Intelligent Energy

How to say 'energy' in Italian. Clue: Country's top tech university shifts to English

How to say 'energy' in Italian. Clue: Country's top tech university shifts to English

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Politecnico di Milano embraces an international trend toward teaching in English. What would Da Vinci say? Probably something in his own tongue!

The sign's in Italian at this Politecnico di Milano campus (one of many), but you should hear how the students will soon be talking inside. 

Call it the Mario Monti effect: Italy's top technical university, Politecnico di Milano, will switch to the English language to teach and assess most of its undergraduate and graduate courses starting in 2014.

Is this part of a zeitgeist nurtured when a country like Italy appoints a technocrat like economist Monti as prime minister to help pull it out of the economic doldrums, as happened last November?

Maybe.

In a story on the BBC website, the university's rector, Giovanni Azzoni, explains that the university is shifting to English in order to keep it competitive both as an institution that spreads its own ideas and as one that attracts students from overseas.

It also wants to increase the chances of employment for its graduates in a global economy that still speaks a lot of English. That all sounds like the same pragmatic philosophy that installed Monti - without elections - six months ago.

This guy invented ball bearings - a real energy asset - and designed a lot of nifty machines back in the Renaissance, while speaking Italian. Leonardo da Vinci, in case you're wondering.

"We strongly believe our classes should be international classes - and the only way to have international classes is to use the English language," says Azzoni.

"I would have preferred if Italian was the common language, it would have been easier for me - but we have to accept real-life," he says.

Politecnico di Milano is no slouch. It's Italy's largest technical university, with some 36,500 students according to Wikipedia, which notes that it stands as the world's 48th best technical university by the QS World University Rankings.

The school claims at least one Nobel prize winner - Giulio Natta, a 1963 winner in chemistry for his work in polymers. According to the BBC, nearly a third of Italian architects graduated from Politecnico.

Its multi-disciplinary curricula includes energy engineering, exploring all the areas you'd expect - greenhouse gases, fossil fuels, energy efficiency, renewables, electricity grids, etc.

Anna Realini, a masters degree candidate in the energy engineering program, likes the switch to English, and tells the BBC that she uses the language to write emails in her internship for an Italian company.

"I agree with the choice... If our university gives us the tools to use our knowledge all over the world it is better," she says.

That's Alessandro Volta explaining his battery to Napoleon in 1801. I doubt this conversation took place in English.

But not everyone agrees with the move. A petition against it has the support of about 300 professors and assistant professors.

One opponent, Professor Emilio Matricianni, says that some of the precision and quality of teaching would be lost in translation.

"Speaking Italian to our countrymen is like watching a movie in colour, high definition, very clear pictures. On the contrary, speaking English to them, even with our best effort, is, on the average, like watching a movie in black and white, with very poor definition, with blurred pictures," says Professor Matricciani.

But Rector Azzoni predicts that other leading Italian universities will also adopt English. And as the BBC notes, a growing number of universities in Europe and Asia are teaching in English.

The world's centers of innovation sure have changed since Leonardo da Vinci invented ball bearings and designed and sketched his flying machines, submarines and all those other amazing technological marvels, while speaking Italian back in the Renaissance. And since Alessandro Volta invented the battery in the early 1800s. And since Guglielmo Marconi made great strides in radio about 100 years later.

Heck, here on the energy blog, it's worth noting that the ancient Romans invented geothermal energy. They made all those other things too, like straight roads. Okay, so they spoke Latin.

One curiosity to ponder -  why didn't Politecnico di Milano change to Mandarin?

Images: Politecnico di Milano from Hillman54 via Wikimedia. Leonardo Da Vinci from the University of Texas Library, via Wikimedia. Volta and Napoleon painting by Giuseppi Bertini via Wikimedia.

More change afoot in the country shaped like a boot:

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Mark Halper

Contributing Editor

Mark Halper has written for TIME, Fortune, Financial Times, the UK's Independent on Sunday, Forbes, New York Times, Wired, Variety and The Guardian. He is based in Bristol, U.K. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure