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.