By- Claudia Quesito

Italians start to learn English at a very young age. Even if English is only mandatory from scuola elementare (when children are 6 years old) on, more and more preschool programs offer some kind of introduction to English through roleplay games, rhymes, and songs. 

From ages 6 to 11, at scuola elementare, English is taught starting with one hour a week and eventually working up to three hours a week during the last three years. 

At scuola media, Italian students are required to study English three hours a week, plus another foreign language (French, German, or Spanish). Languages are then taught at scuola superiore, with the number of hours and program depending on the curriculum of choice.

You might think that, being exposed to English from an early age and for so many hours, Italians are generally proficient at it. But this is not always true. For a variety of reasons—including the way Italian itself is taught and learned—English classes in Italy are heavily focused on grammar and written texts. 

It is not uncommon for English learners to be well versed on the nuances of every single English past tense, or on some nineteenth-century literary text, but then to struggle with very basic conversational exercises, both in terms of understanding and of speaking. Listening and speaking skills are often overlooked or not reinforced enough. 

Compared to their Northern European fellows, Italian students are normally not that proficient. The reason doesn’t seem to be how long students have been studying English, but mostly how. And another key factor—still in the listening skills domain—appears to be watching TV series, shows, and movies in English (customary in Northern Europe) versus watching them dubbed as occur in Italy. 

Things are changing, with more and more foreign language teachers being aware of the importance of teaching things like how to make a reservation or order a pizza, and it is common now to stream English content in English. Younger people are learning accents, slang, and lingo, if only by listening to them while reading Italian subtitles. 

Speaking of accents, in Italian schools, British English is taught. When they land in the US, Italian kids form a “queue” and ask for the “bill,” but always with their unmistakable Italian accent.

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