is vital to speak the client's language.

Apart from work, why is it important to learn Italian?

I asked my students this question; some will be using Italian in their work but others won't. But they still expressed joy at having been able to study the language, regardless or whether it will be 'useful' or not. One of them told me studying the language is enough in itself, it doesn't matter if it's 'useful', another is in love with Italy as a country and intends to spend as much time there as possible.

One student who will be starting a career as a consultant told me that they won't be using Italian, but given the choice, they preferred to study something they really enjoyed for four years at university, rather than something specifically linked to their future career. All the more so because the process of learning a language allows you to transfer these abilities into whatever field you choose to work in.

It is important because it provides an infinite enrichment, both personally and culturally. To get to know Italy, you cannot neglect knowledge of the language, in order to appreciate the culture, literature and today's society.

The Italian language has an extremely rich history, and learning Italian is fundamental to get closer to understanding Italy's society, history, problems, and one of the richest cultures in the world.

Giuseppe Baretti said in the eighteenth century “talking about a country without first knowing its language is like making soup in a basket”. Anyone who wants to have strong links with Italy and its culture, history and society cannot do so without knowing Italian. 

Will Italian become more or less important in the future?

Here we have to make a distinction between 'important' and 'useful'. Italian is certainly useful if you want to do business with Italy  – we shouldn't underestimate the importance of the Italian economy.

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But learning a language goes beyond the concept of 'usefulness'. This is something which my students understand well; they see their language skills not just as a means of understanding Italy, a country which they love, but also as an extraordinary fount of knowledge.

It is very limiting to think of learning a language as serving only a practical goal. It is important in many other ways, because through the study of a foreign language, you discover a country in different ways and you gain skills which can then be applied to other situations. It also broadens your way of thinking and increases your capacity to understand Italy – whichever aspect of it you are interested in.

I have found that those who study Italian have a deep interest in the language - sometimes for personal reasons, perhaps linked to their childhood, but also to their present and future – and behind this interest there is an attraction, or even love, for the country.

And in the future? Without a doubt there is currently a rise in studying languages like Chinese, Arabic and Japanese, and this will continue, but I believe Italian will continue to attract the same interest.

This is because the choice to study Italian is linked to factors intrinsic to the language (it is a beautiful language, and its sound and structure fascinate and enchant people) as well as for cultural or commercial reasons.

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