Are you wondering if you can visit Italy without speaking Italian? This article explains why where you are in Italy and whom you engage determines if you need to speak Italian. Plus, the difference between the need to speak Italian in Italy as a tourist compared to moving to Italy.
“Do you need to speak Italian in Italy?” There’s a reason why I often do and always love fielding this question.
I started writing about traveling in Italy ten years ago. At the time, I got by in Italy with English. In part because Paolo did all the talking back then. Also, at that time, we were traveling to popular tourist destinations in Italy like Rome, Venice, Tuscany, and Cinque Terre.
However, living in Italy means speaking Italian is critical for two reasons. First, we can now focus on traveling to the hidden gems of Italy in the off-season to places like Spoleto, Lake Orta, and Sorano, where few people speak English. Second and more importantly, day-to-day life in Italy is in Italian.
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How to Speak Italian in Italy as a Tourist (Or Not)
Google Translate has made traveling in Italy as a non-Italian-speaking tourist far easier. For example, take the photo below. While meeting Paolo for lunch in Torino at the Mercato Centrale, my Italian language skills failed me. I was trying to understand what this sign said.
After trying to translate it for ten minutes and still getting stuck, I took the shortcut and used the camera feature on the Google Translate app.
The Google Translate App now makes short work of arduous or impossible translation tasks.
To illustrate, I have included pictures of a pizzeria menu in Italy below.
The first photo is of the original menu. Meanwhile, the second photo shows a translation using the Google translator camera option.
Pretty amazing right? In other words, tourists can get by in Italy without speaking Italian.
That said, if you know just a few phrases in Italian, you will get more out of a trip to Italy. Hence the three videos with basic Italian below.
Why You Need to Speak Italian to Live in Italy
If you are contemplating moving to Italy, you need to speak Italian. Either that or be willing and able to learn. Here’s why.
Estimates vary, but statistically speaking, between 13% and 34% of Italians speak English. In other words, the majority of Italians do not speak English.
Italy is one of the countries with the lowest percentage of English speakers in Europe. Additionally, nearly 80% of Italians speak exclusively Italian when interacting with strangers.
Do Italians Speak English in Italy?
Some Italians do learn English in school. However, just like you and me, unless they use their new second language regularly, they forget it.
I am not being judgmental of Italians because I understand forgetting a second language. After studying German for three years, the only phrase I remember is “Ich bin Ausländer und spreche nicht gut Deutsch. Auf Englisch bitte?” Translation “I’m a foreigner and do not speak German well. In English please?”
More often than not, Italians who speak English tend to work in international companies, higher education, hospitality, or leave Italy to work in another country.
None of which will be helpful for you as a foreigner living in Italy because these are not the people you deal with in day-to-day life.
Where You Need to Speak Italian in Italy
If you decide to move to Italy, you will quickly find you need to speak Italian for daily tasks. That includes the pharmacy, post office, deli counter, bakery, butcher, banks, farmers market, vineyards, medical offices, and local Comune (city hall).
Because the people working these jobs are committed to living in Italy and deal almost exclusively with Italians, they speak Italian.
Perhaps most importantly, if you ever face a critical medical issue and need care, you must speak Italian. Lastly, non-EU citizens who will need to eventually get an Italian driver’s license must pass a test in Italian.
In short, who you will be dealing with makes the difference between traveling in Italy, where you can get away with English, and living In Italy, where Italian is necessary.
So while you can get away with English as a tourist in big cities, you need to speak Italian to live a happy, robust, integrated life in Italy. Otherwise, you risk becoming isolated and not understanding the world around you.
The one caveat? The bigger the city, the more English is spoken. However, la dolce vita is not living in a big city. Like in other countries, city living is more expensive. So it’s a bit of a catch-22 if you want to move to Italy for a slower pace of life.