Bologna is a very nice city in the Emilia Romagna region in the north of Italy. It’s known for being quite wealthy, and having excellent cuisine. There are pizzerias, cafes and restaurants everywhere you turn! It’s definitely a “foodies” city, but just how common is English spoken there? Can you get by in Bologna only speaking English? Or is it better to have some Italian?
Having lived there myself in a couple of stints, I can speak from personal experience of how common English is there:
English is moderately widely spoken in the center of Bologna, since it’s a university town with a lot of younger people, plus it does receive some British exchange students. However, it is nowhere near universally spoken, and for longer stays there, it is highly recommended to learn some Italian to help with daily life.
If I had to scale it, I’d probably say there’s less English spoken there than really touristy cities like Rome and Milan, but more than other cities or in Italy as a whole, which are not so student focused and have older populations. It’s probably somewhere in the middle – Some English is spoken, but not nearly everywhere.
If you are living there long term, it’s much better to learn some Italian. Let’s look at the whole issue of English in Bologna in more detail.
English Is Moderately Common in Bologna
From my experience living there, I wouldn’t say English is widely spoken in Bologna, but enough spoken to get by, and quite common in some areas, but not all.
Here’s a run down of the levels of spoken English I encountered living there:
- As a university town, and with a strong student-exchange connection with the UK, English is more widely spoken than most other Italian cities.
- Most young people you bump into inside the main city walls and close to the university should be able to speak a bit of English. Older people less so.
- Outside the main city walls, going down one of the many main roads that leads off from the circular road surrounding the main walls, English is less commonly spoken and hit and miss.
- Cafe’s and small eateries are hit and miss. Sometimes they’ll speak a bit, mostly not though.
- There are multiple pizzerias on most streets, but English is hit and miss. Sometimes they’ll speak a bit, sometimes not. You’re best pointing and using a bit of Italian: “vorrei uno questi per favore” (I’d like one of these please).
- There is also a sizeable Asian community in Bologna, running small groceries shops, off licences, internet cafe’s, phone shops, print shops etc, some of whom will speak English as well.
- Large supermarkets – mostly not spoken from my experience. It helps to have some Italian to converse at places like Esselunga
- Via Largo shopping center – large shopping center outside town. English was actually a bit more common here – there’s a tech store, and some food places.
- Banks – again hit and miss. Some branches will have at least one member of staff who can speak English. There are some Barclays branches there that are better to deal with for English speakers if you can find them.
Can You Visit Bologna Only Speaking English? (Without Italian)
Just visiting Bologna for a holiday, you’re totally fine using English, plus the usual tourist pointing sometimes, plus some basic Italian words for common courtesy. You can get by totally fine on short trips, since English is spoken at enough of the places you get food and go visit.
When I first landed there many years ago, I didn’t know any Italian and I got by fine on my initial trip just using English plus pointing.
Can You Live In Bologna Only Speaking English?
This is where it gets a bit more tricky, since English is not spoken everywhere.
If you plan to live in Bologna long term, it is strongly recommended to learn some Italian, since it will make daily life much easier and also help dealing with the bureaucratic Italian system, plus in shops where English isn’t spoken.
In other words, it just makes it easier to get by if you can speak some Italian. I confirm this from my own experience. I did learn some basic Italian in my stay there, but I wish I had learned more, as it would have helped me broaden out more socially and just get things done easier.
I got by fine for a year just using English and beginner level Italian (I learned the Michel Thomas way, with a strong focus on learning and using core verbs). But I wish I had improved my vocabulary as well and taken classes to get myself up to at least intermediate level. It would have made my life a lot easier as I did get into some situations where there was a language barrier and I didn’t know enough Italian to express myself to the other person.
For long term living in Bologna, here are some other scenarios where having some Italian proficiency will help:
- Opening up bank accounts
- Possibly getting loans, mortgages, credit cards (contracts likely only in Italian)
- Setting up mobile phone/internet contracts (only in Italian)
- Setting up utilities contracts (gas/electric/water).
