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OPINION: Are Italy's international schools really 'international'?

Silvia Marchetti
Silvia Marchetti - [email protected]
OPINION: Are Italy's international schools really 'international'?
Photo by Alexis Brown on Unsplash

Italy's prestigious international schools offer students plenty of benefits - but they may not be quite what foreign parents expect, writes Silvia Marchetti.

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As a kid I travelled extensively due to my dad’s job and everywhere we went I attended Anglo-American schools, from kindergarten all the way through high school, obtaining my International Baccalaureate I.B. diploma.

I spent three years at international schools in Rome, during our ‘stopovers' in between other destinations. It was never a choice for my parents: there were no Italian schools in many cities we moved to, and I am very happy to have attended English-speaking schools which allowed me to learn several languages. 

But when compared with the international schools I attended in Geneva, Moscow and Jakarta, in my view the two schools in Rome had a very weak ‘global vibe’. This of course is just my experience, and I am not in any way trying to pass judgement on all Italy-based international schools. 

But my educational experience in Rome was quite disappointing, probably because I was accustomed to foreign-based schools with larger expat communities where Italians were barely a handful.

In Jakarta there were five of us, in Moscow three, in Geneva none that I can actually remember, so this forced me to make friends with non-Italian kids and pick up English really quickly. 

I actually ended up learning American English as my best friends were all from the States, even though all my teachers were from the UK. I almost had an identity crisis at the age of 10: I felt American. 

In the Rome-based schools I attended (Britannia and St.Stephen’s) much to my surprise I found there were way too many Italian students, probably more numerous than those of expats and diplomats, whose parents wanted them to learn proper English even though they were born in and spent their whole time growing up in Rome. 

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Attending an international school for them wasn’t a necessity, it was more of a status symbol seen as ‘essential’, more prestigious than any private Italian school. 

At recess all I heard was Italian, or rather romanaccio (Roman slang), or even worse, a hybrid ‘italo-inglish’ with a strong, unpleasant Italian accent and a mix of Italian and English words.

Many international students tried hard to learn Italian (rather than French or Spanish as a second language) just to blend in and be part of the group. I understood why they did that. In the same way, had I spoken English with an Italian accent back in Moscow or Jakarta, the other kids would have made fun of and isolated me.

I still have hilarious memories of my French and American friends in Rome speaking Italian to each other in class, while two of my best Italian buddies, even though they had been attending English-speaking schools since first grade, still rolled their ‘r’s and pronounced English words exactly as spelt, the Italian way.

Some seemed totally impermeable to English. During field trips, I remember once taking a dip with my class at Saturnia’s thermal baths and visiting the lovely village of Putignano, for that entire week I must have spoken in English only with my Danish friend Sarah, who was having a hard time picking up Romano (luckily for me). My other Italian friends spoke, joked and sang in Italian on the bus, and despite attempts by the trip teacher who accompanied us to make the group speak in English, everyone honed their Romanaccio.

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I never enjoyed hanging out with Italians at international schools, and still today I prefer speaking to foreigners I meet in Italy in their native tongue, if I happen to know it. 

The teachers at my Rome international schools were all English mother-tongue, and they were really great. But it did not feel to me like I was attending an international school. 

This is my experience, and it was indeed many years ago so things have now probably changed. However, I have several Italian friends and relatives who have lived in Rome all their lives and enrolled their kids at international schools from first to twelfth grade. The children are very proficient in English but, having recently talked to them, I still find they have retained a colorful, unmistakable Italian accent. 

I think this is mainly due to the linguistic environment: Italian children, even though they’re international school students, keep living in Italy and speak Italian all day long, they tend to hang out with other Italians or Italian-speaking foreign kids. 

This just makes learning real English all the more difficult for them. While the children of expats may find rubbing shoulders with Italian-speaking friends cool, and beneficial, as they’ll pick up the Italian language, my past experience just shows how many Italians (not all) may be beyond help when it comes to speaking English with a proper English accent.

Do you share Silvia's views? Members can join the debate in the comments section below.

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Ru 2023/04/20 14:37
I found this story interesting. Many parents send their children to international schools, whether in Shanghai, Paris or Singapore, to learn English better,. However, based on this information, rather than sending a child to an Italian school, an American family might well send him or her to international school in Rome in order to learn Italian, or at least Romanaccio. Actually, kinda useful information. Thank you.

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