Italy is a very popular tourist destination for English speakers, and receives millions of tourists every year from the US and UK alone, but how widely spoken is English in Italy? Will you be able to get by with just English traveling to this wonderful country?
English is not very widely spoken overall in Italy, although there is a reasonable prevalence of English speakers in larger cities like Rome, Florence and Milan. It is not advised to visit Italy without learning at least some basic Italian phrases, since you cannot count on every person you meet being able to speak English.
Recent estimates suggest that about 34% or just over a third of Italians are able to speak English. Many of this one third proportion will only be able to speak very basic English however; truly fluent English speakers are actually quite rare in Italy and so it will help enormously for tourists to have some basic Italian phrases learned before visiting there.
This is where the contrast between Northern and Southern Europe starts to become more clear. In countries like the Netherlands and Sweden you can expect pretty much 8 or 9 out of every ten people you meet on the street to understand and be able to fluently speak English.
In Southern European countries like Spain and Italy, this is not the case and the proportion of English speakers is much lower, with many of this minority only able to grasp very basic English as well. It Italy as with other Mediterranean countries, you will need to learn a bit of the native language to help you get by easier.
Here is a good summary of the prevalence of English as a whole across Italy and in the major cities:
“English is really hit or miss when you look at the country as a whole, but in some of the major cities with a lot of travelers like Rome, Milan, Florence- people tend to have a decent amount of English to work with people coming in and out of town. And even in smaller places where they don’t speak much English, Italians tend to be very friendly and will try to work with you to figure things out.
Only Romans have a reputation for being grumpy, and that really only happens much in the heat of the late summer ;). A pocket dictionary should suffice…or a list printed out and taken with you of some important words and phrases.”
And other good account of the general low level of English speakers from a native Italian:
“I have very few Italian friends who can speak even passable English.
Only the high-end stores and restaurants have employees who speak English.
White-collar workers and people who travel a lot for work will probably speak it better, but don’t count on being able to communicate in English while visiting the country.
In places like Sweden on Holland you can pretty much count on anyone on the street understanding English and being able to reply easily – not so much in the Mediterranean countries.”
Put simply, if you are dealing with people who are dealing with tourists a lot in the main cities, you should be mostly fine. Elsewhere you cannot really count on English being widely spoken and having some basic Italian will really help you.
Spoken English in Major Italian Cities
Here is a quick overview of the reported prevalence of English speakers in different Italian cities commonly visited by tourists and businessmen. Take each comment as a summary of the most common general tourist account of how widely spoken English is in each city.
Rome – The vast majority of the people on the well worn tourist paths will know enough English to do their jobs. This includes staff in hotels, restaurants, and tourist shops and destinations. Less so in more general supermarkets, shops and out of the main tourist centers. Waiter’s English may also be only very basic, enough to take orders but not much more. Romans also appreciate tourists making at least a basic effort with some Italian words and phrases – see further below for more on this.
Florence – Has a higher level of English proficiency, one of the highest in the country along with Milan. Has lots of English speaking students and tourists, and so people are more ready to communicate in English. Staying in the center of Florence, you can easily get by just using English.
Milan – Again reasonably high levels of English speakers compared to the rest of Italy, since it is an international business hub and has a lot of well educated people there who will have been taught some English. Will usually be at least one person nearby who speaks English, even if you have to ask a few different people.
Venice – Receives millions of English speaking tourists each year so English proficiency is decent enough to a basic level in the main central tourist areas and hotels, restaurants, museums etc. Most staff here will know enough to complete an order or give you directions, but don’t expect in depth conversations in English. Most of the maps and guides are also multi-lingual as well with English translations.
Verona – A decent level of English among younger people that deal with touristy things – hotels, cafes, restaurants. As with most places in Italy, having some basic Italian phrases is appreciated by the locals. No one reports any problems getting by despite any language barriers.
Bologna – A wealthy, well educated city so English proficiency is reasonable, especially inside the old city walls and close to the university, which receives a fair amount of English exchange students each year. Younger people will likely speak at least a few words; proficiency is less among older people and outside the main city walls.
Rimini – Northern seaside resort town. Some people associated with the tourist trade – gift shops and restaurants – will speak English, but nowhere near everyone. Coverage is patchy and lower than some of the bigger cities. Most hotels will have at least one person who speaks English. Receives lots of Russian tourists; less prepared for English speaking visitors. Having some Italian phrases will really help – see below.
Naples – More towards the south of Italy so expect proficiency to be lower. Will be spoken a little in bigger restaurants, hotels and touristy areas but outside of this expect spoken English to be rare. Some menus may be in English but don’t count on it. Will ideally need some basic Italian when visiting Naples, and the accent can be quite difficult to understand at first. Will need Italian for dealing with police, government paperwork, hospitals and stations.
Summary – In very general terms, northern Italian cities have the most English speakers, with proficiency falling off in the central and southern Italian cities below Rome. An exception to this general rule is Puglia on the south “heel” of Italy – a large number of English expats have moved there so proficiency there is higher.
Getting By in Hotels, Restaurants, Tourist Destinations and for Transport
In larger cities like Rome, Milan and Venice it is usually much easier to get by, since almost all hotels will have at least one person that speaks English and these areas are more used to receiving English speaking tourists every single year in the summer especially.
