Whenever Matteo Renzi, former prime minister of Italy, was televised speaking English over the last few years, I cringed. Not because of his mistakes, which were somewhat endearing, but because the videos went viral, and much of Italy mocked him. Ironically, most people in Italy have relatively poor English language skills. The results of a global study in 2019 ranked Italy the worst country in the European Union in English proficiency. The Netherlands ranked first of 100 countries and Italy placed 36th just behind Spain in moderate competency and behind all other EU countries. Test scores varied by region with Molise, Puglia and Basilicata at the bottom; home to Bologna’s famous university, Emilia-Romagna ranked highest among the regions.
The reasons are many and varied. The first big problem is that the Italian education system tends to focus on acquiring theoretical knowledge rather than the practical application of it. This is especially a problem for languages because they need to be practiced by speaking, listening and writing. Italian students who study English are required to memorize grammar rules without practicing and speaking the language. No wonder students tend to forget everything after they leave school. This is compounded by the fact that there are few native English speakers in the schools.
Another reason is related to the economy. Most Italian companies are family-run businesses aimed at the Italian market. As exports become more important, so does the need for English proficiency. Unless people speak English daily at work, school, or on the street, it is difficult to acquire any level of proficiency. Not even many highly educated professionals have command of the language. Perhaps those most likely to speak English fluently are in the tourism industry. English is also the preferred language of scientists and of international athletes; the 23-year-old Roman tennis player, Matteo Berrettini, who is now in the top ten worldwide, speaks English quite well during his interviews.
When it comes to the media, all entertainment—movies, cartoons, TV shows and documentaries—are translated from English into Italian because the Italian dubbing industry is among the best in the world. Dubbing is a legacy of fascism, has a very strong tradition, and is used in almost every adaptation of foreign productions. But watching movies in another language can be a fun and effective way to learn that language. Fortunately, there are more opportunities today with streaming and online services.
Italians consider public speaking to be an art form. This skill is prized and people concentrate on learning how to create a good discourse in Italian with the appropriate words and plenty of embellishments. In fact, in Italy even university exams are oral, rather than written as in the United States, and students learn to manage their anxiety and to create competent and creative presentations from a stylistic point of view. Maybe this is why so many Italians mocked Matteo Renzi’s speeches in English. The current foreign minister, Luigi Di Maio, rarely attempts to speak English and is also ridiculed when he does.