An overlooked report shows interesting facts about the Italian language, dialects, and foreign languages in Italy.
What does this mean for your next trip to Italy?
Find out below!
Why facts about the Italian language
In this post, you’ll discover interesting facts and figures about the use of the Italian language, dialects, and foreign languages in Italy.
The data are taken from an official report published in Italy.
This information is not only interesting per se but also useful for your next trip to Italy so that you know what to expect to find there.
- Do Italians speak English?
- Do Italians speak Italian, in the first place?
- Where can you expect to find people who speak English and take it easy?
- Which areas speak standard Italian and are best to practice speaking?
Keep reading to find out!
Where to find official statistics in Italy?
The Italian National Institute of Statistics (Italian: Istituto Nazionale di Statistica; Istat) is the main source of official statistics in Italy.
Its activities include:
- Census of population
- Economic censuses
- Social, economic and environmental surveys and analyses
Istat is the largest producer of statistical information in Italy and is an active member of the European Statistical System, coordinated by Eurostat.
Secret report on the Italian language
In 2017, Istat published the extensive report “Use of Italian language, dialects, and foreign languages” based on data from 2015.
That’s the most recent report on the topic.
The English version only shows a summary, which is the basis for the facts I discuss below.
The Italian version is much longer and includes more facts and figures, together with tables and charts, some of which I show in this post.
I found this report extremely interesting, and yet, there’s no one on the internet who even mentions it!
So, it’s not really a secret, but in practice, no one knows about it.
Let’s dive into this data that you won’t find anywhere else!
Infographic about the Italian language
I collected the most important findings of the report in this infographic.
It includes 9 charts:
- The first 4 items are about the use of the Italian language
- The other 5 are about the use of English and other languages in Italy
Now, some more facts and figures that didn’t fit the infographic.
What should everyone know about the Italian language?
Italian is a romance language, like other languages such as Spanish, French, Catalan, and Portuguese.
This means they have a common ancestor: Latin.
This is great news because if you speak Italian, you can understand other Romance languages better than if you didn’t speak it.
This is because, in terms of grammar and vocabulary, they have many aspects in common.
Probably, if you speak Italian and hear an old Spanish man from a small town in Spain speaking Spanish, you won’t understand much.
However, if you listen to “standard” Spanish or if you have a look at a newspaper in Spanish, you’ll probably understand the main context.
There’s a connection among people who speak these languages and who don’t share the same native language, and it’s not just because of cultural and geographical reasons.
At the end of the day, language is a powerful tool and if you want to communicate with people, it’ll be easier to communicate with people who either speak your language or speak a similar language.
Italian vs dialects vs other languages
- 45.9% of people aged 6+ (about 26 million and 300 thousand individuals) speak more frequently in Italian at home
- 32.2% speak both Italian and dialect
- 14% (8 million 69 thousand people) use predominantly dialect.
- 6.9% speak another language (approximately 4 million individuals, in 2006 there were around 2 million 800 thousand individuals).
Dialects are stronger in the North-East and in the South
Dialects are stronger in the North-East and in the South, while standard Italian is prevalent in the center and North-West.
It’s no surprise that Tuscany, the region that is commonly regarded as the origin of modern Italian, is also one of the regions where standard Italian is most commonly spoken.
Dialects are still popular among the elderly
Dialects are lesson common overall, but still popular among the elderly and the poorly educated.
At every age, the exclusive use of dialect decreases, even among the oldest, among whom it continues to be a common practice in 2015.
32% of people aged 75 and over spoke exclusively or prevalently the dialect in the family (the same percentage was 37.1% in 2006).
The prevalent use of dialect in their family and with friends was more common among people with low educational levels, even at the same age.
- 24.8% of those who carried out at most the middle school (or lower) speak almost exclusively the dialect in the family and 33.7% with their friends
- Against respectively 3.1% and 2.7% of those who hold the degree or a higher degree.
What part of Italy speaks standard Italian?
First of all, let’s focus on the meaning of “standard”.
A standard language is a language variety that has a codified grammar and usage.
It is the language that is employed by a population for public communication.
It is also the language used in official documents and the language you’ll find in dictionaries.
It’s the reference language.
In other words, it’s neutral if we compare it to other varieties of the same language.
So, in theory, standard Italian is spoken all over Italy (and some parts of Switzerland).
Also, standard Italian is more common in big cities and towns, whereas dialects are more common in small towns and villages.
In general, people in school and at work speak standard Italian. Even if they may speak a dialect at home, they speak Italian in public places and with strangers.
As you can see, Italian is the public language while dialects are used in the private and intimate sphere.
Spread of other languages due to immigration
The spread of languages different from Italian and dialect in the family has increased, especially among people aged 25-34 (from 3.7% in 2000 to 8.4% in 2006, to 12.1% % of 2015).
In 2015, 90.4% of people aged 6+ were Italian native speakers.
Compared to 2006, the estimate of those who declared a native language other than Italian increased (from 4.1% to 9.6% in 2015).
The areas of the country with a larger population of foreign residents have a higher presence of non-Italian native speakers:
- North-East (15.2%)
- North-West (11.5%)
- Metropolitan areas (11.6%)
Knowledge of foreign languages
In 2015 the knowledge of one or more foreign languages was a feature of 60.1% of the population aged 6+ (34 million 370 thousand people), an increase compared to 56.9% of 2006.
92.3% of non-Italian native speakers know one or more foreign languages, compared to 56.6% of Italian native speakers.
Italian is the most spoken foreign language among non-Italian native speakers, while English is the most spoken foreign language among Italian native speakers.
Especially young people and adults up to 34 years old know foreign languages (about 80%).
The knowledge of foreign languages is more common in:
- North-West (66.2%)
- North-East (65.7%)
- South (50.6%)
- Islands (51.5%)
Among the graduates aged 25-44, it is estimated that 96.1% knew one or more foreign languages, compared to 55.7% of the people who hold at most the middle school degree (or lower). The share remained very high even among graduates aged 65 and over (87.6%).
Do Italian speak English?
Among people who knew one or more foreign languages:
- 48.1% know English
- 29.5% know French
- 11.1% know Spanish
The level of foreign language knowledge was still quite modest, even if a slight improvement was recorded compared to 2006.
Among people who know English:
- 7.2% reported an excellent level
- 27% a good level of knowledge (compared to 23.6% of 2006)
- However, there is still a significant share of people who reported a low level of knowledge (28%, compared to 30% of 2006).
What this means to you
These statistics are not only interesting per se but are also useful for every learner of the Italian language and traveler to Italy.
These facts mean that:
- With some many dialect speakers, it’s not always your fault if you don’t understand each other
- With more dialect speakers in the North-East and the South, you’ll have a harder time there
- Most Italians speak some English, especially the young
- If you happen to know some French and Spanish, that could help, too
However, you shouldn’t feel intimidated only because you’re going to a small town where nobody speaks English.
On the contrary, that’s also what makes travel romantic and fascinating.
And, if you’re learning Italian, you’d better resist the temptation to switch to English, in any case.