The main question I come across when people are headed to Italy is “Do I need to speak Italian?” “Will they understand me?”
The answer is a bit debatable, it can depend on where you are visiting or if you are moving here for a longer period of time. The truth is in many popular cities- such as Rome, Florence, Venice, Milan- you can get away with speaking English. They get millions of foreigners coming through regularly that they are used to it. Also, English is taught in schools throughout Italy, so in theory they know a bit of English.
BUT, as a general rule, you should never go to a new country expecting them to know and understand your language.
You know all those “This is American Speak English” people, yeah well they exist in every country. And not everyone has the desire to learn or perfect their English in order to please short term visitors.
So if you have enough time before your trip, learn all the Italian you can. But of course no need to panic when you get to Italy, and you forget many words, someone will be around to help you out, most tourist site information and some menus are in English as well.
If you are just visiting…
If you are only coming to Italy for a short vacation, I recommend grabbing a phrasebook, or app, and just learning the basics. Asking and understanding directions, ordering at a bar or cafe, and generally being polite. These little phrases are going to help you go far, and make you a lot of friends. Even if you can’t pronounce it entirely correctly, Italians really love it when you make the effort.
If your trip is taking you out of the usual popular cities, and out to small towns, you will probably need to work on your Italian just ever so slightly. It is not guaranteed that menus and directions in these areas will be available in English, and the locals actually may not be so interested in trying to figure out what you are saying.
If you are moving to Italy for an extended period OR Studying Abroad
If you are planning to move to Italy then… yes, you really should speak Italian, at least some. If you don’t have time before the move, I suggest enrolling yourself in a course ASAP.
There will be a lot of bureaucratic measures and processes that will get confusing real quick if you don’t speak Italian. For instance, just applying for your first Permesso di Soggiorno, or getting a Codice Fiscale, or sorting a rental contract… yeah, you will want a little bit of Italian. Most of the time Permesso offices and Police do not speak English (or they just choose not to, I never really understood), so this could be a problem when trying to get your permit to stay sorted.
Very Important: you should not expect to come to Italy without speaking the language and find a job. You may find babysitting, English teaching, and a few under-the-counter bar jobs, but they will most likely not give you legal status, and not be very well paid. Learning the native language will give you a leg up and definitely help your case when applying for jobs or visas here in Italy.
For more information on how to move to Italy and how to be prepared, check out Moving to Italy as a non-EU citizen: A Guidebook to Italian Bureaucracy! Grab a copy here.
My own personal experience with the language:
For the first few years I spoke VERY basic Italian, just enough to get around. But could understand more than I spoke. This put me ahead of many other study abroad students so I was able to navigate stores, restaurants, markets a bit better. Though I could get by, I was really hindered in job prospects, intern prospects, and making new Italian friends. In hindsight learning improving my Italian earlier would have given me a whole different experience. I am happy with the Italian I did know, I wish I had studied better earlier on. I did not feel 100% confident with the language until 5 years of living here, and actually, I still feel iffy on writing and grammar. There is definitely no need to speak so perfectly you could address the nation, but knowing enough to get around on your own and to have a polite conversation will really change your experience in Italy for the better.
Resources for Learning to speak Italian
Of course, I am a huge fan of Duolingo if you are into app based learning.
Learn Italian with Lucrezia is a great resource if you prefer to watch some lessons. I also really enjoy learning through The Iceberg Project, she has a weekly email with small sayings, workbooks, podcasts and blog lessons.
I would say the best way to learn would be to find yourself a native speaker and sign up for lessons or chat with them. You can also watch Italian films or shows (Note as much as I love Gomorrah you will probably learn more Napoletano than Italian, so maybe not the best choice), listen to Italian music. For the most part Italian uses clear sounds that are easy to learn by hearing.
I hope these resources help a bit and that you can get started learning Italian!