The Soft Power of the Italian Languageā€¦and of the Italian Economy

Tina Rocchio Resident Director for Italy Programs


October 19, 2016
By Professor Paola Cascinelli

Professor Paola Cascinelli teaches International Business Strategy and Management, and Work in Thought and Action, the Internship seminar at the Rome Center and is also the Assistant Director of Experiential Education, working draw the connection between local context, experience and learning in everything we do.

The soft power of the Italian language…and of the Italian economy

Annamaria Testa, communication expert, on her weekly post in the renowned Italian Journal, Internazionale, underlined the new significance that the Italian language is gaining as second language.

She reminds us that Italian was defined the language of the angels by Thomas Mann, and is the most romantic language in the world according to a survey conducted a few years ago of 320 linguists by the London company, Today Translations, that offers translations and interpreters in over 200 languages.
Annamaria underlines that this is not only a fun, newsy item, but helps us to consider that the Italian language is supremely attractive to foreigners: indeed, according to her data, it consistently ranks fourth or fifth place as most studied language in the world. To understand why “our” language attracts so many, she went on the web to analyse the many reasons listed for wanting to learn Italian. Among those, she visited the webpage of US universities and colleges where Italian language courses are growing.

The University of Princeton, explaining the reasons why Italian is interesting, says: “Italian is sounds beautiful, and it is the language of reference for those who love art, music, architecture, opera, food” ... many of the pleasant things of life, in short.

This website also says that Italian developed from Latin and an estimated 60 percent of the English vocabulary also comes from Latin. Knowing Italian may help improve the student’s scores in English.
Annamaria also reminds us that the attractiveness of a language is not strictly proportional to the number of speakers. "Studying Italian is not like studying Urdu, nineteenth most spoken language in the world (Italian is the eighteenth)," says Dianne Hales, author of The beautiful Language.

As Dianne says “Italian opens the door to everything: when you study la bella lingua, you also learn about history, art, music, religion, food, fashion, cinema, science - everything Western civilisation has created”.

As often stated in sleek advertising campaigns, Design Speaks Italian, il design parla italiano. As does la musica. Listen!

But Annamaria underlines something else that I found extremely important. She reminds us that the attractiveness of a language is an important factor of soft power. The English-speaking countries know it since the days of the Cold War and China is making great efforts to promote the study of Chinese.
The concept of soft power was formulated in the late eighties by Joseph Nye, a political scientist and professor at Harvard. As Nye says, you can exercise power, in three ways: with the stick, that is threatening and using force. With the carrot, that is, using the money.
But there is a third way: to convince others to want spontaneously to do what we want them to do. As Annamaria says: “that's soft power: pure seductive capacity. If the hard power of force moves people jostling, soft power attracts arousing consent”.

In essence, the concept of soft power makes us understand that seduction is as powerful as coercion or money. And perhaps even more powerful, because more subtle and permanent. Nye adds that use the soft power allows you to get results, "saving both, sticks and carrots".
Since the soft power is made of reputation and desirability, a nation can exercise it effectively even without being a great economic or military power.

There is an international ranking of soft power: Italy placed eleventh in 2016, before Spain and after the Netherlands, and is gaining on others.

This soft power is becoming a way in which Italian businesses are spreading and defending their products abroad, placing them in the high-end sector for the mere fact of being authentically Italian. The phenomenon of Italian-sounding products- products which appear Italian as if they “speak” Italian but aren't is proving successful: a marketing trick worth 60 billion Euros and 300 thousand jobs.

As Annamaria underlines, perception is (also) a cognitive fact and not just sensory. It means that what each person believes, thinks and knows, and the expectations he or she has contribute to it. In other words, the aroma of coffee with an Italian name smells better; a dress with an Italian brand name flows better; an object designed in Italy (or which appears to be so) acquires more value; Italian cars more desirable.

“Made in Italy” is associated with the idea of something beautiful, well-made and of exquisite quality. Now with an industry push towards sustainable and socially responsible practice, it is becoming more and more a synonym of fair trade.

Let’s all learn Italian and the Italian Way!


Resident Director's note

Listen to renowned author, Jhumpa Lahiri, discuss her love affair with the Italian language and how it has contributed to the widening of perspectives and points of view in life and in her writing.