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Italian Attraction

Dona De Sanctis explains why learning Italian is becoming more popular in the U.S.

Italian is one of the fastest-growing foreign languages in the U.S. with about 159,000 students from kindergarten through college studying the language, according to the latest statistics.

The Modern Language Association (MLA), which tracks university and college foreign language enrollments, reports that in 1960, only 11,000 college students were enrolled in Italian language courses. Nearly 50 years later, in 2009, the MLA’s latest survey found that number had swelled to more than 80,000. In the seven years between 2002 and 2009 alone, the number of American college students studying Italian rose 26%, from 63,900 to 80,750.

Italian is becoming more popular in American elementary and high schools as well, according to the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL), which tallies foreign language enrollment in kindergarten through high school. In its most recent survey, ACTFL compared foreign language enrollment figures from the 2004-05 school year to the 2007-08 year. It found that in the 27 states reporting enrollment data, Italian studies increased by nearly 20%, from 65,000 students to 78,000 — an increase of 13,000 students in just three years. Italian had larger enrollments than Chinese, Russian, and Japanese, but still predictably lagged behind Spanish, the ACTFL study found.

The Growth Spurt
One of the major causes of the recent growth of Italian studies in the U.S. was the establishment of the Advanced Placement Italian program in 2005. It was the first foreign language added to the AP program since it started 50 years earlier. The AP Italian program broke new ground because, unlike the other AP language programs, it offered courses in culture as well.

It came about thanks to the efforts of several leading Italian American organizations, including the Sons of Italy, the National Italian American Foundation, and UNICO National. They joined forces with the government of Italy and a former first lady of New York State, Matilda Cuomo, to convince the College Board to establish an AP Italian program, which would allow high school students coast to coast to take college-level courses in Italian. To guarantee the launching of the program, the three organizations and the government of Italy gave the College Board $500,000 in seed money to develop the AP Italian curriculum and examinations. Why was the AP program in Italian so important?

The challenging high school AP courses have become an academic status symbol that attract the most promising students and teachers, thanks to their recognition by college admissions offices. Many language experts believed that the lack of an AP Italian program created a catch-22 situation that was stunting the growth of Italian studies in U.S. schools — because there was no AP program in Italian, students took AP French, Spanish, and German instead. Since fewer students took Italian, fewer teachers were needed. That resulted in fewer teaching jobs in Italian, so future language teachers did not major in Italian in college. As a result, the teaching of Italian in American schools and universities was left to instructors of Spanish or French, who were rarely fluent, having been required to take only a few basic Italian courses as a minor in college. So, Italian was generally poorly taught if taught at all.

AP classes, however, require highly prepared teachers, who must take special training courses to be eligible for the program; therefore, AP Italian programs have excellent teachers and attract more high school students.

When they enter college, those who have passed the AP Italian test, receive college credit for the courses and can take more advanced courses in Italian language and literature. With more students taking advanced Italian courses in college, Italian programs at universities have grown. High schools and colleges need more instructors of Italian, creating viable careers for young people who want to teach Italian in the U.S.

Italian offers two significant bonuses for American high school students. Studies show that students who have studied Italian tend to score higher on the SAT tests on vocabulary and grammar. The reason is simple: Italian developed from Latin, and an estimated 60% of English vocabulary is derived from Latin. Also, young Americans who want to become physicians, dentists, and veterinarians but who cannot afford the tuition at American schools can study at Italian universities for a fraction of the cost, and their degrees are valid in the U.S.
Why Study Italian?
There are several other equally compelling reasons to study Italian, especially for people in the arts, business, and technology. Academic careers in art history, music, linguistics, education, and international relations require Italian. For art historians especially, Italian is essential, given that over 60% of the world’s art treasures are found in Italy, according to UNESCO, the cultural and educational agency of the United Nations.

Italian is also a plus for people planning international careers abroad. An estimated 7,500 American companies do business with Italy, and more than 1,000 U.S. firms have offices in Italy, including IBM, General Electric, Motorola, City Bank, and Price Waterhouse. Italy is a world leader in machine tool manufacturing, with advanced technologies in robotics, electromechanical machinery, shipbuilding, space engineering, construction machinery, and transportation equipment. Many of these firms have offices in the U.S. and want bilingual personnel.

Italy is online and needs technicians. In 1996, only 170,000 households in Italy were connected to the internet compared to 25 million in the U.S. Today, that number is nearly 36.6 million, or 60% of Italy’s population, according to American companies expanding in Italy need software designers, systems engineers, technical support personnel, marketers, and managers who speak Italian and English.

People planning careers in the culinary arts, interior design, fashion, graphic design, and furniture design need Italian, since Italy is a world leader in those fields. But even if Italian were not required for a profession or a career, the ability to speak the language comes in handy, given that Italy is among the five most visited countries in the world. According to a survey run by, a popular airfare search engine, U.S. tourists put Italy at the top of their wish lists. In 2013, 47.7 million tourists from all over the world visited Italy — fully 10% of them Americans — drawn by Italy’s history, cuisine, culture, and natural beauty. It is a fact that Italy has more world heritage sites than any other country in the world. These outstanding cultural or natural sites are of importance “to the common heritage of humanity,” according to the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization.
Clearly, Italy over the centuries has given the world much of what it values — including a rich, expressive, musical language. Qui si parla italiano!

Dona De Sanctis, PhD, is editor-in-chief of Italian America, the nation’s most widely read magazine for people of Italian heritage.

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