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Why are Italians the 'worst at speaking English in the EU'?

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Why are Italians the 'worst at speaking English in the EU'?
Why is Italy ranked worse than neighbouring European countries for English-language skills? Photo: AFP
16:20 CET+01:00
After a global study this week ranked Italy as the worst in the EU when it comes to speaking English, The Local asks why the country is struggling so much with its English language skills.

READ ALSO: Italy ranked worst in the EU for speaking English

“I didn't study English at school or at university, so I was surprised when I was expected to teach it,” says Lucia, an elementary school teacher whose subjects have included English for the past three years - despite the fact she can't actually speak the language.

“I have to study the grammar before every class,” she tells The Local, in Italian. “We had an American boy in one class, who was always correcting my pronunciation.”

Lucia, speaking to us on the condition of anonymity, teaches at an elementary school near Bari in the southern region of Puglia, which ranked as the Italian region with the second-worst level of English, after neighbouring Basilicata.

Screenshot: The English Proficiency Index (EPI)

The study showed English test scores in southern Italian regions were worse than those in the north of the country.

But the entire country scored relatively poorly overall, with even the cities of Rome and Milan earning only a "moderate competency" rating.

Is the Italian education system to blame?

39-year-old Lucia says she only had the option to study French when she was at school.

“Most teachers here unfortunately don't speak English, because we didn't study it,” she admits. “But  things have changed, now English is important for our childrens' futures."

She points out that English-language skills are "now essential" for work, studies, and travel, and says "the earlier children start learning another language, the better."

"But we need to break the chain. We need to get native English speakers teaching in our schools. Sadly, there are very few," she adds.

READ ALSO: Italian teachers some of the least respected in the world

As well as a lack of madrelingue, or native speakers, teaching in Italian schools, many teachers, students and language experts pointed out that the way the language is taught also leaves students at a disadvantage.

“The Italian education system tends to focus on acquiring theoretical knowledge rather than the practical application of it. This is a problem for every subject, but it applies to languages particularly,” according to Fabiola Sibilla, an Italian blogger for language site The Polyglot's Corner.

“Italian students are obliged to memorise English grammar rules without practising and speaking the language,” he adds. “In this way, they tend to forget everything they memorise after finishing school.”

At private schools in Italy, teachers say the situation is very different.

Italian journalist and filmmaker Emilio Bellu says the Italian state education system in general is “broken".

“I think the schooling system is the main culprit here, and the teaching of English is just one of the clearer ways it shows its inadequacies; the educational system in Italy is deeply broken, especially high school and universities,” he tells The Local.

Italian parents often rely on private schools or tutors to fill this gap in their childrens' education. But this is not an affordable solution for many, and the parents who can pay for private tuition say they've had difficulty finding accredited language schools or qualified teachers outside of Italy's bigger cities.

Lucia says she arranged private English lessons for her son with “an American woman who lives nearby” but it turned out that she “wasn't qualified and had never taught before”.


A lack of exposure

Another major obstacle is the fact that Italians just don't get many opportunities to speak English. or even to hear it spoken, says Sibilla.

“There are not many chances to speak English daily in Italy, because nobody speaks it on the street or at work,” he says. And even at schools or universities, “English lessons are often explained in Italian.”

While studying and speaking English is no doubt very important for those living in heavily-touristed parts of Italy, it's just not part of life in the country otherwise.

You might expect highly-educated professionals, such as doctors, to speak at least some English, but here in Italy that's not always the case.

Worryingly, even highly-visible public figures struggle with English. Videos of ex-Prime Minister Matteo Renzi's incomprehensible speeches in English regularly went viral when he was in office. The current foreign minister, Luigi Di Maio, rarely attempts to speak English and is usually ridiculed when he does.

And while in many other European countries young people regularly watch films and television series in English, Italians aren't easily able to do that because dubbing is so prevelant.

Rome's Cinecitta film studios. Photo: Depositphotos

“In Italy dubbing, a legacy of fascism and of our dominant illiteracy in the first half of the last century, has a very strong tradition, and is used in practically every adaptation of foreign productions, from documentaries to television series,” explains Bellu.

But “watching movies and TV series with subtitles is a free, effective and fun language lesson," he adds.

“Anyone who has travelled the world will have noticed how the linguistic competence of the population (especially the youngest) is linked to the amount of exposure they've had to a foreign language.”


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Luigi - 07 Nov 2019 02:34
And so what? Will the superpowers and political elite not be happy until every city speaks English and every town looks like each other with chain department stores, specialty stores, and restaurants, selling mediocre at best goods, most of it made in china and awlful factory-made foods? They preach diversity while flooding our countries with people who share nothing with us yet desire us to all accept their version of the future where we are all in lock-step with each other buying the same shit and speaking the same language! Sorry, that is not the future I want for my children.
Paolo - 07 Nov 2019 15:14
Practically, to not speak English today is to vastly limit one's opportunities for growth and professional development. It's good to be exposed to other cultures.

No need for melodramatics.
Kai - 09 Nov 2019 22:39

You perfectly represent the average right-winger in Italy who has no clue about the world and thus causes the terrible economic and cultural state that country is in.
MaryAnne - 10 Nov 2019 15:35
This seems to be part of the negativity towards newcomers that I've experienced in Italy, especially in the south. I've studied Italian for almost 2 years now, but at age 65, it doesn't come easily. So many Italians I've encountered have no patience for my imperfect Italian. When I ask them to speak more slowly, they won't. I've had Italians hang up the phone on me because they can't be bothered to try to understand my imperfect Italian. Maybe if Italians learned another language, any other language, they would have some clue about how difficult it is to actually have to speak another language. There is so much resistance to any kind of change in Italy, though, I don't see it happening any time soon. The language issue, as part of the overall reluctance to change or even experience anything new, is part of the reason Italy is ranked as one of the worst countries in the world to move to.
Luigi - 11 Nov 2019 13:49
@Kai, sorry to disappoint; however, I speak English, lived in the US for 30 years, and have traveled all over the world with my business. Right-winger, hardly! Italy is dysfunctional beyond belief, and almost every Italian is part of the problem, from their voting for the same corrupt politicians election after election to individuals trashing the countryside and beaches with their trash. To defacing Italian towns with graffiti and accepting that as usual. The young and ultra-liberals think one homogenous society in lock-step with the US, and the rest of Europe will bring prosperity and social peace. Yes, let's all speak English so in 50 or 100 years, Italian is no longer needed, let's require shops to be open as they are in the US and other European cities all day, so the urge to spend money one does not have and live off of credit cards will become the norm. Let's allow global chain stores to come into our cities and slowly wipe out the small local merchant, which has happened in almost every US town. From the east coast to the west coast of the US, each city looks alike and has the same stores and restaurants. The EU and superpowers intend to dilute the cultural differences that make Italians Italians, French French, etc. Once these differences are lost, they are gone forever, and we will be one vast consumer-driven world. Over exggerated, perhaps! English ability should be a choice, left up to the individual, and not dictated by the government.
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