Pizza, pasta, wine… Italy is incredibly popular among English speaking tourists. In fact, the country has millions of English speakers visit every year. But how many speak English in Italy? Can you get away with speaking English in Italy, without needing to know any Italian?
There are not many English speaking people in Italy, however if you visit the main tourist destinations – the big cities like Milan, Florence and of course, Rome – you will find there are more English speakers. Generally, it is a good idea to learn a little bit of Italian before visiting this beautiful country. Whilst there will be people who can speak English in Italy, you will find that many cannot speak English.
According to Wikipedia, it is estimated that only a third of the country can speak English. Of course, this report does not take into consideration the quality of the English spoken. Many of the locals cannot speak any English, or can only speak a few basic words. Because of this, you will get by a lot easier if you know a few common phrases in Italian.
If you compare Italy to more northern European countries like Sweden and Holland, the numbers are quite different. 80% to 90% of locals in the Northern European countries can speak English well enough to be able to understand you, and for you to be able to understand them!
However, as you travel further south in Europe, to countries like Italy and even if you look at how many people can speak English in Spain, the number of people who speak English is drastically lower. Many people in these countries cannot speak English, especially among the older generation. Being a southern European country, that sits on the beautiful Mediterranean sea, you should definitely learn some basic Italian to be able to communicate effectively whilst on holiday.
Can I speak English in Italy? Here’s what others have to say…
There are some good forum posts on Tripadvisor that speak about how many English there are in Italy, and whether you can speak English in Italy without needing to know any Italian. Here’s what someone said who visited recently:
You are traveling in touristy areas to you will be able to conduct basic business at tourist restaurants and hotels in English but it is very rude to not learn politeness phrases in the language of the country you visit. You can pick up the requisite greetings, thank yous and basic requests from a CD or tape you can listen to in the car –the difference between greeting people in their language and then throwing yourself on their linguistic mercy and just bulling along in English only really loud is night and day
And another from a regular visitors:
You do not have to learn to speak Italian. It would be polite to learn to say please,thankyou,good morning. All of these are found in every guide book. I have found Italy to be a very polite country and the custom seems to be to say “please”-per favore(pair fah-vor-ay)after every request and Good morning-Bon giorno(Bon-joor-no)BEFORE asking for anything,including buying train tix or asking for directions.
Many people in the tourist industry speak English BUT politeness gets you further.
As you can see, if you visit Italy and speak to those in the tourist industry, particularly restaurants and hotels, you can speak English without any problems. However it is common courtesy to learn at least a few basic Italian words and phrases. If you are visiting rural areas of Italy, you absolutely must learn Italian at least to a basic degree, or you will find yourself gesturing for your whole trip!
How many speak English in the big cities of Italy?
Let’s break things down a little further, and take a look at how many people speak English in Italy by city. Whilst this is not a definitive list, we’ve tried to cover the main tourist cities and destinations and mentioned how many speak English in these areas.
English in Bologna
Bologna is a popular area for English students to take part in a student exchange. It also has a good amount of business and wealth, and so English speakers are relatively common here. If you keep within the main old city, you should be fine to speak English in Bologna, at least with the younger generation!
English in Florence
Florence is an incredibly beautiful city, and also has a very high number of people who speak English here. The areas is popular with tourists and students, making it easy to speak English in Florence. If you stick to the centre of Florence, you can get by speaking English.
English in Milan
Milan is one of the northern cities of Italy, very close to the Swiss border, making the city a popular destination for tourists. It is a city with many people who can speak English here. The city is a centre of business activity, and many highly educated professionals work and live in Milan, most of whom can speak English well. In general, you can speak English in Milan easily, because there are normally a few people near who can speak English to you, or translate to someone else if needed.
English in Naples
Naples sits in the southern regions of Italy, and the amount of English speakers here are few and far between. As always, customer-facing businesses like hotels and larger restaurant chains will speak some basic English, and may even have some menus in English, but other than that it will be in Italian. If you want to speak English in Naples, then you will struggle in most areas outside of the tourist attractions.
English in Rimini
This beautiful seaside town in the northern region of Italy is far more local than many of the other cities we’ve mentioned. Whilst you can speak some English in the main tourist areas, such as at restaurants, you should definitely learn some Italian words if you visit Rimini. Many of the hotels will have some English speaking staff members, but they won’t all speak English. Interestingly, the city has a lot of tourists from Russia who visit. If you speak some Russian, you may get better results than speaking English. It will be difficult to speak English in Rimini consistently, so you should try and learn a few Italian phrases.
