Love, food and music: Why Italian is now the world's fourth most studied language

Catherine Edwards
Catherine Edwards - [email protected]
Love, food and music: Why Italian is now the world's fourth most studied language
Did you learn it for the people.. or for the food? File photo: Pexels

Italian is growing in popularity as a foreign language around the world - but why the appeal? We asked our readers, whose reasons for learning the language ranged from family old and new to an appreciation of the food and culture - as well as some more unexpected factors.


Italian has leapt to fourth place in terms of the most-studied languages worldwide. The number of foreigners studying it has risen to 2,233,373 in the 2015/16 academic year - up from 1,700,000 the previous year. 

The figures, released by the General Assembly of the Italian Language in the World, revealed student numbers saw a particular increase in France and Germany but also further afield, in Australia and the USA.

Italian follows English, Spanish and Mandarin Chinese in the rankings of most popular languages among students. But while the top three can boast hundreds of millions of speakers and have clear CV-boosting potential, the appeal of Italian is somewhat less obvious.

Photo: Allison Meyer/Flickr

For one thing, the boom in language-learning apps, such as DuoLingo and Memrise, has given a welcome boost to more niche languages, allowing students to work on languages which may not be offered by schools in their area.

This is crucial because in the UK, for example, where language learning as a whole is on the decline, Italian courses are often only available at private schools, and although a growing number of universities offer ab initio courses for students with no prior knowledge, these kinds of degrees are demanding.

But besides the fact that it's now simply easier to learn Italian, the language seems to have a unique appeal, attracting learners who see it as more than a way to improve their employment prospects.

When The Local asked our readers why they chose to learn Italian, we were struck by the diversity of the responses.

Many of our Facebook followers had chosen to start a new life in Italy, and learning the language was a key part of that adventure, with many describing it as a mark of "respect" for the host country and their new neighbours.

'A happy accident'

One reader noted: ”I wanted to be a part of my Italian husband's family and life. I felt it was unfair to make him translate for me all of the time."

As well as being polite, many pointed out it was also often necessary to speak Italian, particularly in rural areas where many of the locals don't understand English.

Janet Bleakman, who made the move in 1965, said "almost no-one" spoke English when she moved to Umbria, and that learning basic words was essential.

For many readers, the choice to take up Italian wasn't something they'd always planned. Falling in love with a native speaker - whether they then moved to Italy or not - was a common catalyst. 

Florence. Photo: Ghost of Kuji/Flickr

But sometimes the reason was more mundane. Rachel Markwick, from the UK, told us she had wanted to learn Spanish at school, but when the school was unable to find a Spanish teacher, they brought in an Italian one instead.

“A happy accident! I loved it, got an A level and have been to Italy many times," she said.

Visits to the country inspired lots of our readers, from all around the world, to start studying italiano. Whether they spent a year as an au pair, studied at an Italian university, or simply holidayed here regularly, the local language had left an impression.

"I learned Italian because of many visits to Italy, and a growing love of the place, the people and the language! I love languages, I speak French, so why not learn Italiano?” explained Stephanie Baggett.

Planning a one-way trip to Italy? Don't forget your dictionary. Photo: Pexels
A family affair
For others, there were practical reasons to learn at least the basics. “We want to be able to communicate with people and read signs,” said Heather Penrod, who is planning a trip to the country.

And Sebastian Sassi pointed out: “It’s always very flattering to Italians when you make an effort.”

Some Italian speakers had never set foot in the country - but they had a much deeper connection with the bel paese.

“It’s a family thing!” said Ann Thompson from Oregon, whose grandparents were born in Italy. Many learners had family links to the country and the language, and learned Italian to be able to communicate with monolingual relatives, or feel closer to a culture which was a part of their heritage.

For Kelly Newman, it worked the other way round. Living in Italy, her daughter attends the local nursery, and she says she wants to improve her Italian in order to communicate with her child’s friends and teachers.

The food of love

Then there were the people who were passionate about Italian culture, from literature and art to opera; history and archaeology to cinema, and had found that studying the language helped them pursue their other interested.

One reader's interest had been kickstarted when she began reading music (where Italian terminology is often used), while one or two were keen to dive into Dante's Comedy in its original Italian, as well as other works of literature.

One topic in particular came up again and again: Italian food. 

Photo: Rooey202/Flickr

Speaking Italian allowed people to navigate menus, and in some cases even avoid getting ripped off in restaurants over here.

Zoe Polites recalled being overcharged at a restaurant while in Milan with Australian friends. “In my fluent Italian, I explained that I wasn’t a tourist and asked how they dared to charge me that amount! The man tried to explain that I’d read it wrong… you’ve got to love Italy!”

In fact, it seems that learning a language which isn't as widely spoken as, say, English comes with a few unexpected benefits - including the ability to eavesdrop on strangers.

"Riding on a train in Italy, we shared a compartment with some guys who spent half an hour ‘discussing’ the blond foreign girls - us.” remembered Lene Westergaard, who was born in Rome to Danish parents and spent the first six years of her life in Italy. “After a long time, I interrupted them and asked them a question politely in Italian. That kept them quiet for a while!”

'Just a whim'

While Italian clearly had a practical use for many people, there was often a harder-to-explain appeal; a love of the rich sounds of the language itself.

“I fell in love with the language.”

“It’s a beautiful language worthy of learning.”

"Italian is like music."

"The sound of the words makes me smile."

Those were just a few of the comments we received which shows that the connection between a language and a speaker goes deeper than the need to ask where the nearest toilet is. 

Venice. Photo: Kosala Bandara/Flickr

Laura de la Torre put her love of the langauge beautifully: “What’s the point of learning Italian? What's the point of watching the sun set over the Ponte Vecchio? What's the point of admiring Michelangelo's works of art? What is the point of love? What is the point of breathing? What is the point of living?”

It might not make sense to everyone - one commenter, Marco Scarselli said: “Nobody needs to learn Italian, it’s just a whim."

As the variety of responses above proves, that isn't quite true - however, Scarselli does have a point. It's certainly not a language which is guaranteed to help you in business, beyond a very few select careers, and it only just creeps into lists of the top 20 most spoken global languages.

But perhaps that's the point.

The fact that learning Italian isn’t a necessity, but something people actively choose to do - for fun, for love, and maybe yes, on a whim - is part of what makes it such a bella lingua.

So - what are you waiting for?

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






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