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EDUCATION

Are Italians really the ‘worst in Europe’ at speaking English?

Italy has ranked the worst in the EU for English language skills again, according to a new global survey. But why do Italians consistently come way down the league tables for foreign language proficiency? Here's a closer look at the data.

Italy has ranked among worst in Europe for English language skills again.
Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

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.

An extract from Education’s First’s 2021 English Proficiency Index.

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.

READ ALSO: Five reasons English speakers struggle to learn foreign languages

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.

An extract from Education’s First’s 2021 English Proficiency Index.

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”.

Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

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.

READ ALSO: Six Italian series worth watching beyond My Brilliant Friend

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.

Member comments

  1. I am from the Netherlands, and living in Italy. The main reason Netherlands ranks top for so many years is a very practical and very simple one. Sure, we have a lot of studies in English and we get English at school from a young age, but I dont think its the determining factor. The determining factor is that all our english television series, movies in theaters and on cable tv, commercials, series on television are actually spoken IN its original recording langauge; which is English! We dont have our own langauge ‘dubbed’ over it, as Italy has. We have the orignal english audio, with Dutch / Netherlands subtitles. So from an early age while we are watching TV or Movies in a theater, we are practicing English without even realising it.
    If Italy wants to step up their English game, the first thing to do is to slowly erase the Italian voice recording over English movies and series on television , and just play the original Audio, and add Italian subtitles.

    1. I am an English native speaker and English teacher based in the Marche region of Italy. I agree wholeheartedly with your observations regarding dubbing. The majority of Italians watch dubbed films, series and documentaries. This is beginning to change of course due to the proliferation of streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime. However, if Italians really want to fast-rack their progress in English or any other foreign language for that matter, they have got to ditch the dubbers completely and move to listening to and watching the original language with subtitles in Italian.

    2. For the average Italian there is no real incentive to learn a language they may never need to use, there is really no problem for those Italians who want to speak English. But in Germanic speaking countries English is easier to learn and in the Netherlands and Germany they trade far more with the U.K. and the United States of America.
      Generally English speaking countries don’t learn foreign languages and therefore I can understand the difficulty Italians have for learning English because it is a Germanic language. I am English and fifty years ago I worked in Hamburg and I became fairly fluent in just a few months but we regularly go to Italy and I have struggled with learning Italian, watching Italian satellite tv is fairly frustrating to say the least.

  2. I prefer that there are parts of italy where they don’t speak English, we have a home in the Apennine mountains in Emilia Romagna and none of the older locals speak English and the youngsters seem reluctant. I’m struggling to learn Italian which is fairly common amongst us English but I am persevering.

  3. Having lived here [in Sicily] off and on for the better part of 5 years, and then moving here full time in Jan of this year, I have come to form my own hypothesis on why Italians are the worst in Europe at speaking English…I think it’s in their mindset that ‘who cares if we don’t speak English’.

    I was raised in the US, but I have traveled the world extensively. Lived in Germany for a summer or two. My wife and I lived in Mexico for a year or so a while back. (I got comfortable in speaking Spanish and German.) I’ve been to the far east and to Africa. Almost every place we’ve been has always had signs [in places frequented by visitors, tourists or business] in both the native language and in English. They know that most visitors don’t speak the local language so they post most everything important in English as well, knowing that chances are the visitor will speak [at least a little] English (especially the nouns). Even most foreign websites (especially European or government website) have an English ‘tab’ at the top. Not here.

    English has become the de-facto ‘go to’ language when societies collide, especially in Europe. And that’s not by chance, but more by choice because it forms a common base for everyone to start communicating. Most of all top 500 popular songs are sang in English, EVEN if the singers could not speak English (take ABBA for example). Every commercial pilot in the world has to be ‘fluent’ in English or they can’t fly internationally.

    Italy, on the other hand tends to look inward and not foresee the need to learn English. I will say this however, in the last 2 years I have seen a remarkable transformation in the signs around me here in Sicily. They will either be bi-lingual or have common symbols. Most restaurants here now even offer an English menu. And, most Italians are not upset or miffed if you don’t speak Italian; like many youths of Europe they enjoy conversing with us in English. Compare that to places like Austria, or Quebec, Canada where I’ve had insults thrown at me because I speak English (don’ believe, just ask for an ‘English’ menu at a restaurant in St. Johann, Austria).

    They won’t improve their English until they feel the need to do so, and right now most of them do not feel the need.

    [On a side note, they don’t speak ‘Italian’ here in Sicily, especially in the small villages. They speak Sicilian, which is more like Spanish. I have found that when trying to talk with the older folks here I can get away with my limited Spanish better that with Google Translate.]