English in Rome
As the capital of Italy, Rome is very popular with English speakers. The country is covered in incredible Roman history, and welcomes millions of tourist every year, from all over the world. You will find that hotel staff, restaurant staff and the main tourist areas have a good amount of English speakers. If you venture outside of the main areas, you will find less English speakers, but you should still be able to speak English in Rome, as long as you stick to the main areas.
English in Venice
“The floating city” of Venice is another popular tourist attraction, because of its unique maze of canals that run throughout the city. Because there are so many English speaking visitors here, you should be fine to speak English in the main areas. Restaurant and hotel staff will have a solid enough grasp on English to be able to communicate on a basic level. Generally you will find guides and maps in many languages, including English. Because of all fo this, you can speak English in Venice.
English in Verona
Main tourist destinations in Verona have English speaking staff members, however you will find that only the younger ones can speak good English. As Verona is less popular than some of the other cities in Italy, you should learn some simple phrases in Italian to make sure you get by. As long as you do this, you can speak English in Verona, after attempting a little Italian to endear yourself to the locals!
Overall, you will find that you can speak English in Italy, if you are in the northern cities and in the main tourist areas. As you start to venture south of Rome, you will find English is much less common. The only exception to this is Puglia, where there are a lot of English speaking expats.
Speaking English in Italian Restaurants, hotels and trains
Large, popular cities where there are a lot of tourists (Rome, Venice and Milan for example) have a much larger amount of English speakers, and generally you will be able to speak English in these cities – particularly in the tourist areas. These cities receive many tourists who speak English every year, particularly in the hotter summer months.
Milan has a large number of English speakers also, mainly because of its location to Switzerland, and the vast number of international businesses that are setup here. Of course, if you’re visiting the world famous Roman colosseum, the religious Vatican City and the floating city of Venice you will be able to speak English in most places, as these areas are very touristy.
Italy is well known for its pasta and pizzas, but speaking English in Italian restaurants can be a little sporadic. There are many small pizzeria’s, with a local old Italian family running it. Whilst these places produce incredible food, and are usually packed full of tourists, you may find that some of the staff do not speak very good English. Having said that, most of these restaurants will cater for English speaking visitors, and will provide English menus.
If you need to take transport, you can grab a local taxi. It’s a bit of a gamble whether your driver will speak English well or not. If they don’t, you may find yourself being dropped off at the wrong place! Because of this, try to learn a few basic Italian phrases for directions, and learn how they pronounce the popular tourist destinations. If you can, write down the name and address of your hotel, so you can simply show them where to go!
If you come across someone who cannot speak English very well, it’s not all bad news. The Italians are incredibly friendly people, and will try and strike up a conversation with you anyway. Football is like a religion in Italy, so you will likely find yourself having a broken English/Italina conversation about whether Juventus are better than Milan.
In the main tourist cities, you will find that train stations cater well for English speakers. They sometimes have English signs, or at least will have staff member who can speak some English to help you get by!
A word of warning though, you MUST stamp your tickets for your bus or train before you get on! Italy have green ticket stamping machines that punch the time and date on your ticket. Make sure to do that before you jump on board the train or bus, or you may find yourself getting hit with a fine by the local authorities.
Sadly this common mistake has landed a lot of English speakers into hot water. In fact, some of the regions that struggle to make as much money, are finding new ways to rinse tourists of their holiday cash. They are using fines to get more money, and taking advantage of the language barrier to do it.
Once you start going away from the large tourist cities and hit the smaller towns and coastal regions, you will find there are not many English speakers around. If you’re planning to explore some of the stunning smaller Italian villages, you should definitely try and pick up a few basic Italian phrases first.
This is because a lot of the older generation in Italy cannot speak English, and they tend to be away from the tourist areas. Anyone under 40 years of age will probably be able to speak some English however, as they would have been taught English during school. Having said that, many younger ones cannot speak good English, or only know a few basic phrases. It’s unlikely you can speak in depth with a local, so make sure you know a few Italian words and phrases!
Learn Italian words and phrases before trying to speak English in Italy
If you look around the forums of the internet, you will notice a common agreement: It is very important to at least try and speak some Italian, even if it is basic, when visiting Italy. Italian locals are far more appreciative when you make an effort, even if you fail miserably. If you just decide to brashly speak English everywhere, and hope they will be ok with it, you’ll be in for a shock.
We’ve come across a video on Youtube that helps with some basic phrases you should probably learn before visiting Italy:
In summary, you can speak English in Italy if you visit the main tourist cities. Restaurants, hotels and many staff at larger shops will be able to speak English. However, English is not very well spoken in Italy, so you will be safer to learn a few basic phrases. If you decide to visit smaller, less touristy areas, you will not be able to speak English for the entire visit. The locals are kind and friendly however, and will respond well if you try and speak a little Italian, mixed with gestures and a smile!