- Getting your car fixed if you drive
- Getting broken AC fixed (especially in summer)
- Dealing with residence visas/permits if applicable
- Buying property
- Signing long term rental agreements
- Opening up businesses
In other words, just daily life “stuff” that’ll crop up no matter where you’re living, where the people you need to deal with to get it sorted may not speak English, and you’ll get things done a lot quicker by speaking in Italian.
Can You Study In Bologna Only Speaking English? (No Italian)
The answer here is quite surprising as Bologna is a very strong Erasmus/exchange type city, with a strong international presence.
It is possible to study courses at the University of Bologna that are taught entirely in English. The university offers a large selection of degree courses in different topics that are all delivered in English and don’t require any Italian to participate.
See here for a list of such English language courses available from the University of Bologna.
This is great news for prospective masters students especially, since it is totally possible to enroll on all-English courses in Bologna, and you get to live in a great Italian city studying them. However, the same advice as above still applies regarding living there – whilst you can interact with the University system pretty much speaking only English, it’s still useful to learn Italian for dealing with other aspects of life while living there.
Can You Work In Bologna Only Speaking English?
Working in Bologna is a totally different matter to just living there as a retiree/expat, and since English is not universally spoken there, you can’t really rely on it to work.
As a general rule, it is not possible to work in Bologna without speaking some Italian, since English is only partially spoken and not ubiquitous. A possible exception might be working for an international company there, but for dealing with most Italian locals in a job, you’ll need to speak the local language.
This goes for all retail/customer jobs, and pretty much any Italian company – they’re going to require Italian language skills as a requirement for the job.
A sort of middle ground might be working for British School or another TOEFL style job (teaching English as a foreign language). With these jobs, you might get away with beginner to intermediate level Italian, since most of your work is teaching English. But you’ll still need some Italian to communicate to students; but just less than other jobs.
Another option might be if you get placed there by an international company. Bologna does have a strong industrial base, and there are some multi-nationals like Amazon, Tetra Pak, Capgemini Engineering, UPS, Maserati and Ferrari that are based in Bologna (see here for a full list). There might be some opportunities that that only require English, or a small amount of Italian.
Learning Some Basic Italian Phrases
The bottom line is that for pretty much any stay in Bologna that’s longer than a holiday, it’s highly recommended to learn some Italian to help you integrate and get by easier.
The basics of Italian are actually not that hard; see the video and table below for some starter words:
|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 ban-yo?|
|I'd like this please||Vorrei questa per favore||Vorrey kwesta per favoor-eh|
|Take out/eat in (for food)||Porta via/mange qui||Porta via/manje kwee|
|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|
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Getting truly fluent in Italian is not easy and takes 1-2 years of living there (lessons will speed this up). It can be a hard language to learn and follow because it moves so fast, plus there are different word structures and endings for different tenses plus genders. But it can be done; it just takes a bit of persistence.
Tips For Being Understood in English In Bologna
If you do have to use English with local people in Bologna, many will only speak basic English, and you’ll need to speak in a way you can be understood. Here are some tips for this:
- 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
Some Useful Resources For Visiting Or Moving To Bologna
Here are links to some useful resources if you’re planning on moving to Bologna to live:
- Blogs – See here for a good blog on visiting Bologna that can also be useful for living there long term.
- Italian Classes – See here for an excellent page on in-person and online Italian classes available in Bologna for all abilities. You can do them as intensive “crash courses”, or spread out more over time – different formats are available.
- Visas – Like Portugal, Italy does have a Golden Visa Program, which offers an easier path to residency than the standard routes. However, a sizeable investment into Italy is required to get it. See here for more.
- Schools/Kids – The International School of Bologna is your main option here. Beware, fees are not cheap….
- Banking – If you’re using a foreign bank card to draw out euros at an ATM in Italy, you’re likely to get stung with high fees. See our guide on some good multi-currency card options to spend in euros for free, and also withdraw money from ATMs cheaply in Euro-using countries.
- Phones/SIM Cards – Many phones are locked and won’t accept foreign SIM cards. For getting a working local SIM card and number in Italy without spending loads of money, see this article.