Do People Speak English in Italy?

For your first-time foray into Italy, you might be concerned about how easy it’ll be for you to get around, given the language barrier. Will it be difficult for you to navigate Italy?

Most people do not speak English in Italy. Only one-third of Italians speak English and with a low proficiency, on average. This can make it difficult for an English speaker to navigate Italy. 

In this article, I will explain more about Italians’ English proficiency, whether you can get by in Italy easily, and whether it’s feasible for you to stay in Italy long-term. 

Do Italians Speak English? 

Most Italians do not speak English. In fact, Italians are the second-worst at speaking English across the European Union, according to the 2019 English Proficiency Index. Only the Spaniards have managed to do worse than the Italians at understanding English. 

However, you’re more likely to run into an English speaker in Italy than in other countries, like Turkey. The 2012 Eurobarometer report shows that 34% of Italians, on average, have learned English as their second language. 

Therefore, although you might encounter several Italians who know how to speak English, this does not mean that they will speak it very well. 

Can You Get By in Italy Without Speaking Italian?

You can get by in Italy without speaking Italian. However, most Italians do not speak any English. This makes it difficult to travel or eat at restaurants. You should learn basic Italian phrases and bring an offline translator around to navigate Italy more easily. 

You can watch the following video to learn some basic Italian:

If you happen to speak either French or Spanish, you might find it easier to navigate Italy. Many Italians have learned French or Spanish as a foreign language, so you might be able to get the information you need more easily. 

Speaking Italian Makes Travel Easier

It’s not likely that you’ll come across English signs in Italy, even near tourist attractions. If you’re trying to go to the Colosseum, you won’t find any signs directing you there, even if it’s a short distance away. 

If you’re trying to get around via bus or train, figuring out how to buy a ticket will be a hassle. None of the ticket vendors speak English, and electronic machines likely won’t have any English dubs. It’s even possible for you to get fined a hefty amount if you happen to have the wrong ticket, 

When eating in a restaurant or a café, the menu may not be translated into English or come with pictures so that you can figure out what you’re ordering. 

In these cases, it’s important to have a basic grasp of Italian to figure out what you’re consuming or even to ask the waiters what they recommend, so you don’t have to pick. 

Not only will learning Italian make traveling easier, but it’ll also make the natives more likely to help you. 

Speaking Italian Is Rewarded With Increased Hospitality

Italians appreciate tourists who go the extra mile to learn more about their language and culture. They will be warmer in their interactions with you even if you use simple words like ‘Grazie.’ 

Here’s a quote from a traveler describing his interaction with an Italian merchant.

“I remember a cranky man in San Marco square who was working at a newspaper stand, but when I asked him where I could get stamps in Italian he gave me a big smile and gave me directions.”

If you prove to the Italians that you aren’t just the stereotypical loud American, they will go above and beyond to help you with whatever you need. 

You might be able to get better prices in markets and avoid overpriced restaurants by seeking the recommendations of the locals. 

Can You Live in Italy Without Speaking Italian?

You cannot live in Italy without speaking Italian unless you have a very close Italian friend. For example, buying a car, getting a stay permit, and paying taxes all require conversing with officials who might not speak English. 

Italians are very proud of their culture, and therefore it’s relatively insular, and learning English isn’t compulsory in Italian schools. Thus, it’s not the language used to conduct trade. For any financial or social transaction, it’s necessary to use Italian. 

If you’re moving to Italy permanently for a job, to avoid depending on someone else to fulfill your basic needs or struggling through your life in Italy with an online translator, you should just learn Italian.

English Use in Major Cities in Italy

  • Rome – The city of Rome is the capital of Italy. It is believed around 2.3 million people live in the city. It is city with a long and interesting history dating from the Roman civilisation through to present day. People from all over the world visit Rome every year to see the Colosseum, the Vatican City, and the Roman Forum. The city is packed full of people from all over the world. This means that you are going to hear a lot of people speaking English. In the more upmarket restaurants, tourist sights and museums there should be someone to speak with in English, but if you venture into the quieter districts of the city you will find that far few people are able to hold a conversation in English.
  • Milan – Milan is the second biggest city in Italy with a population of 1.2 million people. It is located in the north of the country not too far from the border with Switzerland. It has a long history and was important during much of the medieval period. Sadly a lot of the city was destroyed during the second world war and much of the districts had to be rebuilt. Since then it has reshaped itself as the business capital of Italy. For this reason there are many financial and corporate organisations based in the city. The people who live in Milan are more internationally mind and as such English is quite common. The local businesses cater to foreign English speaking tourists and you should be able to find someone to speak with in most restaurants, bars and museums.
  • Naples – Naples is beautiful city located in the south of Italy on the Tyrrhenian Sea. It was founded by the Greek in the 7th century BC and has a huge number of famous cultural and religious sights. There are many thermal baths nearby and the famous mountain of Vesuvius is located very close by. People travel to Naples to then visit the Amalfi coast which can be accessed very easily nearby. Due to the large numbers of tourists passing through the city, a lot of the local people can speak English. Usually those in the south of Italy speak less English than those in the north, but Naples certainly has a significant number of English speakers.
  • Florence – The city of Florence is located in the province of Tuscany and has around 350,000 people living in the city. The area is famous for being the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance. There are countless museums and art galleries housing some of the worlds most priceless works of art. There are also a number of beautiful churches and cathedrals. The city is a tourist hotspot and consequently the local people have catered to the English speaking crowds. You can have a good level of conversation with people working in the restaurants, museums and hotels.
  • Venice – Everybody knows Venice for its winding canals and renaissance history. The city has a population of around 262,00 and is located in the North East of Italy. People from all over the world visit to wander the streets and visit the amazing museums. The people are a proud and open minded bunch. They can speak English quite well and you will find that most people in bars and restaurants can conduct a basic conversation, give directions and help in an emergency.

