As an American, I'm always jealous of Europeans and their language savvy...(comic)

Italians get overcriticized for the (perceived) lack of linguistic skills.

First, many Italians have actually grown up bilingual by default - the so-called Italian "dialects" are frequently not only as removed from standard Italian as any other Romance language, but they haven't even developed from Italian (but derive instead directly from vulgar Latin) and many of them have their own cultures and even literary corpora. While the "dialect"/Italian bilingualism has been less pronounced over the last two generations, especially due to the influence of the mass media, there are still people, even fairly young, who remember starting school as a bit of a "getting thrown into a foreign language" experience, especially if they grew up in more popular areas and where the local "dialect" still held strong in the family.

Second, Italy has the strongest tradition of classical education in Europe. When the discussion is focused exclusively on modern, spoken languages, the fact that many Italian teenagers can cope with Latin (sometimes also Greek) at what is essentially college-level competence in most other countries gets easily overlooked. The best Italian high schools, whether they emphasize classics or sciences, are built on a model of a broad humanist education, with Latin language and literature as one of the most important subjects in the program. So when a child has good grades and scholastic aptitude, those are the schools where they end up.

Third, foreign language education in Italy is made more difficult by at least two factors: the relative absence of foreign-language media (cartoons and movies are dubbed rather than subtitled) and the peculiarly ambitious educational culture that has traditionally transferred the methods for teaching classical languages on the modern ones. This means that literature etc. is incorporated into the program and that it's specifically the spoken interaction skills that get ignored, largely in favor of cultural competence and reading ability.

All of this considered, Italians aren't "bad" at languages - rather, they have historically had different cultural and educational priorities, as well as an entire internal debate over how to transition to the globalized, English-medium world while sacrificing only as minimally as necessary their unique humanist tradition.

/r/languagelearning Thread Parent Link -