Have you ever wondered why so many Italians have poor English speaking skills? Hint: it’s not what you think…

PLEASE NOTE: the observations and reflections shared in this post are based on having visited Italy a number of times over a 10-year period and each time having been the guest of (different) Italians. As a result of these trips, I’ve got to know Italians from across the country (from South to North) from all walks of life (from the elite political class to the working class).

(1) Poor English Education – You probably expected me to say that Italians can’t speak English due to problems with their education system. There could be any number of hypothetical problems with the way English is taught in Italy’s schools, for example, there are not enough native speaker teachers, or English tuition for children begins relatively late in comparison to some other European countries. While these factors do play a role in the quality of English education that Italian students receive, it’s not as if the Italian schooling system is in the Darkages and all their English teachers are inept. Rather, Italy’s problem is that the schooling system is turning out students who ‘know’ English but lack the confidence to make use of it. Why is that? 

(2) ‘The Best; Or Nothing’ Culture – You don’t have to spend a lot of time in Italy to understand that it is a country with a taste for excellence in all things. To give an example, if a cheese is going to be made by an Italian, it will be an excellent cheese, the mother of all cheeses. The same applies to everything made in Italy, from a humble cheese to a racing car. Basically, when Italians do something there is this instinct and drive within them to want to be the best at that thing. If they can’t be the best at that thing, there is a strong desire to give up completely and then pretend as if they don’t care about it, as if it isn’t important to them. So, when we apply this value or trait to speaking English, we can see that Italians look around and see everyone in Europe speaking better English than them already, and this just makes them at a deep psychological level want to not bother. “What’s the point putting in all that effort to speak English if I WILL NEVER be as good as a German?”

(3) Making Mistakes Is Ridiculed – Italians do this thing where they laugh at and pour scorn on people who can’t speak English ‘well enough’. If you are an Italian in the public eye, be prepared for the whole country to scrutinise your English language skills and then for them to laugh in your face when you slip up.

 

Admittedly, Italy’s First Minister Matteo Renzi isn’t about to win any speech contests for his English language skills soon, but at the same time I wish Italy could give the guy a break: at least he’s trying to speak in English!

The same belief that we see behind the harsh criticism of Matteo Renzie, i.e. that mistakes are unacceptable and must be avoided at all costs, makes its way down from the public sphere when talking about celebrities and public figures, into the classroom and into the family home where it has a more devastating impact. When an Italian speaks English, it sometimes seems as if other Italians are waiting to pounce on the speaker for saying something wrong, just so they can laugh. Naturally, if you are taking your first steps towards communicating in English, you don’t want other people making a big deal every time you say something wrong, as that will destroy your confidence. Ideally, if you are an Italian you will have a very thick skin and you will not care if you look foolish when speaking English, however, to have such a resilient attitude is much easier said than done.

(4) The Art of Speaking – Now, I don’t speak Italian myself so what I am about to say here is simply gleamed from my impressions of hearing and watching Italians speak: public speaking is an art form in Italy and the skill of speaking well is more highly prized, institutionally speaking, than in many other cultures. To draw a comparison, when a person goes to university in the UK, all the exams are written exams. Getting a top result in the British university system means being able to display one’s depth of knowledge in writing. The system in Italy is different; many university exams are oral exams. This means that to get a top result you have to be a first-class speaker who is able to debate and argue things precisely using the spoken word. Beyond the university system, in day-to-day life, it also seems that speaking and expressing with friends and family is a highly valued and intrinsic part of the culture. Of course, all people across the world talk with their friends and families, it’s just Italians appear to do it with more flavour and self-expression than most. When it comes to learning a second language as an adult, this matters, as when speaking a foreign language, it can feel as if one’s entire personality has been lost during the bumbled initial stages of language acquisition. For any Italian with a sophisticated and expressive command of Italian, learning to actually speak English can be a painful and frustrating process.

What’s The Solution to Italy’s English Language Problem? – If more Italians are going to reach a high level of English speaking skills in the future, a much more accepting and encouraging shift needs to happen in the culture in relation to ACTUALLY TRYING to speak English. So, rather than tearing people down for making small, unimportant mistakes here and there when English is being spoken, Italians would be much better served by keeping their criticisms about how other people speak English to themselves.

