English in the school system
The Italian school system is undergoing significant reform and English instruction may shift as a result. Currently, all Italian children start learning English in the first year of primary school. At the primary level English is taught by generalist teachers with no specialized English training. In middle school (11-13 years old) students may add a second foreign language as an elective. At the age of 14, pupils choose their high school specialization stream. Unless they are specializing in foreign languages, Italian high school students study English for an average of 3 hours per week and may stop English courses at age 16, 3 years before the end of high school.
The Italian high school exit exam includes English, but students are not required to pass the English section of the exam in order to graduate, nor do most universities require English skills for admission. The liceo classico, a high school specialization stream that is usually chosen by students planning a career in management, diplomacy or politics, has Latin, Greek, Italian, and philosophy as core subjects. Only recently have its 2 weekly English teaching hours in the first 2 years become 3 hours during all 5 years.
Italian has traditionally been the only language of instruction at the university level and in most fields students do not take English courses at the university level. Some newer universities teaching communications and journalism do require English study.
Study abroad scholarships are most often tied to research projects in areas like engineering or biology rather than generalist scholarships for language study. Students in other fields apply for Erasmus scholarships when university funding is available, or resort to private study abroad programs using their own funds.
English at Work
Italy is the 8th largest export nation in the world, mainly exporting food, fashion, and chemicals. Its main trading partners are Germany and France. Italy is the 5th most visited country in the world and tourism is also a significant industry. However, most workplaces in Italy are not very international, and even when they are, Italian is the only corporate language. In many companies, specific departments are dedicated to contact with foreign countries and to the use of languages. These departments are staffed by graduates of foreign language or translation programs. Employees outside these departments are not expected to speak English well, although the general management of large companies usually does speak English.
Culture and Attitude towards English
Italians in general consider English to be a versatile tool, but they are far more attached to their own language which they consider rich and important, and to the idea of Europe and European history. There are frequent public debates about how Italian culture and the education system can become more open to the use of foreign languages without diluting Italian cultural heritage.
As an example, movies in their original language are not easily accepted by the public, not just because it’s easier to see films in Italian, but also because the film dubbing industry is considered to be of extremely high quality and a very important source of funds to maintain the Italian cinema industry.
The inevitable use of many English words in spoken Italian is not seen as a threat to the language, however, but rather a necessary process of modernization. Italians show a high level of interest in English speaking culture, particularly in the entertainment industry and world politics. Italians travel abroad about as often as other Europeans and are generally curious about the art, history, and culture of other places. The ability to communicate while abroad is seen as universally desirable.
Italians recognize that their level of English as a nation is lower than many other European countries and it is something of a running joke amongst young people. Videos of public figures speaking poor English are often a viral phenomenon.
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