Do you want to get a real taste of Italian life, travel around this beautiful country with ease, appreciate its art and architecture and be able to compliment the chef when you try the local delicacies? This guide to learning the language of the Bel Paese should give you a head start.
Say what you see
Unlike English, Italian spelling is phonetic. That means that the spelling of a word tells you how to say it (except in a few isolated cases, such as homonyms like ‘pesca’ (fishing) and ‘pesca’ (peach), and of course regional variations). It also means that words that have the same ending will always rhyme. For example, ‘cane’ (dog) and ‘pane’ (bread) will always rhyme (compare with English ‘chalice’, ‘police’ and ‘lice’, to give you an idea!). Italians pronounce every letter in a word, including vowels, so ‘aiuola’ (flowerbed) is a-i-u-oo-l-a and ‘cappello’ (hat) is cap-pel-lo. One thing to watch out for though is the stress pattern in words: in words with two syllables, like freddo (cold) and dito (finger), the stress falls on the first syllable, unless there is an accent on the last syllable to tell you that it is stressed (compare ‘papa’ (Pope) and ‘papà’ (dad)). In longer words, there is no predictable stress pattern, so you will need to learn them. Uomo avvisato mezzo salvato – forewarned is forearmed!
Italian speakers move their mouths a lot when they are speaking. They open their mouths wide and form the sounds with their lips – they don’t mumble! They do this to say the vowel sounds clearly. Have a go: try pronouncing the Italian letter ‘a’ – you just have to open your mouth wide and say ‘aahh’! Try this with new words you learn – practice pronouncing them in front of the mirror and make sure you get your mouth moving!
Get your hands moving
Anyone who has spent any amount of time in Italy or around Italians will have noticed that Italians move their hands a lot when they talk. The insider knows that this is not just for emphasis – unlike some languages where speakers have more or less idiosyncratic hand gestures that they use to stress what they are saying, or to try to make it clearer, Italian hand gestures each have an individual meaning. They are so vital to communication that Bruno Munari even published a (humorous) Supplement to the Italian Dictionary all about hand gestures (the text is available in Italian, English, French and German). You can also find numerous videos on the internet that explain their use. Try and learn a few to make your spoken (and silent) Italian more authentic.
There are many different regional accents in Italian, which means that consonants, vowels and the melody of the phrase change depending on where you are in the country. Most areas, but particularly villages and rural areas, also have a dialect that is different from standard Italian. Dialects are mostly used at home and with friends, whereas standard Italian is used for more formal occasions and between Italians from different regions so they can understand each other. Read more about regional variations here and read about the use of different expressions here.
Take your pick
Italy has a lot to offer, be it music, art, literature, food, sport, architecture, history, travel or fashion. Pick your favourite one of these and learn all about it – in Italian!
Written by Suzannah Young