What Languages are Spoken in Italy?

  • Italian – Of course Italian is the most popular language in Italy. It is also an official language in Switzerland, the Vatican City and San Marino. In Italy, around 93% of the population are native Italian speakers. There are many different dialects of Italian and some are mutually unintelligible.
  • English – English is the second most popular language in Italy with around 34% of people speaking it as a second language. This is because English is now taught in schools from primary school and English has a big cultural impact on the country.
  • French – Italy shares a border with France in the north west of the country and around 16% of people in Italy can speak French. In the region of Valle d’Aosta in Italy, French as actually taught in schools as a second language.
  • Spanish – In Italy a significant number of people speak Spanish as either a first of second language. The current figures put the number at around 11%.
  • German – Italy shares a border with both Switzerland and Austria which are German speaking countries. Consequently, around 5% of Italians can speak German as a 1st of 2nd languages.

English vs Italian

Italian is a beautiful language and well regarded as one of the most pleasant to listen to. As a romance language it shares some key similarities with English because of the shared Latin root to a lot of the language. But what are some of the key differences, lets take a look.

  • Vocabulary – English and Italian share a Latin root in terms of vocabulary. This means that there are many words that are very similar. This can of course make learning new vocabulary quite fast. However, be careful with this because a lot of words in Italian are false friends, meaning that they don’t mean what you would intuit. Take the word for good, in Italian is is bravo, which we might assume means brave. Or there is the word for publisher, which in Italian is editore, which we could assume would mean editor. There are of course small problems and the vast majority of Italian vocab is easy to learn.
  • Grammar – There are some key differences with how Italian verbs are inflected vs their English equivalents. Also, the use of the perfect tense follows different rules in Italian. The use of obligation functions very differently in Italian with an inflected version of the verb must, while in English we have words like must, should, have to and so on. The rules for article use different which can lead to many small mistakes. The word order for both languages is s-v-o but in Italian the rules are less strict.
  • Speaking/listening – There are a number of sounds in Italian which beginners find difficult to produce and to distinguish. There are the hard and soft versions of the c and g letters. There is the sounds written as gli, which is in fact pronounced lee. Then there is the gn sounds which is nasal ny sound. There is also a trilled r sound in Italian which takes some time to perfect.
  • Writing/reading – Italian uses the same letters as in English but the letters j, k, w, x and y are only used for foreign important words. The spelling is very regular and once you learn the basic pronunciations associated you can sound out new words easier than you would with the irregular spelling of English.

Teaching English in Italy

Italy is a truly amazing country to visit and lot of people choose to stay longer than initially planned. They fund this by find a job, and for native English speakers teaching English is an easy option.

There are a few thing to bare in mind if taking this decision. Firstly, the pay in Italy isn’t very good when compared to English teaching gigs in Asia. Most of the jobs are concentrated in the major cities like Rome, Milan and Naples. You should look into getting some appropriate teaching qualifications as these can greatly increase your chances of being hired. The best qualification to get is the CELTA.

Basic Phrases in Italian

  • Please – Per favore
  • I am sorry – Mi dispiace
  • Good morning – Buon giorno
  • Good evening – Buona sera
  • Good night – Buona notte
  • Do you speak English – Parla inglese?
  • Nice to meet you – È stato un piacere conoscerla

Final Thoughts

Italy is beautiful and inspiring country to visit. It is a cultural powerhouse with and endless supply of activities and sights to visit. People are drawn to the country from all over the world.

With that in mind, many people wonder if they can get by with English. And while around a third of the country can speaker English, this is much lower than many of Italy’s northern neighbours.

This means that it would be helpful to learn some of the local language if you are hoping to visit some of the more rural areas of the country.

Thanks for taking the time to read this article about English in Italy.


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