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.
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.
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.
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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.