female tourist studying a map at St. Peter's square

Do People Speak English in Italy?

  1. What are the main languages spoken in Italy?
  2. What is the English level in Italy?
  3. Do they teach English in Italian schools?
  4. Can tourists get by just speaking English?
  5. How do Italian people feel about communicating in English?
  6. Can you live in Italy just speaking English?
  7. How has the English level changed over the years?
  8. Thinking about travelling to Italy
  9. Conclusion

If you were to ask someone what comes to mind when they think of Italy they would probably say pizza, pasta or Pavarotti. Or my personal favourite, “Just one cornetto, give it me, delicious ice-cream from Italy…” Apologies, I couldn’t help myself.

Well, what most certainly wouldn’t come to mind is English!

But if you’re thinking of taking a trip to Italy and your Italian skills are not up to scratch, then you might be wondering what the chances are that you will be able to get by just speaking English.

So what exactly is the English level like in Italy? Well, the good news for any English speaker travelling there is that Italians possess a moderate level of English. This means that you should be able to find someone to speak to if you need directions or a helping hand, especially in the big cities.

Tourists at the Arch of Constantine in Rome, Italy
Tourists at the Arch of Constantine in Rome, Italy

What are the main languages spoken in Italy?

The primary language spoken in Italy is – drum roll please – Italian! No surprise there really. In fact, 93% of households in Italy speak Italian as their main language.

But what about the other 7% I hear you ask. Fear not, I have the answer for you.

The remaining 7% of households have 1 of 34 (yes, 34!) different languages as their primary language. Most of these languages are romance-based, evolving from Vulgar Latin.

“But Latin is not vulgar, how could you say such a thing?”

Woah, let’s take it easy! Vulgar doesn’t mean anything derogatory in this case. Vulgar actually means “common” and comes from the Latin word vulgaris. Learning something new today, right?

Of these 34 different languages and dialects, the most common are Sicilian, Neapolitan, Lombardic and Sardinian (they’re the vulgar ones!). The rest are from the Indo-European family and include Germanic, Albanian and Slavic among others.

What is the English level in Italy?

The level of English in Italy has been classified as moderate according to the latest report from the English Proficiency Index (EPI) in 2021.

According to the latest report, Italy scored 535 out of a possible 800 which puts them at around the same level as Spain who scored 540. This score put them in 26th place out of the 35 European countries, and 35th in the world out of the entire 112 countries included in the report.

Doesn’t sound too bad right? Well, for a tourist visiting the famous Italian landmarks it’s not too bad at all. The moderate level indicates that English is fairly prevalent throughout the country – so you shouldn’t have much trouble ordering a cornetto.

The classic eighties advert for cornetto ice cream. Just because.

As with most European countries, the English level is likely to be slightly higher in the younger generations. You are also much more likely to come across proficient English speakers in the main cities like Milan or Rome where both scored 549 and 548 respectively on the latest EPI report.

If you’re used to the CEFR framework then you can see how the English Proficiency Index’s scores match up below:

CEFR ScoreEPI Score
C2700-800
C1600-699
B2500-599
B1400-499
A2300-399
A1200-299

Although it all sounds positive for a trip to “Bel Paese” (a nickname for Italy meaning “beautiful country”), it seems some are not overly happy with Italy’s progress in their English proficiency, as this article from The Local points out.

It highlights Italy’s relatively low position in comparison to other European countries. It could be that Italy hasn’t progressed as expected, but it could also be unfortunate that while the English level in Italy has improved over recent years, so has the level in other countries as well.

Do they teach English in Italian schools?

English is the international business language and as such is prevalent both in public and private education throughout Italy. It forms a key part of children’s weekly schedule in both primary and secondary school, with most children having multiple classes every week.

Children at school in italy
English is a key part of the education system in Italy

However, there have been critics of the system who suggest that although time has been allocated for children to learn English, the method and resources are simply insufficient.

