If you plan to do anything “in-depth” in Italy–live there, work there, retire there, research roots, or travel there frequently– it will enrich your life and make the whole process easier if you learn at least a little of one of the most beautiful languages on earth.
And there is some good news. You can start speaking Italian right now with an easy tip that will get you comfy with one entire aspect of the language, quickly. How?
First, let’s establish who is talking and who is the right audience for this article. Full disclosure, I am not a language learning expert and I do not currently live in Italy. However, I did learn Italian entirely remotely, to about a “B2” level (“good enough”) in about two years, and improved progressively after that. And I did this at the age of, ahem, over 30. (I mention for those of you who believe languages can only be learned as children; it’s patently false.) Apart from studying French in high school, which gave me a good foundation for the type of grammar rules to expect with a Romance language, I didn’t speak any other languages besides English prior to learning Italian. This should give hope to remote language learners, for whom this article is intended; if you live in Italy already, you might have a different approach. This series will focus on methods that work when there aren’t a lot of Italians around. And for remote learners, hope should indeed abound. It’s fun and exhilarating to learn Italian without needing to be there, or, when you can’t be.
So, before you get into learning words, conversations, or god forbid, dreaded grammar; before you download apps that teach you words like “apple” and “chair” (and other words which, oddly, although they seem common, you just don’t use that frequently) you will benefit from doing something more fundamental: focus on learning the sounds. Why? You might think it’s because Italian is such a lovely language, but it’s not the primary reason (although it is important… I’ll get to that in a minute).
A more central reason to learn sounds first is that it is an aspect of language learning that feels “doable”. Many people will tell you that language learning is just a matter of “learning one word at a time”. But this can actually seem overwhelming when you know that there are tens of thousands of words to eventually learn. You need to reach a milestone sooner than that.
Fortunately, it’s completely possible to do that by focusing on sounds first. The phonology of any given language is a closed system; and in the case of Italian, it is a very manageable one. English has twenty vowel sounds. Italian has seven. SEVEN. Ahh. It’s such a relief. In fact, most Italians are somewhat relaxed about open vs. closed O and E sounds, making the actual different vowel sounds you need to learn closer to five.
If you learn these vowel sounds—which we all know are liberally applied throughout the Italian language—plus some rules around the pronunciation of consonants like c and g, plus the emphasis on the geminated consonant; as an English speaker, you are pretty much there with the sounds of Italian. Most other Italian sounds are 100% intuitive to English native speakers and pronounced exactly as we would “sound them out”. It should take you a matter of weeks if you work at it a bit every day. What else has this kind of satisfying return on investment?
A second reason to learn sounds first, is that this discrete piece of learning, usually achievable in short time compared to vocabulary and grammar, is also, in a sense, “everything”. Learning sounds first is not only doable, but extremely foundational. With the phonology of a language in your toolkit, you have everything you need to hear and say every word in the language. This is very important on your psyche when it comes to conquering a long-term task like learning a language. There’s tremendous satisfaction from knowing you mastered an aspect of that large task and don’t need to worry about it anymore. Vocabulary is something you will endlessly expand as a language learner. Sounds on the other hand, well, once you’ve got them, you’ve got them.
And. You should use them, right from the beginning, and practice them frequently. You should SAY them and you should HEAR them. It takes more than just understanding vocabulary or grammar to be able to make words spring readily—and correctly!—out of your mouth. Your mouth muscles need to be strengthened around the sounds of the language. A good example for English speakers is the vowel sound “i” which in Italian is pronounced like the ee sound in “feet”. It’s not that we don’t make this sound in English, but we do not do it anywhere near as frequently as Italians, and we don’t do it much with the letter “i”. We tend to use a soft “i” as in the word “it” or we pronounce i like “eye”. The soft “i” in English happens in the front of the mouth. But the Italian “i” is high in the back of the mouth. It takes some practice for English native speakers to say the sound “ee” when they pronounce a word with an “i” in Italian. Similarly, your ear needs to be trained to hear the sounds of the language, and to parse sounds into recognizable words once you start learning them. Trust me, they don’t sound the same when you learn them on a flashcard as when an Italian starts hurling them at you at “The Normal Pace of Italian Speaking”, which can feel like the verbal equivalent of watching a Formula 1 race.
One more thing… Italians are pretty forgiving with their language. If you don’t learn that high-in-the-back-of-the-mouth “ee” sound for “i”, they are going to know what you mean if you say it more like the “i” in “it”, and nine times out of ten they will not even correct you. They are just so nice about their language!! But as I mentioned in the beginning, the final reason for learning Italian sounds correctly, is because Italian sounds lovely. You’re just going to be happier with your future self if, after all the work put in, the sounds that are coming out of your mouth sound, well, Italian.
Now. You’re also going to be pleased and relieved when I tell you that there are two tools you probably use a lot, that can help you to speak and listen in Italian, right away, AND, that most of the Italian phonology rules can be encountered in common greetings and “goodbyes” that Italians say all the time. In fact, some of these, you probably already know! For these, read our next segment on hacking Italian!
The MyBelPaese Language Corner is a collaborative series between an American learning Italian in New York City, and two Italian sisters from Ischia who work as Italian teachers and translators. We aim to mix the perspectives of a person who has remotely learned Italian to a level of comfortable conversation, with the expertise of professional language teachers who are Italian native speakers. It’s all about helping people in our community who want to learn Italian, get started with this beautiful language.
If you’ve decided you’d like to learn Italian, you can swing by the Language Corner and add it to your favorites, we’ll keep you posted on new articles to help you stay on track!