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Author

Jade Joddle is a speech and voice teacher for high-level professionals. She teaches her non-native speaker clients to Speak Well so that they thrive and succeed.

27 Comments

  1. Let me add that in Italy the tongue is mainly used to climb the career ladder than to speak a foreign language!

  2. Allow me to add some other reasons which contribute to describe this strange situation.
    We Italians believe to be the best at everything, but inside us we know that this is the worst and most disorganized country with a hopeless future. The political system is corrupted and controlled in background by secret sects and orders (masonry, mafia and so on). Everything belongs to the system. If you want to do something, you need to know someone who belonged or is linked to the system. Knowing a powerful person means that you are in a slightly higher position in society, and this is one of the things that really matter in Italy! For example workers who are in good relationship with their bosses and often perform some ass-licking job to them in order to be treated better, and to work a bit less…
    Speaking English fluently means that you want to highly improve your situation, that you want to get out of the system, but this is not allowed, because you’re Italian and you have to stay stuck in the mud for the rest of your life! So why are you trying? Why are you using your tongue for a different reason instead of the typical Italian one? (See above, or keep on reading…) Well, you have guts, I don’t, so what else should I do but to mock you?
    Another example: Italian women. Since their birth, they are inculcated the dogma that their sexual organ hasn’t been created for their personal pleasure, but it’s a very useful “tool” to climb the career ladder. So they can’t have sex with a guy who makes their pussy wet, because that guy counts nothing in society! They have to date a politico (note that I haven’t used the word politician.) “Oh my god, he’s very old, like most of them, and he probably doesn’t shave his pube. I can’t help thinking all those hairs on his cock shaft which make me choke!”
    No need to speak English fluently in Italy, here the tongue has a variety of use than to speak a foreign language!
    It’s proved that people who speak more than one language are more intelligent than people who speak only their mother tongue.
    Intelligence helps elevate your consciousness, which in turn helps you to be fully aware of what surrounds you. In this way you cannot accept the mediocre situation described above.

  3. Thanks Jade for every thing wish you always happiness and more prospirty

  4. Not a better observation about the Italian culture!

  5. I’ve lived in Italy for several years and taught English there (I am in fact posting this comment from Italy, where I am on holiday at the moment), and a major reason why Italians can’t speak English that well usually, is because no TV programmes or films are in English, so they rarely get to hear native speakers. That and the education system is not as good as Germany’s, that’s why the Germans have a better ability, on the whole. To make a contrast, look at the Netherlands – they often speak great English, because they have the TV in original English language, with Dutch subtitles.

  6. marcella

    Hi Jade,
    thank you for the article, really insightful. I would say that the very mistake of Italian Education System is not utilizing the english phonemic chart. I had to figure it out by myself as nobody in the school system ever told be about that. That should be the first thing to learn. The Schwa sound is so important and so difficult for most of us…
    LOL for the thick skin you need in order to live in Italy.

    • Interesting, the Italians posting seem to agree that the eduction system is at fault for not teaching pronunciation properly. It’s a good thing you guys found me, then! Plenty of tips and advice about that here. 🙂

  7. Well, I’ve just known that Italians can’t speak English well because of these reasons, especially the one about laughing at someone who tries to speak it!! I would say the fact that the one who tries speaking English has a huge will and determination, and he’s much more better than the people who know just how to laugh. You never know till you try!!

  8. I’m afraid I would have to disagree when it is mentioned the fact that there are not many native speaker teachers in Italy. If being a native speaker of any language is enough for being a good, well prepared language teacher anyone who spoke any language would be able to teach and we all know that this is not true. In fact, I’ve been reading articles and attending some lectures that try to prove this theory wrong, as the native teacher is usually not aware of the difficulties that some learners, regarless of their country of origin, go through. Having said that, it’s a really nice article, very well thought of . Food for thought. Cheers !

    • The article poses reasons why people say the Italian education system is not good enough. I do not write holding that position myself. You missed a finer shade of meaning there.

