When I moved to Milan in January 2022, there was one question that seemed to linger in people's minds: "Do people in Italy speak English? How will you survive?"
Reporting back nearly two years later, I've found that the answer might surprise you!
My Life Among the Locals
Despite not being a fluent Italian speaker, I’ve immersed myself quite well into the Italian lifestyle. I work remotely from my monolocale (studio apartment) in Milan, and I meet up with my Italian friends and colleagues numerous times per month.
My inner circle consists of two Italian best friends, and I'm also friendly with my Italian neighbours, coworkers, and various Italian friends of friends. As an introvert, I'd say my social life here is very full and very localized.
Since I don't speak fluent Italian yet, I've befriended these Italians by speaking English!
English in Everyday Italian Life
Contrary to the stereotype, my experience reveals that Italians—especially those in Northern and Central Italy—are very comfortable speaking English. I'd wager that the average English level for an Italian in their 20s or 30s is around B2 (upper intermediate), with many people hitting the C1 mark (advanced).
Having previously lived in Norway for 2.5 years, I admire how confident Italians are when speaking English. Norwegians—despite their high English test scores—seemed more reluctant to switch from Norwegian to English. They valued speaking their native language, sometimes to the point of excluding non-Norwegian speakers in social settings.
In Italy, I’ve found the opposite. Italians are very curious and open towards foreigners, and they often switch to English even when you start a conversation in Italian! I'm not sure if they do it to make me comfortable or just to practice their English, but either way, Italians tend to lean into the conversation.
There are also numerous remote and on-site job opportunities in Italy for English speakers, especially if you work in the technology or digital marketing sectors. Italian recruiters frequently message me on LinkedIn, in English, to recruit me for software development and experimentation roles on English-speaking teams!
The Correlation Between Age and English Proficiency in Italy
Breaking down the stereotype further, it’s not only young Italians who speak and understand English. In my travels across Italy, I've rarely encountered anyone under age 55 who struggled significantly with English. At worst, they'll understand 80% of what I'm saying and reply with some nonstandard English grammar, but that is more than sufficient for a normal conversation.
Even older Italians can speak a high level of English. When I was signing the lease for my current apartment, my 70-year-old landlord spoke with me in Italian, but his wife insisted on speaking English. Her accent was so good that I assumed she was half-British!
If all else fails, the Italian hand gestures can lead the way.
The stereotype that Italians don’t speak English is outdated and inaccurate. I've found that many Italians, both old and young, are willing and able to converse in English.
A large swath of Italians can speak and understand English, and they do it with the same confidence, gesturing and charm that they use when speaking their native tongue! Don't let the perceived language barrier scare you away from visiting or moving to this passionate country.