Lessons are typically focused around memorizing vocabulary and studying textbooks, which many believe to be an outdated and ineffective way to learn a language.

There is also a lack of native-level teachers in the public schools meaning students are not being exposed to naturally spoken English. Something which is crucial to developing fluency and understanding.

Teachers are often not prepared or able to teach English to the level required for children to make real progress. This has been highlighted by many teachers like Lucia who said the following to The Local.

I didn’t study English at school or at university, so I was surprised when I was expected to teach it.

Lucia

This highlights a common trait among countries around the Mediterranean where grammar levels can sometimes be higher than even native speakers of the same age, but they simply are unable to confidently speak and listen to English in a natural environment.

Can tourists get by just speaking English?

Italy loves tourists, and tourists love Italy! What’s not to love? Italy is home to some of the most famous cities in the world, such as Milan, Rome, Florence and Naples. The tales associated with these historical cities alone are enough to make anyone want to book a summer holiday or a weekend break. And we didn’t even mention the famous canals of Venice that attract tourists (and love birds) year after year.

female tourist studying a map at St. Peter's square
Visitors can get by speaking English in the main tourist areas

Fun fact: Venice comes from the Latin word Venecia which means “Goddess of beauty and love” (Don’t say I don’t teach you anything)

Pre-covid, Italy was attracting around 65 million tourists every year including around 4 million Brits and 6 million Americans.

It comes as no surprise then that if you visit any of the main cities you will easily be able to get by speaking English, where the workers at airports, restaurants, hotels and other tourist attractions are used to speaking English on a daily basis.

Stray outside the main cities though, and you might encounter some problems. So if you plan on visiting some of the more remote towns or villages, it will probably be a good idea to get yourself an Italian phrase book and have Google Translate on hand.

Many people have asked the question about speaking English in Italy, and even back in 2011 it was still good news for English speakers according to comments on Trip Advisor responding to the question, “Is much English spoken in Italy?”.

You will have no problem, English is not widely spoken, but people in the tourist industry, Hotels, Shops and Restaurants usually speak and understand, especially in the large Cities.

sophie8

As previously mentioned, you’ll be fine since most of the people you’ll deal with speak at least some English. In fact, some I’ve run into speak better English than just about anyone I know here in the USA. Don’t worry.

Hyborian1

English is really hit or miss when you look at the country as a whole, but in some of the major cities with a lot of travelers like Rome, Milan, Florence- people tend to have a decent amount of English to work with people coming in and out of town. And even in smaller places where they don’t speak much English, Italians tend to be very friendly and will try to work with you to figure things out

PrestoTours

If these comments from 11 years ago are anything to go by, a trip to Italy should be smooth sailing. Not only due to the English level of Italians but also to their nature and willingness to help out confused tourists!

Grand Canal at night, Venice, Italy
The unique Italian city of Venice attracts thousands of English-speaking tourists every year.

How do Italian people feel about communicating in English?

Italians are generally very friendly people who like to communicate and help others as best they can.

In the common tourist hotspots, Italians will speak English to you without any problem as it’s something they are used to doing in their day-to-day lives. Outside of the areas that attract tourists, the level of English is generally lower, but the majority of Italians will still try to communicate with you in English as best they can.

Italian local police in Milan
Many Italian police officers will be able to speak some English in the major cities

Being an international language, English is regarded in Italy as a necessity if you want to progress your professional career, at least on an international level.

Although, this can cause some frustration with Italian who struggle to pick up the language or miss out on job opportunities because of their level, in general Italians are happy to practice and communicate with foreigners in English.

Having said that, it’s definitely a good idea to reciprocate the efforts of the Italian people with a little effort yourself by learning a few common phrases. Trying to speak their language is appreciated by most Italians and will make them even more inclined to give you a helping hand.

Can you live in Italy just speaking English?

Being able to live in Italy just speaking English is possible, but very much depends on your circumstances and your way of living.

