By Sarah Giles

08 August 2014 - 16:26

Some regional varieties of Italian, such as Sicilian, differ so widely from standard Italian that they are seen by some as separate languages. (Photo of Italy and Sicily by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center)
Some regional varieties of Italian differ widely from standard Italian. Photo ©

NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0 and adapted from the original.

The British Council's Languages for the Future report identified the ten languages most important to the UK over the next 20 years. In the first of a series of posts on each of the languages in the report, Sarah Giles writes about Italian.

A true Romance (language, that is)

Just two per cent of the UK’s adult population feel that they speak Italian well enough to hold a conversation. It's a language that's most often associated with the beautiful art, food and fashion of its host country, which is the fourth most popular destination for UK tourists. But Italian is much more than just a 'tourist language'.

The official language of Italy and parts of Switzerland, Italian is a Romance language with about 70 million first-language speakers. It's not just spoken in Italy -- there are Italian-speaking minority communities across the world, including in Malta, Libya, Somalia, Slovenia and Croatia, and expatriate communities in the US, the UK, Argentina and Australia.

Italian has close links with other Romance languages such as Portuguese, Spanish and French, sharing similarities in linguistic style, influence and intonation. Regional varieties of Italian are very different from the standard language. In fact, some variations, such as Sicilian, are seen by some people as separate languages altogether.

More than just a 'tourist language'

When asked about the benefits of learning Italian, many UK people might automatically think about beaches, gelato, pizza, museums and architecture. The country is hugely popular as a holiday destination -- in 2012, there were around 2.6 million visits from the UK to Italy. Believe it or not, there are also lots of Italians taking holidays in the UK -- in the same year, there were 1.5 million visits from Italy to the UK, accounting for about five per cent of total visits to the UK.

However, learning Italian offers many benefits beyond just being able to communicate as a tourist. The language plays a significant role in international relations as an official language of the European Union and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

Speaking Italian is a gold star on your CV

Despite the country's recent economic troubles, Italy continues to play an important role in the UK economy, especially as a trading partner. The country is the UK’s largest non-English-speaking goods export market, and eighth largest source of imports. Italy was worth more than £8 billion to the UK economy in 2012.

If you're looking for a job in business, you'll find that speaking Italian is a particularly useful skill. In research carried out two years ago, Italian was the fourth most frequently requested language by employers. It appeared in 14 per cent of job advertisements for languages, particularly in the financial sector.

Despite this demand for employees who can speak Italian, a British Chambers of Commerce survey showed that there is a deficit in speakers of Italian. Being able to negotiate in the buyer's native language is a huge asset when doing business deals, and 61 per cent of non-exporting businesses in the UK view ‘language barriers’ as an inhibiting factor for possible development into exporting their products and services abroad in the future. The largest language deficits are for the fastest-growing markets, so why don't more British people speak Italian, given that there is clearly a business need for their skills?

Fewer pupils are choosing to study languages – and Italian is a niche option

The answer may lie in the broader trend of declining numbers of language learners in UK schools. Italian continues to enjoy a fairly popular uptake in schools and in adult education, but total entries for language subjects at examination levels are declining. Entries at GCSE level for Italian have remained fairly steady, only dropping seven per cent over five years, compared to French and German, which have seen much steeper declines of 24 to 25 per cent.

However, the actual number of young people choosing to study Italian is tiny. Italian is the fourth most popular language for pupils to learn in school after French, German and Spanish. But the number of total exam entries remain very small, with only 5,000 compared to 150,000 in French.

Italian is the seventh most popular language at A-level after French, German, Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, Russian and Polish, but it still has fewer than 1,000 entries each year. Those pupils who do choose to deepen their knowledge of Italian by studying it at A-level are a small but committed group -- the number of entries for Italian A-level has remained steady over the past five years. In contrast, there has been considerable growth in the number of pupils taking A-levels in Mandarin Chinese, Russian and Polish, with Italian increasingly seen more as a language learned for personal or academic interest, rather than as beneficial to the future.

Italian has given many words to English

Last year, the British Council's English Effect exhibition revealed the influence that languages such as Italian have upon the English language. English words such as ‘solo’, ‘balcony’, ‘studio’, ‘malaria’ and ‘umbrella’ were all derived or adopted from Italian. The exhibition showed how Italian influenced the development of the English language in the past, and now research suggests that it should be recognised as an important language for the future of the UK, too.

Download the full Languages for the Future report or read more blog posts in our series on languages for the UK's future.

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