Will embracing the English language be the next big step for Italian academics?

Students at a university lecture in Milan, Italy.
Students at a university lecture in Milan, Italy.

Italy’s future lies in the hands of all those who decide to dedicate their studies towards something which could help the country step up and be noticed internationally – be it the construction of a state-of-the-art building through advanced technology, the solution to a long unsolved disease thanks to the hard work and research of poised experts, or any other talent many could go unsung for, if the right conditions for prosperity and recognition fail to exist.

A baby step forward would be being able to attract foreign attention in this country by teaching classes in English at university, as it would push students to be exposed to other cultures and become fluent in a language, which still is the lingua franca around much of the world.

It is well-known that Italians are not very well open to change of any sort. Just think of the arts Italy is literally scattered with all over the place. Many sites are falling apart because there is no sufficient funds to restore them, although they could potentially be a major source of income; or the narrow-mindedness that still prevails on many topics other countries have already cracked on and done something about them, such as LGBT rights, fight against corruption, necessary political reforms and so on. Italy is somehow reluctant.

One clear example is the TAV (Treno Alta Velocità) – plans to build new and faster railways from Lyon to Turin received approval long ago, yet somehow the construction works have been delayed. All of this because not everyone was in favor of building something which would have allegedly put at risk the locals’ safety. This and other examples are a clear rendition of Italy’s reluctance to change.

This can be applied in academic areas as well. Professors are above 40 most of the times, which means they graduated at a time when 90% of classes were taught in Italian and not in English. This implies that they may or may not be fluent in that language and that they would rather keep on teaching in Italian, as they have always done. Back in 2011, Milan’s Polytechnic, one of the world’s highest ranking universities, decided to run its master’s classes in English only, yet the decision was reversed as many of the teachers were against it. Ironically enough, this wasn’t the students’ objection, as they were all approving of the university’s proposal. Many probably thought it was going to help them find a more relevant job in the future, should they have been able to speak English fluently.

Young generations always look forward, yet the old ones always look backwards. There has to be a way the two can work together. Innovation means adapting to new trends and go with the flow by embedding your own personal way. Italy simply cannot shut itself down just because many are against the adoption of English as a taught language.

It is important to stress that not all the master’s classes would have been affected by this decision. It was a few universities such as the Polytechnic, which was aiming to provide better chances to find a job to its students, as architects will strive much more if they have some knowledge of English. The majority of master’s classes are still in Italian.

Why is there such unfounded fear then? Italians could only benefit from a bigger exposure to a foreign culture. It would prevent the country from being isolated on every level – the majority of classes are in English already in economically stable countries, such as Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark and so on. German, Dutch and Danish are still widely spoken languages and are not undermined by the usage of English in the academia. On the other hands, those countries invest much more on young generations…

The question is who should decide what is good or not. The decision should be taken by the entirety of the student body, which is supposedly the one who is more aware of what could be implemented and enhanced, rather than some teachers who simply reiterate the same classes on and on as years go by. Students are already asked so much for their studies, and so should be teachers – fluency in English should not be lacking in their CV when offered a position at a prestigious university.


Luca Trovò is an English-Italian freelance translator in London. He has a BA in Foreign Languages and Literature from the University of Bergamo, Italy, and an MA in Translation and Interpreting from the University of Westminster in London. He is also an editor and translator for Equilibriarte. You can contact him and find out more on his Linkedin profile.


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