Italy is not a big country, and – historically – the Italians were crummy colonizers. In practice, this means the Italian language isn’t a terribly useful one to learn. Still, visitors to Italy are smart to study a few basics of Italian. It’s the polite thing to do, after all, and it can be a necessity if you’re getting off the usual tourist route.
Italian is spoken as a first language by roughly 59 million people worldwide, most of whom are Italian (there is a Swiss canton in which Italian is also the official language), and as a second language by another 14 million. Although English has become the de facto language of tourism in many parts of the world, in Italy there are plenty of people (especially older generations) who will only speak a smattering of English words. Learning some Italian niceties, and a few phrases that come in handy on a regular basis when you’re traveling, will go a long way toward having smooth interactions with the locals.
Don’t miss my article on why you shouldn’t say “ciao” in Italy!
When I taught beginning Italian for several years, one of the main things I emphasized was pronunciation. I think Italian pronunciation is pretty easy, once you learn the basic rules, because they rarely change. Once you understand those basics, they serve as a road map for every word you’ll encounter, making your first guess at pronouncing a new word a very educated guess.
I used to call Italian a WYSIWYG language – as in “what you see is what you get.” What this means is that, for the most part, you’ll pronounce every letter that makes up a word – even if the letter is in there twice.
Whereas in English we tend to linger on our vowel sounds, Italians cut vowels short and linger on consonants (double consonants get even more time). This kind of heft given to consonants can change the meaning of words if not done properly. “Penne,” for instance, means “pens.” “Pene,” on the other hand, with only one N, means “penis.” Give the consonants their due and no one has to get out of an awkward conversation with a waiter.
The WYSIWYG idea also applies to the letters at the end of words. For example, the E at the end of “grazie” gets cranky if it’s left out.
You’ve probably heard plenty of Italian speakers roll their Rs, and if you feel comfortable doing that go right ahead. Just know that the ability to roll Rs is actually a genetic trait that not everyone has – and yes, there are Italians who can’t do it, either. In Italy, the inability to roll Rs is considered a speech impediment akin to a lisp.
And this is just the start of the list of peculiarities of Italian…
There are lots of self-study Italian language guides out there, including options for interactive study on the computer, audio guides for your commute, and good old-fashioned workbooks. If you need a more structured environment, I highly recommend looking at the course offerings for your local community college. There are often classes for the community, held on evenings or weekends, that are non-credit. (When I taught Italian ages ago, I taught through my local community college, and it was great fun.)
Some good Italian self-study guides are:
My favorite Italian-English dictionary is at WordReference.com, which also has pronunciation features, examples of word use, and some idiomatic expressions. You can also browse the listings at Forvo.com, which has more than 90,000 pronounced Italian words on the site.
The Italian language we all learn today was once the regional dialect of only one part of present-day Italy. It was the Tuscan dialect spoken in Dante’s time, and when he wrote his now-famous poems he wrote in the language he spoke. Because his work was so widely read, it became the language in which people were educated throughout what is now Italy.
What’s amusing is that it wasn’t until 2007 that the Italian parliament voted to make Italian the official language of Italy.
Regional dialects remain prevalent in all parts of Italy to this day, and most people will speak a dialect at home and with local friends. Sometimes you’ll pick up a word or two in a dialect that sounds like an Italian word, and sometimes dialects sound completely unlike Italian. Don’t worry about learning dialects in addition to Italian, though, as Italian is spoken and understood everywhere in Italy.
The further away from tourist centers you get, the more likely you’ll encounter people who don’t speak much English at all, which is when you’ll be glad you’ve got a few Italian phrases at the ready. And if you’re confused by something in Italian? Do what I always do – blame Dante.