Italy has consistently performed poorly in studies that compare countries for their English language abilities, usually faring among the worst in Europe.
For 2021, Italy’s English proficiency has come last place among the European Union countries, based on how its nationals scored in language tests.
The country ranked 35th out of 112 countries where English isn’t a national language in the latest English Proficiency Index from global language training company Education First, based on some two million speakers of English as a foreign language worldwide.
Italy placed only slightly above Moldova and has fallen behind Spain, which was the only EU country it outperformed in last year’s ranking.
The Netherlands topped the table coming first place again in 2021, after consistently ranking in the top three since the study began in 2011. It’s followed by Austria, Denmark and Singapore for the highest level of English language skills, while Yemen, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo scored the lowest.
Within the EU, Italy and Spain were the only two countries where English-language skills are classed as “moderate” rather than “high” or “very high”.
A “moderate” level of English means that an individual can understand song lyrics, write professional emails on familiar subjects or participate in meetings in a person’s area of expertise.
Despite the report’s authors describing English proficiency in Europe overall as “high and rising”, the study noted that even though there has been a “significant improvement in the last decade”, Italy is not improving fast enough to catch up to its EU neighbours.
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This was also the case for Spain and France, which ranked 33rd and 31st respectively.
While EU nations as a whole have progressed in their English capabilities since EF began the study ten years ago, Italy counts among one of the nations to be declining in its average level of English.
Why do Italians need to learn English at all?
Criticism of Italy’s scarce English language skills can be a source of irritation for some. After all, many anglophones don’t speak any language other than English – so why should Italians or anyone else need to speak English?
Taking the UK as an example, a survey by the European Commission found that 62 percent of British people can’t speak any other language apart from English, while less than one in five people (18 percent) can speak two foreign languages.
Reasons for such figures have been cited as a lack of exposure to other languages or as a result of the dominance of English as a global language – making grammatical concepts such as gender and verb agreement even harder to grasp.
However, it’s exactly this global presence that keeps English a sought-after skill. That’s lucky for native English speakers, but perhaps less so for the rest of the world.
“A worldwide lingua franca is still necessary,” stated the study’s authors.
“This explains the estimated 2.5 billion English speakers, of which only about 400 million were born into the language. People are learning English because it is useful to them,” the findings noted.
“English is by far the most common language of information exchange across borders, making it a key component for accessing knowledge and expertise,” they added.
Italian cities perform better than rural areas
The proficiency index wasn’t sweepingly poor across the whole of Italy.
“English proficiency is higher in almost every large city than in its surrounding region and capitals outperform their country as a whole,” notes the findings.
Some of Italy’s cities reflected that trend, performing better than the country average. Rome and Madrid were both categorised as having “high proficiency” English language skills in the study’s city rankings.
This proficiency level indicates that a person can understand TV shows, make a presentation at work and read a newspaper.
The higher standard is due to economical reasons, noted the findings.
“The economy is the most likely driver of this urban/rural divide. More jobs and better salaries draw ambitious individuals from the countryside. Once in the city, office jobs and a more international environment expose them to English more frequently,” stated the report.
Although this speaks of hope for Italy’s language skills improving as a whole, the study’s authors said that closing the gap between town and country is “unlikely”.
However, they advised turning to education to avoid widening the gap: “Countries can avoid deepening it by ensuring English instruction in rural schools is at least as good as in urban ones,” the report added.
A lack of quality teachers is often cited as the reason for such lagging English skills in Italy – some of Italy’s teachers have previously told The Local this is a major cause.
“I didn’t study English at school or at university, so I was surprised when I was expected to teach it,” said 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.
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“I have to study the grammar before every class,” she added, in Italian. “We had an American boy in one class, who was always correcting my pronunciation.”
“Most teachers here unfortunately don’t speak English, because we didn’t study it,” she admitted. “But things have changed, now English is important for our children’s futures.”
She pointed out that English-language skills are “now essential” for work, studies, and travel,” and said “the earlier children start learning another language, the better.”
EF’s English proficiency findings attest to this claim.
“There is strong evidence that English is increasingly a job requirement in all industries and at all seniority levels,” the report reads.
Even though the findings revealed there isn’t much of a proficiency gap between executives and staff now, “the gap in English skills between those in clerical and maintenance roles and those in marketing, strategy, and legal ones is as large as ever.”
The data acknowledged that “not all jobs require the same level of English, but people do not usually want to stay in the same job forever”.
The report added that when people do want progress in their career – therefore needing a higher level of English – “professional mobility is a key determinant of resilience for individuals, companies and economies”.
Can Italy boost its English skills?
The study noted that to learn a language, “people need huge amounts of exposure and practice,” recommending roughly 1,200 hours to go from beginner to upper intermediate.
Aside from moving to the country and learning via full immersion, the report indicated that access to English needs to be ‘equalised’, which means it must be made more accessible for everyone.
That’s perhaps not always easy in the more rural parts of Italy, where the level of English instruction can be low.
English language teacher Lucia told us, “We need to get native English speakers teaching in our schools. Sadly, there are very few.”
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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.
Included in EF’s report are recommendations for governments, companies and education authorities to boost English language skills. Educational reform is suggested, such as re-training English teachers in communicative methods, which would go some way to removing the focus on revising and drilling grammatical rules, rather than practising the language.
Another area of improvement the Italian authorities could take away is to reduce the dominance of Italian in all aspects of culture.
“Allow TV shows and movies to be shown in their original language, with subtitles rather than dubbing,” read the guidelines.
Dubbing, which is prevalent in Italy, is “a legacy of fascism and of our dominant illiteracy in the first half of the last century, and is used in practically every adaptation of foreign productions, from documentaries to television series,” Italian journalist and filmmaker Emilio Bellu told The Local
But “watching movies and TV series with subtitles is a free, effective and fun language lesson,” he added.
And then of course it comes down to the individual. The authors suggest preparing for a long language learning journey and celebrating success along the way, reading English books and watching English TV or visiting a country where you can practice speaking the language.