When leaders of Western nations get together, the Italian premier is often a lonely figure, cut off from direct discussions with his counterparts who, whatever their native language, generally confer with foreigners in English.
When Italian political parties send representatives to international conferences, they often turn out to be relatively low-level functionaries, chosen for one reason: they speak English.
In contrast with most other European countries, very few of the political leaders in Italy speak English - or any foreign language - and many Western diplomats contend that the poor language abilities of Italian politicians seriously impede the kind of communication that could improve understanding between Italy and its allies.
"The photographs from any Western summit meeting show just how damaging this situation is," a former Italian ambassador said recently. In these photos, he said, the Italian premier often looks somewhat "out of it."
"Because he can't speak English," he said, "the Italian premier is always somewhat isolated from the intimate conversations that go on among other prime ministers and heads of state."
At the recent London summit meeting, Italian Premier Giulio Andreotti was the only one of seven Western leaders who did not speak English.
High-ranking Western diplomats have also suggested that President Carter's failure to include Andreotti among the leaders he has telephoned probably reflects the fact that unlike West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt and French President Giscard D'evstaing who speak fluent English, Andreotti would have been unable to keep up his end of the conversation without using an interpreter.
"Whenever the Italians are involved the room ends up looking like a miniature U.N.," a ranking American official commented recently. He said that when Vice President Walter Mondale visited Europe earlier this year greater communications problems occured in Italy than anywhere else.
"It's embarrassing that at most state dinners an interpreter can be seen hovering around the Italian premier's chair," the former Italian ambassador said. "Our leaders would probably say they've got more important things to do than learn English. But in today's world speaking English is a necessity and their inability to do so isolates them and keeps them from making the friendly contacts that facilitate foreign policy."
The organizers of international conferences are often hard-pressed to find Italians capable of speaking in English or French.
This problem arose at a conference on Italy and Eurocommunism held in Washington recently. The principal speaker there for the Christian Democratic Party was a young member of Parliament who plays only a marginal role in the party. But he speaks good English.
The conference organizers were unable to find a second English-speaking Christian Democrat. The Italian left was represented by a non-English-speaking Communist and the Italian right was represented by a senator whose English reportedly could not be understood.
A U.S. embassy official in Rome says the language problem makes it hard for members of parliament to explain Italy's problems or to learn more about the outside world.
"When I want to organize an evening for an American visitor I am always faced with the dilemma of whether to have a dinner for the few English-speaking politicians I know or for a roster of translators," he said.
The reasons for Italians' poor linguistic capabilities are varied. The troubled Italian school system, where most children study a foreign language in both junior high and high school, appears to be only partially to blame.
Instead, unwillingness by Italians to learn or use a second language is a major problem. A widespread concern with la bella figura - cutting a fine figure - "makes most Italians reluctant to use a foreign language unless they speak it perfectly," a Western diplomat said.
A history professor added that a deeply ingrained provincialism leaves many Italian intellectuals and politicians unaware of Rome's diminished position in world affairs.
Most of Italy's top political leaders since World War II, says Ennio diNolfo, "were born in the provinces and brought up in the confines of the neighborhood parish or the local Communist cell. They didn't care much about foreign languages and when they finally realized that interdependence is more than an empty pharse it was too late."