December 7, 2023 | Rome, Italy

Tongue Tied

By |2018-03-21T18:17:37+01:00September 4th, 2004|Features Archive|
Dentist Charles Kennedy.

t has been two decades since Charles Kennedy arrived in Rome with a seemingly foolproof plan to set up a dental practice. He had a friend whose parents lived in the city and so knew the bureaucracy and the language. It seemed perfect, until his friend opted to get a Ph.D. in England, leaving Kennedy on his own. “I’ll understand if you pull out,” the architect who was helping Kennedy turn a newly acquired suite of rooms into medical space told the Briton over lunch.

Kennedy remembers taking a long sip of his red wine. No, he responded, he’d go it alone.

Now 72, Kennedy has a clientele that includes businessmen and diplomats. But while the practice is a success, Kennedy’s mastery of Italian is another story — one that haunts and daunts him.

For English-speakers trying to make it in Italy, and Italians trying to sound good speaking the global language of choice, the linguistic challenges can be demoralizing.

“I do speak a little Italian, but I’m not with sufficient Italian to be able to carry on a conversation,” says Kennedy. “If someone who speaks fluent Italian starts a conversation with me, I start to get bogged down after two or three sentences, and I have to say, ‘Look, slow down, and what do you mean by this word or that word,’ and then at that point I prefer to speak in English.”

Yes, he admits, he’s been criticized at times for his linguistic shortcomings, but he’s also met Italians who are keen to practice their English with him. Still, he says he feels “totally embarrassed” and “foolish,” even stupid, for not conquering the language barrier. “I feel that I’m letting not only myself down but the image of foreigners generally in the country because I think it’s only politeness to be able to respond to the people who live here in their own language.”

Kennedy spent two years at a language school, but quit when he felt he was making no progress. “I made the mistake of not making enough Italian friends,” he says. “I had a real expat attitude and all my friends were English-speaking.”

Anna Tetlow, a 29-year-old chef in Rome, is grateful for her English-language friends — above all because her employers have never managed to organize the Italian lessons she was promised with the job.

Conversational is how she describes the level of Italian she’s managed to reach using CDs and books. She’s also found people eager to practice their English with her. At work, however, it’s a different story. “I often find that the Italians I work with speak to me in Italian when they know I don’t speak it, as if I’m going to miraculously understand.”

Apart from this, she thinks living in Rome without a command of the language is easy, as is the case in other major cities and tourist spots where some measure of spoken English is essential.

ITALIANS, IN TURN lament their own shortcomings in English, which may account for why English-speakers are besieged by Italians who seek them out as linguistic sounding boards.

“I’m ashamed even to say that I don’t speak English because now it’s the first language throughout the world,” says 28-year-old Nirvana Contarino, who owns a clothing store in the capital. “Without it you can’t do anything.”

Francesco Brongo, a 35-year-old porter who learned his only English in compulsory school, laments what he perceives as Italian laziness. “I think that compared to other European nations we are a bit behind,” says Brongo. “I think it is laziness, the Italians just don’t apply themselves to it.”

Though he has many friends who have learned a slew of foreign languages, Roberto Saroli, 58, agrees that Italy is behind other EU countries in mastering English. “I have seen that English is spoken much more in France, Germany and even in Indonesia.” he says. “Maybe we’re behind from the times of Mussolini.”

Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, in a typical piece of 1930s nationalism, was a stickler for linguistic identity, insisting that foreigners with surnames that had Italian equivalents be referred to in an Italian context. Under Fascism, Mr. White became Mr. Bianco and so on. To further the grandeur, Il Duce became “Dux,” the Latin form, on monuments.

Statistics bear out the general perception that Italians lag behind Europe in their English-speaking skills. According to a Eurobarometer report published in 2001 by International Research Associates, Italy and Spain rank at about the same level, with about 30 percent of the population able to speak English at some level. But in Sweden, for example, the figure is 70.3 percent.

The government, attempting to address the dilemma, has introduced the so-called “three I’s,” one of which is Inglese (the other two are Informatica, computers, and Impresa, business) into the curiculum of elementary schools throughout Italy

While the program sounds like a good idea, Steve Barley remains skeptical. Barley is director of studies at the Washington School in Rome, which teaches English to Italians, and vice versa. “Everyone thinks that private schools like us are going to be out of work in the next ten years,” says Barley. “But that’s obviously rubbish because they’ve got such terrible teachers in the state schools.”

He goes even further: “There’s a huge demand from people who have studied English in the state schools, studied it badly and realized they’ve got to have mother tongue teachers who know what they’re doing.”

What are the main stumbling blocks for Italians, according to Barley?

Grammar, he says, and pronunciation, as Italians are used to pronouncing virtually every letter in every word, and “the weirdness of English spelling.”

What, then, foils mother-tongue English speakers when they try to learn Italian?

Fabrizio Fucile, who directs a Dante Alighieri school at Piazza Bologna in Rome, which specializes in teaching Italian to foreigners, identifies the major problems as making articles, names and adjectives agree (“la lingua Italiano” instead of “la lingua Italiana”), getting agreement in tenses (“sono andato,” “sono andata”), followed by the use of prepositions (“da,” di,” “in,” “a”), and when to use the subjunctive.

For Dante Alighieri, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks cut into the steady traffic of Americans coming to Italy to learn the language. But countries like Japan, he notes, have helped fill the void. “[In Japan] there’s a great interest in everything about Italy, the language, the culture, the country C9 at least that’s the case at my school.”

The evidence suggests the trend is general. At the CRUSCA Academy, founded in Florence in 1583 to maintain the purity of the Italian language, data coming in from Italian cultural institutes around the world show interest in Italian growing, whether in China or Australia.

As for Kennedy, his lack of Italian continues to haunt him. He’s had to pay penalties because he couldn’t work out due dates written on bills. There was another time when he found himself eating unappetizing fried wrens at a country trattoria in a face-saving gesture after misreading the menu. But in his seventies, as a successful Englishman in Rome, he has no intention of backing away from the continuing challenge.

About the Author:

Suzanne Bush is a Rome-based British freelance journalist . She has previously worked as a regional TV journalist for Carlton Westcountry, as a producer and assistant program editor for the ITN News Channel in London, and as a producer for the BBC1 Breakfast programme. She has freelanced for BBC radio, BBC Online and has written newspapers in Britain, America and Australia. Bush was a reporter and editor for the Italian news agency ADN-Kronos before taking a writing and production job with Al Jazeera in London.