If you plan on getting a job in Italy then you will struggle to find anything that doesn’t involve teaching English. You might be able to bag yourself a job in the tourism sector, and being a native English speaker will definitely give you a head start against your fellow applicants, but you will be expected, at the very least, to have a basic level of Italian.

When the question was asked on Quora whether you can move to Italy without speaking Italian there were some helpful comments:

I went to Italy yearly with only basic Italian…like hello…please and thank you and goodbye. I was in tourist cities like Rome, Florence and Venice. No problem until I went to a small near the Dolomites. Only one person spoke English. ONE! So, when I came home, I signed up for a class and I learned enough Italian to get by in almost every town I went to in the future.

Leslie Rose

If you have a lot of money and no need to work, yes.
Otherwise, you should first try to find a job in places where they need English native speakers (hotels and tourist facilities).
Like any other country in the world, moving without even knowing the language exposes you to scams.

Oswald Breil

As you can see, there are a few others things to keep in mind if you don’t speak Italian, such as being exposed to scams or getting ripped off by people looking for vulnerable tourists.

Another key fact to consider is the difficulties you would have with governmental offices and the public sector, which are not used to speaking English and are much more unlikely to do so. Things like registering children at a local school, applying for a driving license, paying taxes or buying a car will be extremely difficult without speaking Italian.

If you’re wondering what the process of moving to Italy without speaking any Italian, and progressing to become an integrated member of society, then this video will show you how to make that transition, from someone who has actually done it themselves.

If you live in Italy and just speak English you will need to accept that you are effectively a permanent tourist. It will be difficult to really make any routes of friendships with locals without speaking Italian.

If you want to stop being a tourist and start living like a local then you really have to speak Italian to a basic conversational level.

How has the English level changed over the years?

Research suggests that the level of English in Italy has indeed improved over recent years. The EPI report shows that Italy has progressed from a low proficiency level in 2011 to a moderate proficiency level in 2021.

This increase is most likely due to English being introduced in all primary schools as a second language back in 2003, something which is now commonplace in nearly every European country.

The Italian government has realised the importance of learning English and is continuing to push for more resources and progress in this area, especially relating to primary and secondary education.

Statistics show that in 2021 nearly half of children finishing their high school education had a minimum B2 level in English, which shows that the efforts being focused towards English in schools are starting to pay off.

Statistic: Proficiency level of spoken English of students who graduated from upper secondary school in Italy in 2021 | Statista
Find more statistics at Statista

Thinking about travelling to Italy

If you’re thinking about travelling or moving to Italy, below is some important information you should keep handy in case you run into any trouble.

Emergency Number

If you’re in trouble and need help you can call 112 from any phone. The operator will be able to speak English to you or put you through to someone else who can. From there, they will connect you with the relevant emergency service you need.

There are also some direct numbers you should take note of:

  • State Police: 113
  • Fire Brigade: 115
  • Urgent Medical Service: 118

US Embassy

The US Embassy is in Rome and is located at Vittorio Veneto 121, 00187 Roma. Contact number: +39 06 46741

There is also the US Consulate General in Florence, Milan and Naples

UK Embassy

The British Embassy in Rome is located at Venti Settembre, 80A, 00187 Roma. Contact Number: +39 06 42200001

There is also a British Consulate General in Milan, which is located at Via S. Paolo, 7, 20121 Milan. Contact Number: +39 02 723001

Facebook Groups for Expats

https://www.facebook.com/groups/expatsinitalygroup/
https://m.facebook.com/people/Association-of-British-Expats-in-Italy/100064310064568/
https://www.facebook.com/groups/144784345569818/

Conclusion

If you’re traveling to Italy with just your English and Google Translate, then you should be absolutely fine as long as you don’t stray too far from the main tourist areas.

Italians have a moderate level of English in general and an even higher level in big cities. They are friendly welcoming people and if you approach them for help in a friendly manner you will no doubt be treated the same way.