Speaking Italian: Basic Language-Learning Tips

Italy isn’t a large country and the Italians are crummy colonizers. This means that the Italian language is not a very useful one to learn. Visitors to Italy will be smart enough to learn some basics of Italian. It is polite to learn a few basics of Italian if you are not following the tourist path.

Conversazione || creative commons photo by Monica Arellano-Ongpin

Around 59 million people speak Italian as their first language. The majority of these people are Italians (although there is a Swiss canton where Italian is the official language). Another 14 million use it as their second language. While English is the preferred language for tourism in many countries, there are still plenty of Italians (especially the older generation) who can only understand a few words of English. It’s important to learn some Italian phrases and niceties so that you can have smooth interactions with locals.

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Italian Language Tips

One of the most important things that I stressed when I taught beginning Italian for many years was pronunciation. It is easy to pronounce Italian, once you understand the basics. They rarely change. These basics will help you to recognize every word that you encounter and make your first attempt at pronouncing it a much more educated one.

Italian was once called a WYSIWYG (what you see is what your get) language.

While English tends to focus on vowels, Italians make vowels shorter and concentrate on consonants. Double consonants are even more common. If not done correctly, this extra weight given to consonants could change the meanings of words. For example, “Penne” means “pens” and “Pene,” with only one N, “penis.” It is okay to give consonants their dues, even if it means that one can have an awkward conversation about food with a waiter.

WYSIWYG also applies to letters at the ends of words. If the E at “grazie” is left out, it can make you cranky.

It’s likely that you have heard many Italian speakers roll their Rs. If that sounds familiar, go ahead. It is a genetic ability that not all people have – and there are some Italians who don’t have the ability to roll Rs. The inability to roll Rs in Italy is a speech impairment similar to a lisp.

This is only a small selection of the many peculiarities that Italians have…

Learn Italian at Home

Many self-study Italian language books are available, including audio guides that can be used to commute and interactive learning on the computer. You might prefer a structured learning environment and I recommend the courses offered by your local community college. Classes are offered for non-credit in the community on weekends and evenings. (I taught Italian through my local community college when I was a teacher. It was great fun.

These are some excellent self-study guides in Italian:

WordReference.com is my favorite Italian/English dictionary. It also includes pronunciation features and examples of word usage. Forvo.com has over 90,000 pronounced Italian terms.

Blame Dante

It was once a regional dialect that only one region of Italy had. This is how the Italian language we speak today. It was the Tuscan dialect that Dante spoke at the time. He wrote his famous poems in the language he spoke when he wrote them. His work was so well-read that it became the language people learned throughout Italy.

It’s funny that it wasn’t until 2007, that the Italian parliament voted for Italian to be the official language of Italy.

It is still common to speak regional dialects in Italy, with most people speaking it at home or with their local friends. Sometimes, you will pick up a few words in a dialect that sounds similar to an Italian word. Other times, dialects can sound completely different from Italian. It’s not necessary to learn dialects, since Italian is spoken everywhere in Italy.

You’ll find people speaking little English further from tourist areas. This is why you should have a few Italian phrases handy. If you get confused by something in Italian, Do as I always did – blame Dante.

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