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No English please, I'm Italian

Stefano Iacolino, a primary school teacher from Favara in southern Sicily, has decided to take a stand. He won't teach English to his pupils. On principle.

Since January, Mr Iacolino's head has been trying in vain to get him to change his mind and has even opened disciplinary procedures against him. The ministry in Rome has ordained that Italian schoolchildren must be taught English from an earlier age, the local education authority in Agrigento agrees, and now everyone wants Mr Iacolino to co-operate.

But there is one snag. Mr Iacolino doesn't speak English. "I refuse to insult the intelligence of my pupils," he says. "I don't know any English."

Southern Italy is a place where reverence for bureaucratic authority goes without saying, so Mr Iacolino's stand has caught everybody off balance. The headmaster of the Falcone e Borsellino elementary school in Favara, Gaetano Arnone, argues that Mr Iacolino must be able to speak English because he was sent on a 100-hour course to learn it.

Mr Iacolino retorts that the course was five years ago and that only 20 of the 100 hours were devoted to language. "I've done four days of intensive English in my whole life and now they expect me to teach it to three years of primary school," Mr Iacolino said.

Mr Iacolino is even offering to reimburse the cost of the course. "I want to have my English officially tested so they can see how bad it is," he added. "It's a very difficult language to learn and I had terrible trouble with it."

The incident illustrates what can happen when a population anxious to improve its English meets a bureaucracy that has no understanding of how language-learning works. The standard of English teaching in Italian schools is generally lamentable and there is little exposure to English in everyday life. English-language films, for example, are all dubbed.

The English on display in restaurants and hotels is a source of linguistic comedy. A flier for a new restaurant offers "pungents with pourc", whatever they may be. The bistro near our house has this mystifying message in the window: "Dear visitors of Rome, we do not melk you." What on earth does that mean?