  9. Konstantinos

    Hello Jade,

    – He seems that he try to speak maybe another language but not English.. It’s funny, especially If you take a look to the people who are around him.. anyway..
    – There’s no any difficult thing or a bad memory here by the way.. You have to study hard, to keeping notes, to listen podcasts or by viewing training videos with courses which are close to your occupation for example. Of course the key here is start to learn the language by correct ways and not with the ways which you think that are the correct. ..and as I said many times, there’s no “I can’t” there is “I do not want”..
    – Also think, that scientists said that an average person on our planet uses only 8 or 9% the amount of his/her brain..(!)

    Thanks,
    Konstantinos

    • Yep, no getting away from the fact that it takes effort and willpower to learn English. Perhaps people in other countries simply put in more hours!

  10. Fabrizio

    Hi Jade, how are you?
    Well, I think there are three different problems for me, when I learn English.
    1) I must rember the good pronunciation for every word that I’m going to learn for the first time;
    2) th sound (both “the” and “thief” sounds): we are still trying to pronounce them correctly;
    3) it’s almost impossible, for we Italians, to know all phrasal verbs. Sometimes I forget some of them when I studied them some weeks before.
    I think you’re right, more or less. Another thing could be that every part of Italy has a local language. Remember that Italy has been a united country only for 150 years. Bye.

  11. Ha, ha, ha…!
    Every one, you don’t need to effort that hard to conclude what you really want to: english people is absolutely worst performing romace languages than we, mediterranean people, speakin/reading/writing english.

    Jade is right because she is british and british are, generally speaking, very much pragmatic than mediterraneans. She does not understand prejuice and judge like us. It’s a matter of fact. So she can observe what italian, spanish, french, portugueses, greek… can do to mostly improve their skills in other languages.

    But the real thing to do is to FIGHT the shame. Ridicule, in mediterranean people is actually the Devil. Its the most horrific thing we can imagine.

    It’s simply wrong.

    • Why English people don’t speak other languages – that’s a long post for another day!

  12. Very nice post 🙂

    Interesting interpretation! I can relate to it to some extent. I study in Italy in an university with English as main language. My colleagues and I do usually make fun of tiny mistakes of our Italian professors speaking English. Or still someone consider them unforgivable (not really, just as a joke). I agree that this “habit” of judging has partly influenced me in the past and today every time I wanted to say something publicly in English.

    However, in the case of our premier Renzi, I think the point of the videos is to make fun of his “comedian-style”, with which he attempts to hypnotize the audience. Behind the oratorical disguise of his “show”, his catchy puns and absurd promises are actually meaningless.

    Anyway sorry for the long post, I hope nobody will bother you anymore with the superiority of Italian cheese :’D

  13. Great article Jade! Thank you so much for exploring so deeply a piece of our culture.
    Well, I entirely agree with your considerations, but as I am Italian and I have struggled with this problem since I was a child, it’s difficult for me to judge the subject without bias. What’s more I am always worried when I have to speak about this topics, since it’s easy to generalize.
    Anyway in the first place it’s true that in Italy you can’t avoid to sound a bit silly to any fellow countryman listening to your English pronunciation, unless you have been able to cut off any Italian dialectal accents from that pronunciation. The example you gave about our current First Minster, Matteo Renzi, trying to speak something similar to the English language with his strict Florentine accent is perfect. Think that he is broadly considered as one of the strongest public speakers in Italy, even from most of his opponents, so it is a bit disappointing to us when we attend his performances abroad where he seems to lose any dialectic power among the other international leaders.international leaders. And in the same time those videos could potentially increase our worries about our same speaking performances with native speakers.
    Second, we are passionated about the art of speaking. Yes, I agree. That was my experience at university. Then a good speaker has often the chance to be evaluated better than a more knowledgeable one. The controversial and silly thing is that when it comes to studying English at high schools and university, you are almost always assessed through written assignments, any kind of translations, grammar exercises etc. Or at least that was my experience.
    Not to mention our perfectionist culture, which is so useful and well appreciated all around the world due to our Made in Italy produce, but can sometimes lead to lose time and efforts on useless activities in some other activities as the language learning (grammar grammar and still grammar!!! Otherwise? Spelling!).
    All things considered, I think that one oft the biggest problems for many people of my generation is that we started learning English too late, when we were about 8-9 years. Moreover, as I said, we spent a massive amount of time studying grammar and doing written exercises. So for people who hadn’t the chance to live abroad for a while during their youth, it’s very difficult to speak with a reliable pronunciation and without any Italian regional accents.
    Now the school is changing and I hope that things will get better for our children…

  14. Jorge Najera

    My name is Jorge, I am from Mexico City and I am your follower Jade. I am surprised you haven’t heard of our Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto, speaking English. Find out, please!!!

