Why Study Italian?

La Maestra Maldestra

La Maestra Maldestra

Let’s just get this out in the open right from the start: Italian is not considered a particularly useful language.

Don’t gasp. Don’t cry. Don’t be surprised to hear this coming from me. I may love Italy and all things Italian, but I know the score.

In the grand scheme of the world, not that many people speak Italian. The big discussions between political leaders don’t happen in Italian, and not many people (other than those living in Italy) are forced to learn Italian at school. You don’t need to understand Italian to read Dante any more, and you don’t need to speak Italian to get a job unless you live in Italy. You don’t need it in order to travel around Italy because a ton of people there speak at least some English, and you don’t need it for immediate access to pop culture anywhere outside of Italy.

In today’s world of immediate gratification and propelled by the widespread need to do things for the main purpose  of “getting ahead”, why push yourself to eke out a bit of time from your jam-packed schedule to learn a language that isn’t going to help you in pretty much any tangible way? (At least, that’s what you think).

English is the language of the world, and any of us with it as our Mother Tongue should count ourselves lucky. English is it. Italian (and every other language) is out. Isn’t that the general consensus? 


I’m here to tell you that contrary to popular belief, Italian is useful.

It’s useful, it’s helpful, and it’s a language that, through its nature and the nature of its speakers, lends itself to being fun.

Knowing a second language in general is a good thing. It’s like gymnastics for your brain when you switch back and forth between the two. They say that people who know and use a second language, ward off alzheimer’s disease longer than their monolingual counterparts. Who doesn’t want that?

Also, if you tell me that Italian hasn’t been useful in my job hunts, I’ll eat my hat. I have had four, count them, FOUR jobs that knowing Italian has helped me get: my job working for a tour operator in Tuscany, a group leader for summer abroad students in Italy, writer for an Italian-Canadian magazine, and Italian instructor at a university. In a couple cases, my knowing Italian was the deal maker/breaker in my getting those job offers. Now tell me that it hasn’t been useful. And tell me that those jobs aren’t at least somewhat cool. Tell me!

You can’t do it. Because the jobs are cool, the experiences were/are amazing, and Italian has proved itself useful for helping to feed my salvadanaio (piggybank).

Then there’s the more “Italian” side to this argument, the touchy-feely side.

Think of how many more people you can talk to if you know a second language. And think about the people who speak Italian. There are a lot of real personaggi (characters) on that peninsula, and by knowing Italian, you get to talk to them. You get to get to know them. You get to read Dante in all his original 13th century splendour, and you get to listen to songs like “We No Speak Americano” and understand all the words.


We don’t study Italian because we need to, like everyone who studies English does. We don’t have that pressure. Our jobs, (well, most of them), our livelihoods, our families don’t depend on our knowledge of la bella lingua. But maybe that’s just it, the beautiful part of it all. We study Italian because we want to, not because we need to. Because the music of the language moves us to learn it, to engage in this “impracticality”, to throw some of our precious time to the wind and do something simple for the pleasure of being able to pronounce words like piacere.


And if I wasn’t convinced of the merits of knowing Italian before, a conversation with the owner of a language school in Rome this summer really tipped the scales for me.

Sarah,” he said, cigarette in hand, leaning casually on the railing of one of the school’s small balconies. “In this Italian school, we used to also share the space with an English school. Our two sets of students were completely different. The English ones, well, they didn’t want to come to class, they walked around with their heads down, all grey, you know,” he shrugged.

“But the ones who were studying Italian,” his eyes lit up and his voice took on a breathy quality.

“Sarah, the ones who were studying Italian were just more…” he waved his hand casually as he searched for the word. It didn’t take him long before he plucked it out of the Roman sunshine and gave it to me through a slow smile.

“… Beautiful.”

36 thoughts on “Why Study Italian?

  1. Brava! I study because it makes me happy! And next time I go to Italy I hope to order my food more eloquently than pointing and saying Questo. Today I Skyped and texted with new Italian penpals and it was so much fun. So much fun and such a beautiful language.

  2. Learning a second language opens up so many possibilities, not only for job prospects (as you’ve written) but also for the curiosity it creates in the ways people express themselves. Brava!

