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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

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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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