Perils and Pitfalls of Speaking Italian
I’ve been living in Italy for over two years now. One of the things I’ve been hearing from more than one source here is that it takes a least that amount of time for things to start “clicking” in the brain – provided a person is immersing himself or herself in the language. This means some sort of study program and it means surrounding yourself, more and more, with native speakers, and resisting the urge to spend most of your time in the safety of other English-speaking expats.
Speaking Italian is not easy in my experience. Let me clarify, speaking Italian WELL is not an easy in experience. If you’re reading this post and if you’re only interested in visiting Italy for a short time, you certainly can set your sights on a lower learning curve. But, if you’re planning on a longer stay, or if you’re planning on living here permanently I encourage you to embrace your fears and tackle the language in a way that will give you a proficiency to help you not only in the dealing practicalities of life, but to help you build friendships and garner respect from the Italians.
If you’re serious about making Italy your home, learning the language is paramount. Otherwise you risk being perceived as an entitled foreigner who expects the burden of communication to fall on the locals. I’ve heard many English speakers (mainly tourists in Rome, Venice, Florence, etc.) becoming indignant that more Italians don’t speak English.
My education in comprehending and speaking Italian continues. I’m impatient with myself for not being further along, but I have made considerable progress. In the process, I’ve identified several perils and pitfalls of speaking Italian. The following are 10 pieces of advice that I’d like to share:
1. Learn your Italian vowels.
They’re significantly different from the English equivalents. For example, the vowel E is pronounced as a long A in English. I is pronounced “ee” in Italian. Ikea is everywhere here in Italy. If you where to pronounce it as English speakers do, most Italians wouldn’t know what you were talking about. Here it is pronounced “ee-kay-ah”, not “eye-key-ah”. Study your vowels, otherwise you may end up saying something you don’t mean to say. More on that later.
2. Learn to pronounce every letter and syllable.
This may seem intimidating, since many Italian words can be a mouthful. It may seem impossible when you hear how fast many Italians speak. But, learn to articulate each letter and syllable, even if it means breaking the word down into parts and trying out the word slowly, and then increasing the velocity only when your tongue feels like it can do the acrobatics required. You WILL have to retrain your mouth, so be patient. There are words that feel like an obstacle course to my mouth.
Italians rarely spell things out for one another, because they pronounce the letters and syllables so clearly that it is usually unnecessary to resort to spelling for another native speaker. A few words with which I have struggled are – lavastoviglie – dishwasher, cucchiaio – spoon, prenotazione – reservation. I’ve pretty much mastered these, but only with loads of repetition.
3. Be sure to articulate double consonants.
I’m still lazy about this. My experience is that most Americans tend to shorten and slur parts of words. Italian words that have double consonants require a slight (almost imperceptible) pause between the two consonants to clarify which word you actually intend to say. Simone has trained me to say “risotto” articulating both t’s, since I had abused that word quite heavily. Fortunately, mispronouncing “risotto” didn’t lead to my inadvertently saying another word. Here’s an example of when it can go wrong. My sister, who has visited our home on several occasions, and who has met my dear neighbor Carlo, wanted to wish him “Happy New Year”. I heard her say “Buon ano” instead of “Buon anno”. I’m sure Carlo smiled at her mistake, and knew what she intended, but I informed her later she had wished him “Good anus”. Oops. We still laugh at that one.
Bottom line, double consonants help distinguish between words that often have very different meanings.
4. Learn to place the accent on the right syllable.
Many people mistakenly believe that the accent always goes on the next to the last syllable. Yes, that probably is the case more often than not, but some words with three syllables have the accent on the first syllable, and others on the second. This is tricky with proper names. “Stefano” has the accent on the first syllable, whereas “Simone” has the accent on the second syllable. The first person, present tense of “I eat” is “mangio” with the accent on the first syllable. However, “we eat” is “mangiamo” and has the accent on the next to last syllable. Verbs can drive you crazy in this regard. I highly recommend an Italian verb application with an audio function that will sound out the verbs accurately.
The most basic rule when it comes to the accents is whether is sounds right to the ear. Italian is a musical language. If it doesn’t sound melodic or if it doesn’t flow, you’ve probably put the accent in the wrong place.
5. Familiarize yourself and practice difficult letter combinations.
Be prepared to wear out your tongue practicing some difficult, and unfamiliar (to English speakers) letter combinations. Most notable to me is “gli” which is not pronounced “glee”. I’m not confident in attempting a phonetic representation of this word, but the g is almost silent. Try adding it as the article in “gli uomini” – “the men”. Another tongue twister. Be prepared for words that contain “gnano” where the “g” is almost silent. And, the biggest difficultly English speakers seem to have is the pronouncing “ch”, which always sounds like a hard “k”. Now distinguish that with “ci” or “ce” – which is like how English speakers say “ch”. Just remember that it’s flip-flopped here.