  4. This is a great article that covers most of the bases. I was distressed to see that Apple TV+ is predubbing so many of their shows in a range of languages. I’m sure they think they are being politically correct, and that lots of Italians would agree with them. It’s really too bad.

    However, my friends in Crete pointed out another issue: nobody can work in their “hospitality” sector without a decent command of English. If this requirement existed in Italy, there would be no hospitality sector. Then they’d have to make it easier for people like me to get a job—or even a volunteer position—teaching English.

    When I was a kid, French was still the lingua franca, and I spent two years in an American private school with a Parisian teacher who I’m certain had nothing like ESL training, but who gave us decent French accents. It isn’t rocket science!

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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Why is Italy called Italy?

Where did Italy get its name? The Local delves into the etymology...

Map of Italy and the Adriatic, Ionian, and Tyrrhenian seas in 1911.
Map of Italy and the Adriatic, Ionian, and Tyrrhenian seas in 1911. Source: WikiCommons.

Readers who know their history will be aware that modern day Italy only came into being in the 19th century with the country’s gradual unification (known in Italy as the Risorgimento) between 1848 and 1871, thanks to a series of successful military campaigns led by General Giuseppe Garibaldi.

But the name Italia – referring to different parts of the peninsula at different points in history – has been in use for several thousand years.

In his text ‘On Italy’ the Greek historian Antiochus of Syracuse, writing in around 420 BC, reportedly identified Italia as the southern part of modern day Calabria – the toe of Italy’s boot.

Italy according to the ancient Greeks, corresponding to modern Calabria, scanned from a 19th century book.

Italy according to the ancient Greeks, corresponding to modern Calabria, scanned from a 19th century book. Source: WikiCommons.

Most of Antiochus’ works are lost to us today, but the Greek historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus, writing several hundred years later in the early first century AD, quotes parts of them in his text ‘Roman Antiquities‘.

Here Antiochus recounts the legend that sixteen generations before the Trojan war, the region we now know as Calabria was inhabited by the Enotri or the Oenotrians. The Enotri had a king named Italus, and subsequently changed their name to the Itali.

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The town of Catanzaro in Calabria today has a road sign proudly announcing itself as the birthplace of the name Italia.

Over the following centuries, the area known as Italia gradually expanded to include all of the south and central-northern part of the peninsula; the northern cisalpine region under Julius Caesar in the 40’s BC; the northeastern region of Istria (home to modern day Trieste) under Caesar Augustus in 7 AD; and finally Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica under the Emperor Diocletian in 292 AD.

Expansion of the territory called "Italy".

Expansion of the territory called “Italy”. Source: Wikicommons.

Multiple alternative theories persist, however, as to the origins of the name Italia.

The most popular is that it’s the Latin formulation of the Oscan word Víteliú, meaning ‘land of the young cattle’. The word was translated as Italói in ancient Greek and Italia in Latin.

READ ALSO: Four civilizations in Italy that pre-date the Roman Empire

Oscan was spoken by a number of tribes, including the Samnites, the Aurunci, and the Sidicini. It had become a dead language by about 100 AD, but in the first century BC these tribes, in competition with the Romans, were minting coins with Víteliú stamped on them.

Another idea is that Italia comes from the Greek Aethalia or Aithalìa, meaning “land of thick smoke”, in reference to its numerous volcanoes. 

Finally, Dionysius of Halicarnassus himself, in the same text in which he mentions Antiochus’ account of Italus, offers an alternative origin story.

READ ALSO: 8 things you probably didn’t know about the Romans

Dionysius cites another 5th century BC historian, Hellanicus of Lesbos, who brings Hercules into the mix. According to Hellanicus, for Hercules’s tenth labour he was ordered to raid the cattle of the monster Geryon and bring them to King Eurystheus.

As Hercules was driving the herd back to Greece on his return from his successful mission, one of the calves swam away and escaped to Sicily. Hercules wandered all over the land asking its inhabitants – who spoke little Greek – if they had seen the animal, and in responding, they used their word for calf, vitilus.  

Hercules gave the name Vitulia – land of the calf – to the land he had wandered in search of the creature.

Hercules and the Cretan Bull, early 17th century bronze sculpture.

Hercules and the Cretan Bull, early 17th century bronze sculpture. Source: WikiCommons.

Dionysius notes that he considers that Antiochus’ explanation ‘perhaps is more probable’ than Hellanicus’, but concludes the important thing is that either way, Italy got its name ‘in Hercules’ time, or a little earlier’, and it stuck.

And that concludes our range of possible explanations as to how the country got its name.

Why is Italy called Italy? Like Dionysius two thousand years ago, it looks like it’s up to you to pick your favourite theory.

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