Antonucci: Italians prefer to speak English to tourists instead of their native tongue

On the first day of classes in Florence, everyone was talking about their attempts to speak Italian with the locals — easier in theory than in practice, mainly because of how many Italians know English.

My teacher, Dorothy Barret, overheard and said she actually disliked how many Italians speak English. Barret, who isn’t originally from Italy, said it makes her feel like a burden as a visitor to the country whenever she attempts to speak Italian. The entire class agreed and laughed with sympathy at her exclamation that it made her “feel like a jackass.”

This led me back to my quest to understand how America compares to Italy, this time when it comes to language.

There are a lot of subtle signs of Italians being at least fairly well-versed in English almost everywhere in Florence. A surprising amount of advertisements, product labels and other forms of media are often in English. Plus, it’s amazing how many English songs you hear in Italy — for example, Afroman’s “Because I Got High.”

But the most surprising signs have come from, as my teacher said before, how many native citizens speak English. On my first day, another student and I were looking for a bank. In slightly broken Italian, he asked a few locals where he could find one. One man bluntly asked, “Do you speak English?”

My friend said “yes,” and each of the locals laughed before giving us directions in nearly perfect English. As someone who was personally terrified at the thought of no one outside the school speaking my first language, I was dumbfounded.

It certainly seems that Italy is more foreign language-friendly than America. Italian is the native language for Italy, but around 29 percent of the population speaks English. In America, where Spanish is the second most commonly spoken language, when you count native speakers and Spanish students, only about 16 percent of the population speak it.

And remember the recent Senate bill in the United States that would overhaul the immigration system? One of the requirements for undocumented immigrants to get citizenship would be to learn English. All this strikes me as odd — the country seen as a symbol of freedom for all other countries would be less friendly to foreign speakers.

Why is that? I’m honestly not sure. The cynical side of me is tempted to think that Italy is being more inclusive and foreign-friendly than America and doesn’t have as much of a “Welcome to Italy, now speak Italian!” attitude.

The prideful part of me thinks it’s because Italians look up to America — as my host mother told me — and want to learn the language of the place they admire.

But some third part of me wonders if Italians think more practically than Americans, wanting to learn a language so influential in their lives. Despite English being only the third most common language in the world, it dominates popular professions and makes up about 83 percent of website home pages. I’ve even heard my host mother occasionally tell her son Paulo to learn English since it will help him get a job in his own country.

One professor I talked with said Italians learn English “for the language, and not for America.”

One thing is clear, though. My experience with the citizens and in the culture has shown me Italy is more accepting of foreign languages than America.

So for the first of many rounds to come, I’m chalking this one up to Italy. However, there’s plenty of time for things to change. I’ll have to wait until the end of the semester to see who wins.

Max Antonucci is a junior newspaper and online journalism major whose column appears every Tuesday in Pulp. Visit his website at www.MaxwellAntonucci.com, find him on Twitter at @DigitalMaxToday, or email him at meantonu@syr.edu.


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