How Italy Could Improve Its English

Two out of three Italians still do not speak half decent English according to a report compiled by Italian news website Linkiesta using Isfol Plus 2010 data.

I teach English and from personal experience can confirm that in general the vast majority, around 80%, of young Italians I see do not know English well enough to find work in an English speaking environment.

The low level of English situation is very strange seeing as Italy has no shortage at all of schools teaching English and the language is taught from primary school level too. Italians invest thousands of Euros in English language courses every year, but despite the investment, results are not forthcoming.

Even former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi promised to make English a priority, but this has not really happened and teaching quality in state schools still seems to be highly inconsistent. Teacher training is lacking too.

My own students often claim their English was OK by the time they finished high school, but that a five year stint in Italy’s university system left their ability to use English well below par. While English is taught within Italy’s university system, it is not taught effectively and in many cases Italians are unable to maintain the level of English they attained while at high school.

There is a solution to this problem, but Italy, for reasons unknown, does not seem to know it exists.

The IELTS Solution

All Italy needs to do to ensure Italians end up with English which is functional is to exploit language level assessment systems such as IELTS to measure English language proficiency. Why is this not being done? Who knows, but Italy never has been too good at preparing itself for the future.

By making IELTS testing compulsory from secondary school on, Italians would improve their English no end and this would raise their chances of finding work both in Italy and elsewhere. Teaching standards would rise if IELTS became integrated into Italy’s national curriculum. Possessing a certified level of English would make it easier for companies to select candidates and employees with decent English would make Italy more competitive at international level.

Beware When Testing Italians

Care does have to be taken when administering language level tests in Italy. Italians can be a crafty, or furbo, bunch and will pay to have their English teachers or friends to take online tests for them, or have teachers present when they are taking an online test. Results, as one might expect, do not always reflect reality. One wonders how many employers have called Italians for interview only to discover their spoken English was way below the level indicated by a test result.

Italians Need to Insist on IELTS

Italians themselves could make their language learning endeavors more productive by insisting on English courses which end with IELTS exams. They would then be able to ‘see’ their progress. At present, ‘progress’ comes in the form of pieces of paper provided after courses which do little more than confirm an individual has taken part in a 40 hour, or whatever, course.

Note that the IELTS system is no more than a language level assessment system and it should be combined with more traditional courses, such as those offered by Cambridge English. The IELTS system can be used to measure learning progress for just about any English language course though.

Wider benefits for Italy

Other benefits from formal language level testing would come to the fore too. Italy could expand the number of university and other training courses it offers in English especially if it requires all university lecturers and professors to attain a level 7.0 or higher IELTS certified level of English.

Whatever progress is made diminishes over time. Generally this is because, for various reasons, of which cost is one, the time between one English language course and another is often far too long and very few Italians attempt to maintain their English knowledge between one course and the next. While this should not be the case nowadays with all the English language learning resources the internet offers, it is. Very, very few Italians appreciate the value of the world wide web as language learning tool. This is something I stress during my own English lessons, but very few of my students listen to what I say, alas.

I do tell my students to take IELTS tests to ensure their English language studies do result in some progress. As far as I know, few do, and some balk at the cost. Perhaps the cost of IELTS test could be made tax deductible?

All English language courses in Italy should be tied to IELTS level assessment or, perhaps the similar TOEFL, as both can more or less guarantee that a high standard of English is reached and can help Italians understand whether or not they are making real progress.

Time for English TV in Italy

Italy could also help itself by offering television channels in English only. Presently, all films, television series and more are dubbed, and it has to be said, dubbed very well into Italian, only this proficiency in dubbing is shooting Italians in the foot. Italians who can afford Sky TV do have the option of watching some programs in their original language, but Sky is not cheap.

Logically, direct English language programming should be cheaper too. Dubbing costs money. Even subtitled films should be cheaper than dubbed films for the simple fact that most film makers produce subtitled films already for nations which do not speak English as a first language.

Will Italy finally get round to helping its citizens get to grips with English? Probably not seeing as up to now it has not bothered.

By the way, written English is becoming more and more important, but few Italians can write English well.