  3. Oh, I want to be one of those beautiful Italian students! I studied 3 months last year in Florence and loved it. Now if have started a weekly Italian course where I am living in France. Since I speak French as a second language and since French and Italian are both Latin languages, I sometimes mix them up. I will sometimes start a sentence in French and end it Italian or vice versa. I can always tell when I do this by the puzzled look on the listeners face. 🙂

  4. One of your best Sarah! In total agreement. Truly captures the heart of why we enjoy the language and anything associated with it! Grazie.

  5. I came accross your site because of my amore and makes me want to learn the Italian language, and I truly agree with this post that learning not because of your love of Italy or with an Italian but there’s some kind of orgasm in the brain when u can another language other than ur own. Cheers!

  6. “I love the language, that soft bastard Latin, 25
    Which melts like kisses from a female mouth,
    And sounds as if it should be writ on satin,
    With syllables which breathe of the sweet South,
    And gentle liquids gliding all so pat in,
    That not a single accent seems uncouth, 30
    Like our harsh northern whistling, grunting guttural,
    Which we’re obliged to hiss, and spit, and sputter all.”
    Lord Byron, Beppo, Stanzas 41–45

  7. It’s such a beautiful language and I love learning it…and you’re right, it keeps the brain working! And it’s such a feeling of satisfaction being able to understand even a few sentences in a conversation:)

  8. You never know when you will be able to use your Italian. At a hotel reception in Chicago with my friends, I commented on the Italian landscape picture on the wall, which generated a comment from the next table from a gentleman, who I soon discovered lived in Rome, with whom I enjoyed a 10 minute conversation in Italian. You guess never know ..,.

  9. Italian is my mother tongue, but I have learned, on my own, a little of english and now I try to learn german, a lifetime commitment, and brush up my rusty french… and I understand, I was forgetting, the dialect of my town.
    Since I’m not very clever I tend to mix up all the languages that I know; in time I will end like Salvatore crying out loud “penitenziagite”… but it is fun trying to learn others languages, you have more in return that just some notions.
    Non sono abituato a scrivere in inglese e avrò combinato qualche casino; del resto l’ho detto che non sono il più furbo del cesto :asd:

      • Quando andavo a scuola il mio indirizzo, ho fatto l’istituto d’arte, non prevedeva l’insegnamento di una lingua straniera e quindi, col tempo, ho dimenticato quel niente di francese che avevo imparato alle medie (avevo una insegnante bravissima; io, in compenso, ero proprio zuccone :asd:).
        Poi una mia amica ha sposato un americano, che non parla italiano, e quindi, per non lasciarlo fuori dalla conversazione, ho deciso di imparare io un po’ di inglese.
        Ho imparato guardando dei dvd in lingua originale di serie tv a me note, poi ho fatto un micro corso, di poche settimane (credo quattro), tanto per imparare un minimo di base grammaticale e per il resto ho letto, e leggo, molti libri in lingua e guardo film e serie tv in inglese; imparare l’inglese, per come lo conosco ovvio, è stato facile…complice anche il fatto che, volenti o nolenti, siamo esposti ad esso.
        Mi ci è voluto però un po’, circa due anni, per iniziare a scrivere in modo elementare; a parlare “tutti i santi aiutano”, si trova sempre un modo per ovviare a una qualche deficienza e si può sempre fare affidamento sulla comprensione dell’uditore, ma scrivere è diverso.
        Mi rendo conto che il mio livello di conoscenza della lingua inglese è basso, ma è funzionale a quello che mi serve.
        Il tedesco è diverso; è circa un anno che ci sono a dietro, ma conosco solo alcune parole e non mi sento ancora pronto per affrontare un libro per bambini delle elementari; un disastro…
        Il tuo blog l’ho trovato da un link messo da “studentessa matta”, che ho conosciuto su un forum e che ho avuto modo di vedere una volta che è venuta in vacanza in Italia, su facebook

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  11. I’ve just started to learn Italian (and Croatian) as I have moved to Istria. Whilst it might not be the most ‘useful’ to learn for the number of people who speak it, it is always useful to see how languages are related. And sometimes it is worth learning things just for the sake of learning them.

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  15. Sarah, I am probably gonna end up leaving a bunch of comments on your blog since I just stumbled upon it but in regards to this post, I’m a pharmacist in Alberta and I’ve had many the delightful conversation with Italian patients. And wherever my fiancee and I go, we meet Italians to speak with – New York, Cuba, you name it! 😀

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