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[Robert J. Fouser] Thinking about language and respect in Italy

A two-week visit to Italy recently revealed much about the state of language in the early 21st century. Apart from sightseeing, I was interested in seeing how much Italian I could learn casually as I traveled.

The biggest impression about language on the trip was the spread of English. On a visit to Italy nearly 30 years ago, I remember meeting many people who spoke no or little English, even in major tourist cities such as Florence or Venice. Traveling in Italy meant meeting the language barrier head on.

This time, almost everybody under 40 spoke English with varying degrees of confidence and fluency. English is now the de facto official language in the center of Florence and, depending on the location, more English is heard than Italian. Most written information is presented in Italian and English. For someone interested in learning Italian, Florence is not the best place.

I also visited Vicenza, Padua and Bologna, which have far fewer tourists than Florence. Written information aimed at tourists is in Italian and English, but restaurants and shops provide information mostly in Italian only. Most people under 40 speak English readily and, unlike Florence, some seemed pleased to have the chance to do so. In Bologna, home to a big university that is also the world’s oldest, young people seemed pleased with the chance to practice their English.

The prevalence of English made it hard to learn Italian, so I decided to focus on learning how to pronounce greetings and basic vocabulary well. Learning a language signals respect for the people who speak it, and learning how to pronounce it well signals even more respect.

This approach relied on greeting in Italian and then asking to switch to English before greeting again in Italian as a sign of thanks. This worked well and might explain why nearly all my encounters during the trip were pleasant. It also helped smooth communication in the few cases where English did not work.

The other interesting linguistic trend was the prevalence of non-native speaker conversations, both in English and Italian. Most of the tourists speaking English in Florence are not native speakers. Some are bilingual in English and another language, but many, like the Italians they speak to, learn English as a foreign language in school.

A close look at interaction in non-native-speaker communication confirms what linguists have found. Speakers simplify, focusing on clarity over style. To native speakers, conversations can sound abrupt and pronunciation stilted, but simple politeness markers help it to move smoothly. The focus is on the message, not form.

Like many European nations, Italy is now a country of immigrants, with about 10 percent of the population being born in a foreign country. This means that meeting a non-native speaker of Italian happens all the time. Many of the people that I practiced Italian with were indeed immigrants. Fluency in English varied, but, as in the case of non-native English conversations, the focus was on the message and things always ended with respectful greetings in Italian.

The big takeaway from all of this is that language in the 21st century mirrors how computers and cell phones work. English is like an operating system used to link users of other languages to one another; it is no longer the “property” of native speakers. Nobody really cares what native speakers think or how they feel so long as the message in “OS English” is clear and given with respect.

Instead of a division between native and non-native speakers, we have a continuum of English use. This places importance on developing proficiency to use English for life and work goals. A native speaker of English who cannot write is at a disadvantage, just as a non-native speaker cannot get a desired job because of English proficiency.

South Korea has adapted well to the rise of OS English. The emphasis on basic proficiency that took hold in the 1990s and the rapid diffusion of the internet in the 2000s have given younger generations greater proficiency in English. They travel abroad and use English at home with greater confidence.

To build on this progress, English education in South Korea needs to free itself of the idea that native speakers are standard-setting owners of the language. Instead of worrying about pronunciation to please native speakers, English education should focus on developing proficiency to deliver messages effectively -- and with respect -- in English.

Robert J. Fouser
Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He can be reached at -- Ed.
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