English is also very widely spoken in the white collar worker community in Milan, since it is an international business hub with lots of English speakers moving in and out and lots of cross border business requiring English to make it run smoother.
Similarly, the more popular tourist destinations like the Vatican and the Colloseum and Venice have signs and guide leaflets available in all the major languages including English, so you will have no problem there.
Restaurants can be more hit and miss, but if there are any problems you can always get by with pointing towards what you want and using the basic Italian phrases – “Per favore” and “grazie” for please and thank you. You will find many menus translated into English as well.
For taxis again it can be hit and miss, which is why it is always good to carry a business card for the hotel you are staying at if they have one, so you can simply hand it to the driver so he knows where to take you.
The ones that do speak English will be very friendly and inquisitive, asking where you are from and which football team you follow if you are British – football and Formula 1 are the sporting religions over there!
Train stations are well prepared for receiving lots of English speaking tourists, and so will have staff able to help. The signs will also sometimes be in English as well for some of the bigger stations, but not the smaller ones.
As a caution, be very careful to validate all train and bus tickets purchased before travelling in the “convalida” stamp machines – they are green in the train stations and you feed your ticket in to have it punched with a date and time.
If you forget to do this you will get a fine for not validating the ticket. There are almost never any signs in English telling you to do this and the train and bus conductors are very clever and opportunistic in targeting unwitting foreigners who did not realize they needed to validate the ticket.
Fining tourists has become a business in some cash strapped regions and it is one of the more unpleasant sides of Italy that exploits the language barrier with tourists. That being the case, trains are probably the best way to get around for tourists visiting different cities.
Click here to purchase train tickets in advance online from Italiarail. All major credit cards are accepted. Prices can be cheaper if you book in advance.
As you move away from the larger cities to smaller or less touristy places like Puglia, Brescia, Bologna, Rimini and to an extent Naples, you will find English much less prevalent and will need to rely on Italian phrases and gesturing more to get by.
Similarly, many older Italians will not speak English, since they were not taught it at school. Younger Italians under the age of 40 will likely have been taught some English so you will have better luck with the younger generations.
However, even among these younger people, they will usually only be able to speak very basic English, often amounting to a few key words and phrases. You are very unlikely to be able to hold a detailed, in depth conversation in English with anyone you meet, which is where your trusty Italian phrasebook can come in.
Make An Effort to Learn Some Basic Italian
All of the sources and forums we consulted were in agreement on this. It is important in Italy more than most countries to make at least some effort to use some Italian phrases, however basic, to converse with the locals.
Italians really do appreciate tourists making the effort to at least try and converse in Italian, and will respond very well if you do try. Fitting the stereotype of the loud, arrogant tourist who just expects everyone to speak English everywhere they go will not go down well in Italy.
See the embedded video and table for some of the more basic Italian phrases to uses which will help you to get by in hotels, restaurants, shops and bars.
|How are you? (formal/friendly)||Come stai/sta?||Com-eh sty/sta?|
|Fine, thanks||Bene, grazie||Beh-ne grat-see-eh|
|Please||Per favore||Per favoor-eh|
|Sorry||Mi dispiace||Me dis-piar-chey|
|Sorry/excuse me (informal)||Scusi||Scoosi|
|Do you speak English?||Parla inglese?||Parla inglay-sey?|
|Speak slowly||Parla lente||Parla lentay|
|Where's the bathroom?||Dov'e il bagno?||Do-vay eel bahn-yo?|
|I'd like this please||Vorrei questa per favore||Vorrey kwesta per favoor-eh|
|1/2 beers please||Uno/Due birra(e) per favore||Oono/doo-ey birra(eh) per favoor-eh|
|1/2 tickets please||Uno/Due biglietto(i) per favore||Oono/doo-ey billyetto(i) per favoor-eh|
Tips For Being Understood in English
If you do have to resort to English, the chances are that the person will not be very fluent, so you will have to take steps to make sure you are properly understood. Here are some general pointers:
- Speak clearly and slowly.
- Use simple, easy to understand words – no slang or clever words.
- Use simple, short sentences, don’t go off on tangents or rambles.
- Try to speak in the simple present tense – “I go to …..tomorrow” instead of the more complex conditional or future tense (I will go to…. tomorrow.). Italians understand and speak in the simple present tense best.
Language & Travel Essentials For Visiting Italy
NB. Some links are affiliate links
- See here and here for some popular travel guides for visiting Italy.
- See here on Amazon for a pocket Italian phrasebook to take around with you.
- For highly rated online language learning, check out Babbel’s online course in Italian. Very popular and effective learning model to get people quickly conversational in their chosen language, stress free and usually within 5 lessons.
- If you prefer verb based learning, check out our Michel Thomas course page – there are beginner, intermediate and advanced courses in Italian using the Michel Thomas method.
- Click here to book your flights, hotels and more using the popular Agoda booking tool, with free cancellation and over 2 million hotels to choose from worldwide.
- Travel Insurance – Click here to view travel insurance policies for visiting Italy and get a quote online.
- You can get train tickets online from Italiarail here. Prices are often cheaper if you book in advance.
- If your credit or debit cards carry hefty foreign transaction and ATM charges for foreign use, consider a Pre-paid Visa or Mastercard as a cheaper option: