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The geographic distribution of the Italian language in the world: large Italian-speaking communities are shown in green; light blue indicates areas where the Italian language was used officially during the Italian colonial period.

It used to have official status in Albania, Malta and Monaco, where it is still widely spoken, as well as in former Italian East Africa and Italian North Africa regions where it plays a significant role in various sectors.

Italian is spoken by large expatriate communities in the Americas and by small minorities in places such as Crimea, France (especially in Corsica), Montenegro and Tunisia.

Italian is a major European language, being one of the official languages of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe and one of the working languages of the Council of Europe.

It is the third most widely spoken first language in the European Union with 65 million native speakers (13% of the EU population) and it is spoken as a second language by 14 million EU citizens (3%).

However, Italian as a language used in Italy and some surrounding regions has a longer history.

In fact the earliest surviving texts that can definitely be called Italian (or more accurately, vernacular, as distinct from its predecessor Vulgar Latin) are legal formulae known as the Placiti Cassinesi from the Province of Benevento that date from 960–963, although the Veronese Riddle contains a late form of Vulgar Latin that can be seen as a very early Italian dialect.

What would come to be thought of as Italian was first formalized in the early fourteenth century through the works of Tuscan writer Dante Alighieri, written in his native Florentine.

Dante's epic poems, known collectively as the Commedia, to which another Tuscan poet Giovanni Boccaccio later affixed the title Divina, were read throughout Italy and his written dialect became the "canonical standard" that all educated Italians could understand.

Italian is the main working language of the Holy See, serving as the lingua franca in the Roman Catholic hierarchy as well as the official language of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta.