Although English is the lingua franca of international commerce and may help you secure a job in Italy, the most important qualification for anyone seeking employment is the ability to speak fluent Italian. English is the second language of young Italians and the ability to speak English confers prestige in Italy. It’s widely spoken in the major cities such as Florence, Milan, Rome and Venice, which attract millions of foreign visitors each year, although it’s unlikely to be spoken in the far south of the country and in many rural areas. Although not as proud or arrogant as the French where their language is concerned (Italy adopts foreign words with abandon), most Italians expect anyone living or working in Italy to speak it.
There are around 58 million Italian speakers in Italy plus 1.5 million in Croatia, France and Slovenia, some 500,000 in Switzerland, and large Italian immigrant groups in Argentina, Australia, Brazil and the USA. Dialects or foreign languages are used by some 60 per cent of Italians and spoken exclusively by around 15 per cent of the population. However, although many Italians converse in dialect at home, they tend to speak italiano standard when travelling outside their home region or speaking to foreigners. In reality, the universal language of Italy is sign language mainly using the hands (without which many Italians would be speechless), although the whole body is employed, including facial expressions. The first languages of some 2.5 million or 5 per cent of the population are languages such as French, German and Slovene. Italy is home to a number of linguistic minorities, some of which have been granted special privileges in autonomous or semi-autonomous regions, and their language given equal status with Italian. These include French (Valle d’Aosta), German (Alto Adige) and Slovene (Friuli-Venezia Giulia), which are all official languages taught in state schools in these regions.
Franco-provençal or Arpitano French dialects are spoken in Valle d’Aosta, and in certain Piedmont valleys and in the upper Val Argentina (IM), Provençal or Occitanian dialects are spoken. Most German-speaking minorities (some 300,000 speak the Bavarian-Austrian dialect) live in the Province of Bolzano, while Slovenes are generally restricted to the Val di Resia (UD), the upper Torre and Natisone valleys, Val Canale, the eastern part of Gorizia province and most of the province of Trieste (a total of around 50,000). Several groups speaking Serbo-Croat are found in Molise while Croatian, the smallest minority language spoken by some 2,000 people, has survived in Campobasso province in Molise.
Albanian-speaking colonies are concentrated mainly in Sicily and Calabria, but are also found in Molise, Abruzzo, Campania, Puglia and Basilicata, some of whom (descended from 15th century Albanian mercenaries) speak a dialect of Albanian known as Arbëresh.
There are Catalan-speaking groups in the town of Alghero in the north-west of Sardinia, dating from the island’s capture by the crown of Aragon in 1354. Greek dialects are spoken in some parts of Calabria and Puglia. There are also gypsies who speak the Sinti dialect in the north and the Rom dialect in the centre and south of the country.
The main Italian dialects are Sardo (circa 1,350,000 speakers), Friulano (circa 700,000 speakers) and Ladin (circa 40,000 speakers). Sardo, spoken in Sardinia, is virtually another language entirely, similar to Catalan and dating back to Spanish rule. Variationsin dialect can be particularly strong and include Ligurian (which employs a mixture of Italian, Catalan and French), Neapolitan and Sicilian.
Italian is one of the romance languages and is a beautiful tongue that’s relatively easy to learn, particularly if you already know some French or Spanish (or Latin) – and have many hands. The Catholic Church still uses Latin as the official liturgical language and it’s still taught in Italian schools from the 6th grade upwards (with the exception of technical establishments). Modern Italian is a descendant of ‘vulgar’ spoken Latin and was standardised in the late Middle Ages (14th century) by the literary triumvirate of Boccaccio, Dante and Petrarch, who wrote mainly in the Florentine dialect, which subsequently became the basis for today’s standard Italian (italiano standard). This is the language taught in schools and used in the media, although it’s often mixed with dialects. However, standard Italian has been in widespread use only since the unification of Italy in the 1860s and Italians were slow to adopt the language of the new nation-state, identifying much more strongly with their regional dialects.
If you don’t already speak good Italian, don’t expect to learn it quickly, even if you already have a basic knowledge and take intensive lessons. It’s common for foreigners not to be fluent after a year or more of intensive lessons in Italy. If your expectations are unrealistic you will become frustrated, which can affect your confidence. It takes a long time to reach the level of fluency needed to be able to work in Italian and understand the various accents. If you don’t speak Italian fluently, you should begin Italian lessons on arrival and consider taking a menial or even an unpaid voluntary job, as this is one of the quickest ways of improving your Italian.
If necessary you should have Italian lessons before arriving. A sound knowledge of Italian won’t only help you find a job or perform your job better, but will make everyday life much simpler and more enjoyable. If you come to Italy without being able to speak Italian, you will be excluded from everyday life and will feel uncomfortable until you can understand what’s going on around you. The most common reason for negative experiences among foreigners in Italy, both visitors and residents alike, is because they cannot or won’t speak Italian. However terrible your Italian, your bad grammar, poor vocabulary and terrible accent will be much better appreciated than your fluent English. Italians will usually encourage you and greet your butchered attempts with appreciation and good humour. You must learn Italian if you wish to have Italian friends.
When doing business in Italy or writing letters to Italian businesses, communications should always be in Italian. Many Italians have a phobia about writing letters (most are unable to write grammatically correct Italian) and postpone replying to letters for as long as possible. However, if you write a letter to an Italian company applying for a job you should ensure that it’s grammatically correct, even if it means employing a professional translator. When stating your Italian-language ability, it’s important not to exaggerate, as it’s easy to confirm the truth. If you state that your Italian is very good or fluent, you will almost certainly be interviewed in Italian (which is also possible even if you have only a little knowledge). Overstating your fluency is a waste of your and a prospective employer’s time.
This excerpt has been republished with permission from Survival Books. Some of the information may apply to EU citizens only. If you would like to get the inside track on moving to Italy, pick up your copy of this great book by clicking here.