December is Learn a Foreign Language Month and learning a language comes with a long list of benefits, from increased job opportunities to a deeper understanding of other cultures and an overall boost to your brain in terms of memory and creativity. This applies, of course, to official languages as well as to dialects—that is, specific forms of a language peculiar to a specific region or social group. Let’s see in detail which languages (and dialects) Italians learn and speak.
Italian dialects and their alternate fortunes
Many Italians speak or, at the very least, understand, the dialect of their birthplace or the one spoken by their family. Since Italy is a relatively young country (it was just born in 1886 as the country we know now), Italians have long spoken languages other than the current standard Italian—that is, dialects. “Fatta l’Italia, bisogna fare gli italiani,” (“Italy is done, now it’s time to make Italians”), said a prominent politician after the country was born. In fact, up until WWII, Italians still had a hard time communicating with each other. In the aftermath of WWII, most of them eventually got used to speaking standard Italian, thanks to schooling and widespread mass media, and dialects started losing their appeal. They were still spoken, but mostly in familiar, informal contexts; in addition, they were generally perceived as an obstacle to mastering standard Italian or as uncomfortable heritage from the past, often a rural past many people were trying to leave behind.
Nowadays, dialects are generally seen as cultural and linguistic heritage and enrichment, but they have been partly lost in the process. Fewer and fewer young people speak them on a regular basis in most areas. Dialects are not dead—as someone predicted they would be—but their survival is up to their users. Besides these peculiar languages, Italians study and learn languages like everyone else in the world—at school.
Languages in school
English is, unsurprisingly, the #1 language studied in Italy. Italians start learning it in elementary school. Public preschools’ curricula usually do not include foreign languages, although more and more scuole d’infanzia offer an introduction to English. Italian students keep studying English through middle school—in addition to another language, most often French, German, or Spanish—and high school. In high school, the number of languages and the amount of hours devoted to languages vary according to the type of school.
The same goes for university. English takes the lion’s share at any level. In addition to the regular school curriculum, there are a variety of language schools and virtually every world language is taught, especially in bigger cities. And there are, of course, several DIY ways to improve or practice a language. All these ways to learn languages make it hard to jot down numbers. We can easily say, however, that 99.6% of Italian students learn English at school. But this number often clashes with the percentage of Italians who are actually proficient in English. Let’s see why this happens.
Lots of grammar, not so much conversation
English is studied a lot and for a long time by many young Italians, but, according to most stats, Italians are way below the European average in terms of speaking and listening skills. A few reasons might conspire to produce this not-so-great outcome. At school, English is still taught with a strongly grammar-based approach. Italian students might surprise you with their knowledge of irregular past forms or specific uses of English past tenses, but they might get stuck ordering a pizza over the phone or asking for directions. Also, compared to their Northern European peers, Italians are not exposed to movies, TV series, and such in English; in Italy, everything is dubbed. Things have changed in the last few years, and more and more Italians now enjoy movies and series in their original languages—mostly English—thanks to streaming platforms and social media. And, as in the good ol’ days, there’s always music to keep your ears well trained.
How about you? What’s your favorite way to practice and improve your language skills? Besides classic movies and songs, there’s a whole world of Italian productions to be explored. Try googling them, and enjoy!
By Claudia Quesito