Opting for Inglese prose and Italian poetry

March 22, 2002

Globalisation has increased the need for better communication. THES reporters look at universities that are promoting English as the common language.

When Silvio Berlusconi's conservative government came to power in June, the watchword for education in schools and universities was what it called "the three Is" - internet, information technology and Inglese.

This theme was repeatedly and enthusiastically endorsed by the education minister Letizia Moratti and other politicians and education officials.

But so far there have been few concrete developments and it is only in the private sector that teaching in English has made any significant inroads.

At the independently funded Universita Bocconi in Milan, Italy's most hallowed temple of economics and management studies, a complete degree course in international economics and management has been taught exclusively in English since 2001.

The degree caters for a 50/50 mix of Italian and foreign students and employs many foreign lecturers. In addition, there are a number of postgraduate courses, in the university, and its business school, which uses English as its basic language. This was also done to encourage foreign visiting professors.

Many state universities offer degree courses in which a good knowledge of English is required, or in which an English language course is a compulsory part of the syllabus. One example of the latter is the degree in communication sciences at Rome's La Sapienza University.

There are also two private universities in Rome, John Cabot University and The American University in Rome, which provide an American-style college education in English. Some students are the children of American expatriates, but the majority are Italians who believe an English-language university career can provide a broader range of job opportunities.

"To be able to use English fluently in a professional context is an enormous competitive advantage," said Franco Pavoncello, dean of John Cabot. "It means, of course, much more than acquiring a working knowledge of basic English as a foreign language, but becomes the capacity to think and synthesise in English."

Within the mainstream state universities, there appears to be a great interest in the use of English as an international language, but at the same time some resistance to what is sometimes perceived as a danger of linguistic hegemony.

"This is more emotional than rational, perhaps," commented Franco Ferrarotti, Italy's most illustrious sociologist and one of the founder's of La Sapienza's sociology department.

"The fact remains that publications and journals in many fields are now almost universally in English, and English has become the international language in almost all spheres. It is a language with a dryness and practicality that contrasts with the more literary and philosophical inclinations of Italian. This makes it extremely useful, (just think of terms such as 'feedback', absolutely untranslatable in Italian) but at the same time there are some Italian academics who see the use of an eminently practical language as a kind of menial contamination of what they see as their high intellectual achievement."

Luciano Modica, president of the rectors' conference and rector of Pisa University, said: "We have had interesting experiences with teaching in English, but almost exclusively at doctorate level where the percentage of foreign students is higher.

"My colleagues and I tend to be somewhat critical of the Dutch experience. We are open to degree theses in a foreign language, but a changeover to English for general undergraduate teaching is not being considered at all.

"The gradual abandonment of the Italian language would be a serious problem, gradually impoverishing the language itself.

"What can be done is to use English as the international language in research, while enriching Italian with terminology from foreign languages, where needed, or with neologisms in Italian itself.

"A language should develop as people use it, and I believe there should be no rigidity in that sense."

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