There are other challenging letter combinations. So just prepared (again) to send your tongue to a verbal gymnastics class.
6. Speak with deference and politeness.
Please, please, please, make this high on your list. Italians are passionate and they can be very warm and friendly. But, for the most part, Italians do not quickly presume familiarity with people they do not know. Greeting strangers with “Ciao” (familiar) instead “Salve” (formal) is one example of getting friendly too quickly. Be polite and let them signal to you when to become more informal.
When you are in a restaurant, or in a shop, don’t just point to something you want. For example, a person might say to a waiter “bucatini all’amatriciana” (a famous Roman dish). That’s abrupt, like it’s an order. Instead, learn to say something like “Vorrei dei bucatini all’amatriciana, per favore.” This means “I would like some bucatini amatriciana, please.” “Posso avere una porzione di bucatini all’amatriciana, per favore?” is another option and means “May I have a portion of the bucatini amatriciana, please?”
Learn a few polite, deferential phrases, and you’ll find people will be appreciative. Otherwise you might fall under the heading of “entitled foreigner”.
7. Leave swearing to the Italians.
Like a naughty school boy, I was fascinated (at first) with all the bad words in Italian. But, fortunately I didn’t use them. You might be tempted to learn and use popular Italian swear words and phrases, but I strongly advise you to refrain. You’ll be playing with a metaphorical loaded gun, and a misstep could land you in hot water, or downright physical harm.
Italians, in my experience, take swearing to a new level. I’ve been told that American swearing is child’s play compared to some of the colorful expressions here. Still, do not take this an invitation to join in. Go ahead and learn the words and phrases, but so that you understand what other people are saying, and nothing more.
8. English expressions don’t always translate literally into Italian.
This should come as no surprise, since all languages have idiomatic expressions. You might think you have found the same words to make a literal translation, but it often doesn’t work. People might get the gist of what you’re trying to say, but take the time to learn the expressions. One example…if you wanted to say “At the end of the day” in Italian it would be “a conti fatti” – which literally translates “at the final accounting”. “Alla fin della fiera”, which means “at the end of the fair”, could also be used. You’d never reason out that translation on your own.
9. Know basic Italian verb forms.
This means simple present, simple past, and simple future verb tenses and conjugations. You’ll be able to get by (mostly) with these. Be prepared, because Italian is full of irregular verbs. My advice is to make a list of the most often used verbs and familiarize yourself with them.
Conditional and subjective verb tenses will make you brain scream (initially), but a few verbs in these forms will come in handy. “Vorrei”, which means “I would like” is the conditional form of “volere”, “to like”. This verb form will be your friend, so learn it!
10. Mispronouncing can land you in an embarrassing situation.
Many Italian words sound similar, and if you’re not careful you can end up mispronouncing a word and saying something entirely different. Case in point, years ago, before I had made the move here, I was visiting my home for a summer vacation, and having dinner with my next-door neighbors. I have a playlist of Italian music, which my neighbors always ask me to play. Well, one song called “Emozioni”, a real classic, was playing, and I kept saying how much I liked this particular song. I THOUGHT that was what I was saying. Amalia, my neighbor, kept laughing and laughing, each time I emphasized my love of this particular song. Finally she pointed out my error. I had been saying “Mi piace questa cazzone, molto.” I should have been saying “Mi piace questa canzone, molto.” See, one simple slip of a letter and instead of saying “I really like this song” I was saying “I really like this big penis”. I was horrified, for a few minutes. Then the entire table burst into laughter. To this day I say “canzone” very carefully.
There are other words that have double meaning – and depending how you use them, they can be perceived as slang. Another embarassing case in point. Simone and I were in an upscale store that sells body and bath products. I was buying a bottle of body lotion, and a bottle of hand soap. As the purchases were being wrapped, I noticed there was not a dispenser for either. So I said “Posso avere una pompa” which does literally mean “May I have a pump”. However, there was some giggling in the shop, and a little bit of conversation. Then, Simone explained that what I said is also slang for “May I have a blow job”. To which, one of the women in the shop, laughed and said to her colleague “I don’t think we provide those here.”. Yikes!!!
I truly hope I haven’t offended anyone with these stories. They’re innocent mistakes, but with embarrassing consequences. So, my advice is not to use words unless you know them to be correct or unless you know the multiple meanings.
In closing, I want you to know that I am thoroughly enjoying rewiring my brain to speak Italian. I have a long way still to go, but the process is rewarding. I hope this post has been useful without being intimidating. I hope it inspires you to commence with the journey of speaking Italian.
And, to help you along your journey, I highly recommend you begin following Tom Txxytu on YouTube and subscribe to his channel. He’s fun, engaging, and you’ll get loads of free lessons.