One of the biggest complaints I've heard from many people who are learning Italian is that there aren't many Florentines who want to speak to them in Italian. When I was learning Italian back in 1997, I didn't run into this problem much. First, I believe it's because not as many Florentines spoke English as readily as they do now and also because I lived a little outside centro (downtown). But nowadays, I do see that it happens quite often, especially in centro.
I went with Dave to the gym to sign up a while back and the guy talked to me in Italian; however, the second Dave didn't respond quickly enough to his question, the man switched to English. I don't believe they do this to be rude, but I think that they want to get the information across. I think that Florentines don't assume that everyone who is in Florence speaks Italian. And because there are so many tourists that come through Florence, they are generally correct.
I had lunch today with two women who are visiting and are planning on living in Italy, but they told me that they want to live somewhere in Italy where people speak Italian. I would say that in centro some of the people who work in the shops speak English. I see signs all the time for commessi (sales people) who speak English as well as Italian. What they do is assess the clients and speak Italian if they "look" Italian and speak English in all other cases. But, outside of the centro, people speak Italian.
When I walk into shops here, I always say "buongiorno" and I almost always ask, "Posso dare un'occhiata?" (Can I look around) when the commessa (sales girl) is hovering around me. Maybe those two things automatically put me in the Italian-speaking category. So I think that if you don't greet them when you enter in a shop or ask if you can look around, they might automatically speak English.
On the other hand, I've also been in shops where some people walk into shops and just speak English as if it were normal that everyone speak English here in Florence. I worked in a shop once and I was always amazed how many people would just walk in and speak English without even asking if any of us spoke English. Yes, it was a shop in a tourist area, but not everyone in Florence speaks English. At least, that was my assessment back in 1997-1999.
I've been in situations where people have spoken to me in English in the past and when they did, I still persisted and spoke to them in Italian even if they responded to me in English. It almost always worked for me, but I obviously had to be fluent enough in Italian.
Last year before we went back to the US for our visit, a woman in a shop spoke to me in English. Instead of responding in Italian as I normally would've done, I just spoke to her in English. Dave was with me and I would've had to talk to him in English and then to her in Italian like I normally do, but I figured I'd speak to her in English instead for once.
After she handed me the gift she wrapped up for me, I said, "Grazie. Buonasera!" She looked up at me a bit perplexed and said, "È italiana?" I told her that I wasn't, but that I lived here. I left the shop hoping that I made an impression that maybe she shouldn't judge us all so quickly. Just because I don't "look" Italian, that doesn't mean that I don't speak Italian.
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