Italian: the fourth most studied language in the world

People often ask me, “Why do you study Italian?” “Why don’t you study something more practical like Spanish?” Well, perhaps some of the reasons are here.

Recently, many articles in the press have announced that Italian is the fourth most studied language in the world, after English, Spanish and Chinese. This is somewhat surprising because Italian ranks at least 20th if not 50th in lists of languages spoken by native speakers.

Many of these lists differ in rankings because of definitions and the sometimes arbitrary distinctions between language and dialect. According to one source, the first 10 spoken languages are Mandarin, Spanish, English, Hindi/Urdu, Arabic, Portuguese, Bengali, Russian, Japanese, and Punjabi. Other than Spanish and Portuguese, the other European languages spoken more often than Italian are German and French.

It is easy to understand why the 3 languages—English, Spanish, and Chinese—are often studied. English is the language of almost a billion and a half people and it is the principal but not the only “lingua franca” (language of trade, for example) in the world. Spanish is the language of almost a half billion speakers and is rapidly expanding in the U.S.; Chinese is not only the first language of a billion and a half speakers, but it is the language of an emerging country and a world power.

Italian, however, is the language of about 60 million speakers from a relatively small country that some people see in decline. Italy is not a great power and is often ridiculed for its past and present politics.

One author that I read says that it is often forgotten that Italian is the “lingua franca” of one of the principal geopolitical worldwide forces: the Catholic Church. The official language of the Church, of course, is Latin, but the language used among clergy from different nations is usually Italian, and it’s used as a matter of course in the Vatican and chiefly by the Pope and the bishops, even if we have not had an Italian pope in almost 40 years.

Another contributing factor is the great Italian emigration. About 40 million left Italy between 1861 and 1920, and then there was another small wave after World War II. This contributed to exporting the language. Many Italians went to Argentina, the United States, Canada, Australia, Germany, France, and Belgium, and some children and grandchildren have maintained their bilingualism.

But probably the most important reason that Italian is appreciated, followed and is sought after by foreigners is cultural. Italian is the principal language of opera and there are so many music lovers in the world that appreciate this music, the pianoforte, and the language of music. Just think of the worldwide success of Pavarotti. In addition, there is Italian literature, together with Italian art, especially the Renaissance. It is the culture, as well as the natural beauty of Italy, that makes it one of the primary tourist destinations in the world.

And we must not forget Italian “cucina.” Italian wine and food, together with fashion, contribute in a major way to the spread of the language. In fact, there is in Italy now a consortium of 19 universities based in Pisa that has organized the first degree in Italian studies on the Internet designed for foreigners. It is gaining many students—beyond all expectations. There are many reasons for this surge, but the primary one is culture. And food is a driving force—if only to be able to read the recipes.

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