Untold stories: the Italian language is the 4 th most studied language in the world

Untold stories: the Italian language is the 4 th most studied language in the world

The perception of the reality

Maybe it depends on their glorious past: Italians tend to be (or to look) pessimistic about the present state of Italy – and about the importance of their Italian language, as a consequence.

No statistics are able to cure this widespread depressive view of the present state of Italy.

It is the 8th economy in the world, the 2nd industrial country in the EU, the 1st country in the world as far as UNESCO Cultural Heritage Sites are concerned, the 4th most studied language in the world… however, the perception of the ‘Told’ Italy tells about the Italian as a neglected language in the world, and when Italian people are told that their language is the 4th most studied in the world, they immediately think that there must be some mistake, that data must have been misinterpreted, that it is simply impossible that something does not go wrong.

“It cannot be true!”

On February 18th, 2019, when the Minister for Foreign Affairs Enzo Moavero Milanesi said that the Italian was the 4th most studied language in the world, the first reaction was it cannot be true.

I know it because I was there. (A video with the main parts of Moavero Milanese’s speech is available in the site of Italy’s leading economic newspaper, il Sole 24 ore)

In fact, the incorrect data hypothesis was the leading comment, at the beginning.

The second wave of comments belonged to the captatio benevolentiae hypothesis: the Minister was opening the Stati Generali dell’Italiano nel Mondo, the yearly summit about Italian in the world organized by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, therefore the Minister was someway flattering the participants, who were all engaged in the promotion and teaching of Italian in the world.

Moavero Milanesi, though, is a well-known and appreciated Eurocrat in Brussels, the type of person who does not need to flatter anyone, just like Mario Draghi and the like. Thus, the hypothesis lost momentum very soon.

A third wave of comments arrived a couple of hours later, after considering that it was unlikely for a Minister to flatter specialists with non-factual data. The new (and winning) comment was the ‘it makes no sense’ hypothesis: this sort of ranking, the same as university rankings and the like, makes little or no sense because too many variables should be taken into account, too many incomparable contexts should be analysed with the same parameters, too many indicators and descriptors should be considered, factual data are difficult to gather and available data are sometimes unreliable.

By the end of the day, the ‘untold’ Italian as the 4th most studied language in the world was cancelled by the’ told’ Italian pessimism: such rankings are unreliable, if not impossible, and they make no sense at all.

Where did the ‘untold’ data come from?

The data supporting the Minister’s statement were told by Ethnologue, a well known data base among language specialists, who consider it as the source, not just a source for language data.

Ethnologue started in 1951 and claims to be “the research center for language intelligence. We help our clients identify languages, find where they’re spoken, get population estimates, and more”.

Ethnologue publishes yearly an updated edition of the database, and the issue no. 21, published in 2018, reported that the Italian language was the 4th most studied language in the world, while French receded to the 5th place. Ethnologue’s data concerned Italian courses in the world (not in Italy, where Italian is studied by migrant workers, Erasmus students, and so on) in the academic year 2016/17, in 115 countries.

The data published in the 2018 edition showed that Italian, which is the 21st most spoken language in the world, was studied in formal courses by 2.145.093 students, and thus it was the 4th most studied language in the world, following English, Spanish and Mandarin Chinese.

Ethnologue is adamant in writing “Many people turn to the Ethnologue as their primary source for information about the state of the world’s languages and we are always happy to see that this resource is valued. However, there are some uses of the Ethnologue that aren’t justifiable given the nature of the data we report”.

The question then is: how reliable is the data that the Italian is the 4th most studied language in the world?

Absolute numbers (such as “there are 2.145.093 students of Italian in the world” in the 2018 Report quoted below) are obviously approximate. However, Ethnologue’s data can be safely used for comparisons as they are collected the same way for all languages being compared, and they are meant to provide a relative value (x is higher/lower than y) and not an absolutely one.

The correct rewording, in our case, is “the approximate number of Italian students in the world is lower than the approximate number of English, Spanish and Chinese students, and it is higher than the approximate number of students of other languages”.

What does it really mean for the country that our language is the 4th most studied language in the world?

Is Italian really the 4th most studied language in the world? The answer is not relevant. Should the data be incorrect, instead of the 4th place it would probably be the 5th, and it would be a very good ranking for the 21st language spoken in the world.

The relevant fact is that spreading the study of the Italian means spreading the touch points with Italy as it is told in textbooks.

Modern textbooks include videos, projects, tandem work (e.g. an Italian student learning German works with a German student learning Italian), webinars with the authors, reference websites, intercultural maps, an approach to Italian operas and songs, and so on. Today, language students do no longer focus only on grammar and lexicon, but they learn how to use grammar and lexicon, how to communicate with Italians; they learn about the Italian way of life and the Italian way of thinking, the Italian way of being Italians and Europeans: the more students learn Italy, the more attractive Italy becomes.

Another relevant fact goes without need of supporting data: people who study Italian buy the four Fs of Italian export: Food, Fashion, Furniture, Ferrari/Fiat. They come to Italy to study, they accept the presence of Italian companies and restaurants in their cities, they visit Italy on their holidays.

Other sources

The October 2018 Stati Generali dell’italiano nel mondo discussed the yearly Report L’italiano nel mondo che cambia – 2018. It was the 5th edition of the Ministry’s database concerning the teaching of the Italian language in the world, and it pointed out that the statistical tools that had been used for this edition were better in quality when compared with previous editions (p. 9-10). This means that a comparison between the 2018 data and the previous ones is not consistent, the previous ones being less reliable due to the lesser quality of statistical tools. Yet, even though 2017 vs 2018 comparison is somehow inconsistent, the 2018 Report shows 3.85% increase in the number of students learning Italian, when compared to the 2017 Report. This increase supports the information provided by Ethnologue about the increase of Italian students and the fact that in 2016-17 they outnumbered the students of French, putting Italian in the 4th place in the ranking of foreign languages taught in the world (the full Report is available here)

Both the data provided by Ethnologue and the ones in the 2018 Report of the Italian Ministry for Foreign Affairs seems to contradict the one provided by Eurostat in January 2018, which places the Italian at the 6th place in the EU (https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/web/products-eurostat-news/-/edn-20200925-1).

The discrepancy is more apparent that real, as the Eurostat data concern upper secondary school students, while 43% of the students learn Italian outside the school system (2018 Report, p. 11). Moreover, among the first 20 countries where Italian is studied, only 8 are members of the EU and are consequently included in the Eurostat ranking: ‘language markets’ such as Australia and the US, Argentina and Albania, Brazil and Canada, are left out.

What is the post-Covid19 situation?

The data above were published in 2018. Therefore it is not new data.

Yet, it is the only available data, the academic years 2019-20 and 2020-21 being in fact statistically incomparable with previous years because of the pandemic, which has emptied the out-of-school teaching contexts where 43% of the students attend courses.

For further information, please contact press@italyuntold.com


Italian is the fourth most studied language in the world
Author prof. Paolo Balboni

Author: Prof. Paolo E. Balboni

Honorary Professor, Senior Researcher, Ca’ Foscari University in Venice (DLCCS), Director of the Centre for Research in Educational Linguistics, Director of the Master Course & Teaching Italian as a Foreign Language, General Editor of the journal “Educazione Linguistica – Language Education” (EL.LE) and of the series Studies in Language Learning and Teaching (SAIL)

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