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  1. says

    Another great article, Alex. I agree that testing should be more widespread and standardized. But I think your point about television is crucial, too. When I meet people from other non-English speaking countries (Germans, Dutch, Swedes) who speak excellent English, I often ask them how they acquired such skills. 9 times out of 10 their answer is “TV.” I’m sure their educational system contributed, as well, but TV is number one. At least that’s the answer they give me.

    • says

      Hi Rick,

      That testing should be more widespread and standardized seems to be simple common sense to me.

      As for TV, I too have come across people from non-English speaking countries who speak excellent English and television, generally with subtitles, does seem to help enormously. This is no surprise really because TV helps learners mimic, to an extent, being surrounded by a language when they are in an English speaking country. It also helps learners become familiar with a range of different accents meaning that comprehension becomes much easier. Italian TV helped me learn Italian and there were, and still are, no subtitles! 😉

      Italy would benefit from having more ‘English’ TV, I’m convinced of it. The trouble is, Italy isn’t!

      Ho hum, such is life.



  2. FrankCanada says

    English is miserable language, good on you Italy, fight the power! Lingua Franca changes all the time, but Italian is forever

  3. Jacob says

    ignore Roe’s words. He hates Italy. English and German both belong to the Germanic branch of the Indo-European language family. The North Germanic languages include Norwegian, Danish, Swedish, Icelandic, and Faroese too. Here why those folks speak a better English!!!

    • says

      Hi Jacob,

      Perhaps you might like to take a look at the Good Italian Things section of Italy Chronicles or all the travel and food articles which probably encourage people to come to Italy (they do, I know for a fact) – not exactly articles you’d expect from someone who hates Italy 😉



    • says

      Hi Jacob,
      You make a good point with the linguistic analysis, and I’m sure you’re right about that. Although he didn’t mention it directly, I think that Alex was making a practical point regarding Italians’ access to the global job market (and perhaps the marketplace in general). Whether we like it or not, English will remain the lingua franca for the next 20-30 years, at least. Maybe it will be Chinese two generations from now, who knows? But unfortunately, it certainly won’t be Italian, as much as FrankCanada (and the rest of us) might prefer that.
      Finally, I don’t believe that Alex hates Italy at all. In fact, the opposite. What sometimes sounds like harsh criticism might better be described as “tough love,” as I see it. People need to speak up and an English-speaking voice adds further reach to the social discourse.
      Anyway, it’s always good to hear differing opinions as long as they’re honest and constructive.

  4. Robin says

    Speaking as a teacher in the US –retiring in June and coming to Florence to study for CTEFL— I have to say that standardized testing can be more of a hazard than a help, and seems to exist only (at least in the US) to suck money out of school districts. Also, as a teacher I really have to mention your poor phrasing when you suggest that “taking the {test} will result in progress”, when we know that taking a test has only the potential to measure any progress you made in your studies. Tests do not, in and of themselves, cause “progress” in any area of study.

    • says

      Depends how standardized testing is implemented, Robin, though I do take your point regarding the cost. However, in terms of developing their ability to use English, Italians have not been making much progress so testing can help. Testing also gives learners objectives and a good result indicates that progress has been made. Of course, there’s the type of testing and what is tested which matters. Being a practical kind of person, I feel that functional areas should be tested (being able to ask for things, agreement, disagreement etc etc) and that this should be done orally and should be tied to task based situations.

      Testing can also have a positive outcome for learners who can surprise themselves with their ability – which is something I’ve noticed and it does give learners a psychological boost in terms of confidence. This encourages them to continue their studies and to progress.

      From my experience, and I’ve tested hundreds of Italians (learner culture plays a big part in all this), preparing for a test can be beneficial as it allows learners to do something with the language they have been studying and the name of the game is getting learners to be able to use the language they are learning.

      I stand by my claim but will qualify it by saying that “taking the right kind of test will result in progress”.

      If you have any other suggestions as to how learner progress can be measured, please let me know.

      Perhaps US school districts could develop their own testing systems – this would save money but also allow them to understand whether or not teaching methods are working.



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