Learning English is a passion with Italian men


ROME LETTER: The other afternoon, Bruno came knocking at the gate. Bruno is a retired builder from the village. Eighteen months ago, he set out on the Herculean task of converting the pharaonic construction plans of the baroness (herself) into a new house for the Agnew family.

Bruno is an immensely skilled builder and would doubtless have done a wonderful job for us except that, alas, three months into the job, he was struck down by cancer. Medical examinations revealed a lung tumour as well as other problems with his eyes and knees.

Being the last of a long line of hardy, little Etruscan men, Bruno, after the initial shock, took it all in his stride. As of now, and touching iron as they say in these parts, he is as healthy as the coregone white fish in Lake Bracciano.

In his new-found retirement, however, Bruno has taken up one of the ongoing passions of modern Italian men - the learning of English. When he arrived the other day, it was not to check out how the building had been finished in his absence (he had already long since done that), but to have his English "homework" done.

Bruno's version of doing his homework entails getting any English speaker he comes across to fill in the blanks in his exercise book, putting "to", "from", "at" or whatever is required into the correct slot. Bruno's grasp of the linguistic task in hand is sketchy at best. Thus equipped, he heads off cheerily for his English lesson, not for a second considering that somewhere along the academic road he might have missed out on a vital learning principle.

He does not mind. It's all a bit of fun and, importantly, learning English has a social cachet. That becomes apparent on a night out at the restaurant with Bruno because, when the night is late and the wine has flowed, he loves to practise his "English". This entails a lot of enthusiastic shouting, with the odd word of English dropped into 99 per cent Italian sentences.

Bruno, however, is not alone in his peculiarly Italian enthusiasm for the English language. Being seen to (apparently) speak English is a terrific piece of social one-upmanship, not least for people in public life.

Driving home from work on Sunday night, I was reminded of the sometimes difficult Italian public relationship with English. I was listening to the inaugural concert for Rome's new €175 million auditorium or arts complex. On stage was the English virtuoso violinist, Nigel Kennedy, who at the end of the first half of his concert addressed the audience cheerfully in English: "Now is the moment you've all been waiting for - the interval. I wish you all the best of luck in the rush for the bar." This was translated by an on-the-spot interpreter as: "Now is my favourite moment - the interval. I hope to be the first to get to the bar".

When Kennedy reappeared for the start of the second half of the concert in which he was due to perform Vivaldi's Four Seasons, he again adopted a jocular tone when introducing the piece: "I am now going to play an almost unknown work, hardly ever performed anywhere but rather good."

His little joke was totally lost by the interpreter whose translation went: "Now I am going to play one of the great masterpieces of the classical repertoire." Obviously, the overall poor quality of language teaching at Italian primary and secondary schools (as underlined by the flourishing industry of private and expensive English language schools) has much to answer for. Not for nothing, and showing a typically accurate nous for an issue close to the heart of many of his electors, the Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, last year made the (better) teaching of English a priority of his election campaign programme with regard to education.

Mind you, the Prime Minister might also strike a blow for English (and other languages) by insisting that his TV stations screen feature films in the original with sub-titles rather than dubbed. Listening to Al Pacino, Robert Di Niro or Nicole Kidman in the original might persuade some people that English is not a kinky social mannerism but rather a living language used for communication.