    • I checked him out – I think he needs some accent training sessions with me. 😉

  15. That’s a noble sentiment, Jade, but is it realistic?

    Picture the language learner as a learning driver. Ideally, there is a lot of practice on a closed course to build skills and confidence before merging onto a freeway/motorway. In many cases this does not happen, or the training time is minimal before being thrown into the thick of it.

    I’ve seen countless times the novice driver or the nervous driver or the simply bad driver pulling onto the freeway with the wrong speed, with the wrong signals, without properly gauging how they are interacting with traffic. Unless this occurs at a relaxed time of day, new drivers or bad drivers are not often well received. Tempers are flared. Gestures are made…

    I’m not proud to say that I’ve occasionally been the idiot making the gestures, and it’s usually a function of how much a hurry I’m in, or how much it affects me personally. I’ve also been the guy being gestured at for doing something stupid myself like stopping instead of merging, say in a new city or an unfamiliar area, especially when I was a newer driver. I remember the tentativeness from having all this new freedom without the experience to do it right, without having an accident. Really, you are not willing to risk getting a scratch on your car, yet you have to fully commit to throwing this new vehicle around at higher speeds to match all the other traffic.

    Long story short, I guess I’m saying that ultimately, poor language skills can be expected to be a problem in a functional setting. Some level of disdain can be expected to be encountered if your language skills are impeding the progress of a busy day for others. Human nature. In between learning in a classroom and getting into the real world, build up your language skills in a “lower traffic” area, where there are not as many people, and/or they are not in as much of a hurry. The language learner ordering food at a quiet restaurant at a quiet time of day will find a much more hospitable environment than struggling with a menu in a busy takeout during rush hour with a lineup of people behind them, all in a hurry!

    • Good analogy. However, when it comes to being seen speaking English among friends and family, I think that the attempt to drive in the first place is much more important than following the traffic guidelines. 😉

  16. Hi Jade, I’m Italian and I made learning English properly such an obsession that I decided to move to the UK 5 years ago (besides, I love your videos! I wish you could be my voice coach!).
    Interesting perspective, I’d never considered your points and I think they are valid. my additions, from my experience (consider that, over the years, I met many English speakers as second language from all over the world, including Italians) would be:

    1) spoken english is one of the most irregular language in the wolrd, whereas Italian is probably the most regular. In Italian (even more than Spanish) you pronounce every letter of a word and the pronunciation is always the same, no matter the position of the sequence of the letters. At italian schools they only teach written English and, as an Italian, you assume that spoken and written English match, so you can play English in your head just reading letter by letter as you’d do in italian. (movies are dubbed, so you have no feedback whatsoever) The result of that is a disaster…When I moved to the UK I knew English (written) very well and my vocabulary was surprisingly rich. but I didn’t know how to pronounce things and when the realisation of the mismatch between my English and the real English dawned on me, it knocked my confidence down. it took me months/years to re-educate myself to the irregularity of spoken English, and it’s still an on-going process

    people in Italy have no idea that in the English language there are 20-21 vowel sounds. no idea of what a schwa is and so on. a,e,i,o,u in Italian have always the same sound, no matter where they are in a word

    I’m actually not sure whether Italians are the worst in europe. in my experience I find that Spanish and French struggle just as much, if not more

    2) like many other european countries, UK included, with a long illustrious history, there is a cultural resistance to learning new languages. I find this is especially true for older generations. I think younger generations are getting more open. My parents generation just wouldn’t see any reason why they should be able to speak any language other than italian. I believe there are historical reasons why Germans put so much effort in learning English as well

    keep your work up, you’re great!

    • Cheers Louis for the insight of your personal experience as an Italian learner. 🙂

    • Haha very funny. In Turkish ‘shish’ is a word. I wonder if they were going to have shish kebab for lunch? 😉