Language tests a must for would-be Italian citizens

Mario slips into his seat in the Florence schoolroom just as the exam begins: five years after arriving in Italy from Honduras he may finally be able to clinch that longed-for permit to stay, thanks to the country's new language tests.

Such compulsory tests for immigrants have caused controversy in some European countries, particularly in France, where they were introduced in 2008. But in Italy they have been embraced by many as a first step on the path to integration.

Svetlana, who like Mario did not give her family name, came over from Moldova seven years ago and works as a home helper. She said she was really motivated: "I'm sitting the exam to test myself as much as anything."

Italy's Ministry of Home Affairs has counted 6,764 candidates who have signed up since registration opened on December 9. The first exams took place late last month.

Albanian immigrants come top of the list of aspiring permit-holders (with over 900 requests to sit the test) followed by Moroccans, Ukrainians, Moldovans, Ecuadorians, Filipinos and Peruvians.

Applicants must be able to prove they have been in Italy at least five years to take the test. As the candidates step up to their assigned desks, pens tightly gripped, headmistress Eda Bruni gives them a reassuring nod.

"You'll see its not a difficult test, it's to help you really," she said.

The exam is made up of two written tests - candidates must write a post card, a formal request or respond to an email - and a listening test.

A Chinese man with his cap pulled down low over his eyes mumbles that he's worried it won't go well: "Speaking is ok... but writing is very difficult for me," he said.

Svetlana said she learnt Italian a little at a time and improved by reading books and newspapers while Mario picked it up "at work, at the bar and in the street."

Although the compulsory tests have come up against some criticism from human rights associations, they have been slowly adopted across Europe over the last few years.

"I think they're doing them for integration reasons. It's true that if you want to stay long term in Italy you should at least have a good handle on the language," Mario said.

Italy, along with Britain, is one of the last EU states to introduce them for would-be citizens in a move backed by the right-wing, anti-immigrant Northern League Party, part of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's ruling coalition.

Patrizia Margiacchi, who teaches Italian as a foreign language, said "if they fail they can retake the exam but if they still don't pass they lose their right to stay here. So it's really important."

Out of the 100 or so candidates that have sat the tests so far, only a handful have failed, nearly all of whom are illiterate in their own languages, according to authorities.
 

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