The dominance of English? A view from Italy

Posted by on March 27, 2013

Our series on the dominance of English continues with today’s guest post from Paola Vettorel. Paola was an EFL teacher and teacher-trainer in Italy before becoming Assistant Professor in the Department of Foreign Language and Literature at the University of Verona. Her main research interests include English as a lingua franca and its implications for the teaching and learning of English.

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The recent 2012 Eurobarometer “Europeans and their languages” shows that only 34% of Italian respondents (as against 38% in Europe as a whole) say they know English well enough to hold a conversation, 35% know another language beside their mother tongue well enough to follow the news on the radio or TV, and 36% well enough to read articles and to communicate online. Most respondents also say they use a foreign language on holidays abroad, only 15% to watch TV or listen to the radio, 13% to read books or the press, 25% when using the Internet and to communicate with friends, and 21% at work – all in lower percentages when compared to Europe as a whole. Given that in Italy English has been the compulsory foreign language from primary school since 2004, these figures are unsurprisingly higher for younger people, although in general still quite low.

The spread of English is highly visible in Italy particularly in the fields of advertising, in the media and in the linguistic landscape. Despite dubbing rather than subtitling being common practice on TV, it is virtually impossible to listen to TV commercials, or to leaf through a magazine or a newspaper, without encountering English, with words that may be adapted, unadapted, or creatively exploited – often to localized bilingual effects. The same can be said for the linguistic landscape, where English is often harnessed in its globalizing symbolic power, or deployed to more localizing aims in an environment that is increasingly multilingual, at least visually. This adaptation is often visible also in processes ‘from below’ – let’s just think for instance of the playful uses by football fans on Sunday matches (to quote but one example, the ‘Crazy for Krazić’ that appeared on a banner a couple of years ago).

Together with this extensive (passive) contact with English in the environment, international student mobility represents an opportunity where English, together with other languages, is actively used to communicate with peers of other linguacultures across Europe. Statistics show that both at primary and secondary school levels and in tertiary education, figures for young people taking part in European mobility programmes have been growing steadily, in Italy as in many other European countries. In such settings, it is generally English that represents the in-common language, the lingua franca that allows communication to take place.

How is this reconcilable with the self-perceived low competence in English – as well as in other languages – registered by the 2012 Eurobarometer? Indeed, younger generations in particular seem to have more frequent opportunities to use the language in communicative situations, whether in real or virtual mobility, where English takes on the role of a communication tool, a “partner language” which does not displace but integrates other codes. Rather than a means of linguistic and cultural dominance, in this light English can be seen to represent a common code allowing interaction, which can be employed to share interests related both to local and global cultures and subcultures. Communication on the Web, for instance, is frequently done through a foreign language (36% in the EU and 25% in Italy, Eurobarometer 2012). This active use of foreign languages, and of English as the international lingua franca, is however not frequently taken into account in formal educational contexts; investments in educational systems, as well as appropriate teacher-training measures appear thus much needed in order to better prepare future generations to communicate in an increasingly multilingual and multicultural Europe, where English operates as the de-facto lingua franca and the knowledge of at least two foreign languages should be a (given) skill for all European citizens. Fostering the development of communicative strategies and intercultural competence skills – that are of primary importance in any foreign language – as part of school curricula could for instance contribute to the improvement of both the real and the self-perceived ability to effectively use foreign languages ‘beyond school knowledge’, turning it into a life skill that allows communication well beyond the classroom walls.

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