In the first article in this series we talked about how useful it is to focus on sounds first before jumping into any other aspect of Italian language learning. It’s a quick read so if you missed it, and have doubts about that approach, maybe pop over and check it out. And definitely let us know what you think!
In that article, I mentioned there are two devices almost all of us use daily that you can start using to get started in Italian. You surely know one is your phone. Correct! The other is your TV. No surprises here, right? I’ll get back to how to get the most of your devices, at the end of this article.
I also hinted that there is no actual vocabulary you need to learn (or very little) to learn most of these sounds. When we say use your words we mean, quite literally, the 5-10 you already know in Italian. It’s all you need to learn the phonetic system. Let’s get into that, focusing on vowels for now. I’m going to make use here of audio recordings made by my tutor and friend, Rossella Vicidomini. Grazie, Rossella!!! She has written an article giving some context to the sounds discussed here, and she is a part of the MyBelPaese Language Corner collaborative series.
There are seven vowel sounds in Italian: The letter i which, as a vowel sound, is always pronounced like how we say “ee” in English. (I say “as a vowel sound” because there are some cases where i softens a consonant in a way that isn’t intuitive to most English speakers… more about that in a future installment). There are two sounds for e (open and closed). The hard e sound in Italian is slightly softer than the a in the word “mate”, while the soft e as in “elbow”. The letter a has one sound, which is like the sound we make for it in “apple”. There are two sounds for o (open and closed); the open and closed o sounds are like o in “oven” and o in “closed” respectively. There is one sound for u which is like “oo” in English.
If you aren’t familiar with an IPA vowel diagram like the following:
And find it a little intimidating, let me tell you it’s actually really cool and intuitive when you realize that it’s laid out basically as if you were looking at a mouth from a side view…
…with the vowel sounds displayed spatially as they “happen” in the mouth:
For instance, the Italian i in the IPA graphic happens way high and back in the mouth (try it!! Make the ee sound… you’ll see!)
Seven vowel sounds. It’s really nothing. And what’s better, they are all represented in a handful of Italian words you probably don’t need to be taught. For instance, you know the word “buongiorno”:
Both the soft and hard o sound are represented in this word (the soft is the first o, the harder o is the second two o’s in this word).
The Italian sound for a is present in two phrases you likely know: ciao (it’s the same word for hi and bye… brilliant!!) and buonasera:
The harder e sound (which again is more like the letter a in mate, but a tad softer and with no hint of a diphthong, that sound that might make it sound like “mayte”) is present in a word you might not know but will learn soon: piacere. It is a very common word Italians use generally, and very frequently in introduction or after a meeting. Although the grammar of the verb piacere requires more explaining, in terms of the sentiment, in the used in the exact same way as in English, we say “pleasure” in the context of greetings, goodbyes, and “follow-ups”. “Pleasure to meet you”; “the pleasure is mine”; “It was a pleasure…” etc. Here, we hear it in the phrase “piacere di conoscerti”:
Here the harder e is present. We also get the i sound in this phrase, in a few places. Notice how “high” in your mouth the i sound is if you try to repeat the sounds:
Now for softer e: this is where you get some variation in accents and some Italians will pronounce more words with a harder vs. softer e… but you hear the soft e for sure in another word you no doubt know, arrivederci:
And now, u. The vowel sound u is straightforward. You can hear it nicely in a word you may know, tutti (everyone), in the phrase “ciao a tutti”
You also hear it in the word buongiorno, buonasera, buonanotte, and when written in the IPA alphabet you will see u in these words written as w. And yes. It sounds like a “wha” sound in these cases. But if you try to make the sound “oo” (Italian u) and ‘oh’ (Italian o), together, well, you’ll just find, you can’t do it without it sounding like “wha”. Point being, u is a really consistent sound in Italian. It’s always oo. But when it stands next to an “o” it sounds like “wha”.
Let’s go back for just a second to the notion of comparing these to English words. Don’t do it too much. You want to use those comparisons to get the idea of the vowel sounds… but learning the IPA symbols is more useful in my opinion. The reason for this has to do not with the “shape” of the sound, but with its timing. And in Italian, timing is precise. Very precise. Way more precise than in English. For this reason you want to “disconnect” it from references to English, when you are learning sounds. I’ll explain my thinking in the next segment.
As for how to practice these sounds… we said in our first installment, you’re going to want to practice hearing them, and saying them. For speaking, there is no better friend than the voice memo recorder on your phone. Honestly, even if you were in Italy, I would suggest, if you were just learning, that you do this. Italians are quite polite when it comes to their language. It’s possible they wouldn’t correct you even if you say something quite wrong. Your phone on the other hand is both stubbornly insistent on correct pronunciation, (even though it speaks like a total robot—what the heck, phone?) and, it is simultaneously infinitely patient. Seems like a contradiction of terms but it’s not. When it comes to language learning your phone is a best friend. Practice dictating into your voice memo of your phone each day, and make sure the phone is writing what you say, correctly. If not, practice more. You’ll have vowel sounds in Italian licked in no time.
As for listening to the language… you’re going to want to watch tons of TV. Now. Please, please, please, do not think that TV watching is a cop-out to trying to learning a language. If you buy into the idea that something enjoyable and relaxing (assuming this describes your experience of TV) can’t be extremely constructive, you risk leaving the secret weapon to this whole enterprise on the table. It’s like being given the keys to a Ferrari and deciding you’d rather take the bus because anything that fun couldn’t possibly get you to your destination. Wrong. If you don’t want to take my word for it, take a quick listen to this lecture by Alexandra Stepien at a polyglot gathering where she explains how watching your favorite television series in your target language is kind of like a form of teleportation to a workable level of comprehension. There are a few little technical imperfections with this video but the central thesis is flawless. Sooo many shows these days on platforms like Netflix have an option for changing both the spoken and subtitled language settings. Watch crazy amounts of TV in Italian and you’ll see improvement in short time.
Okay, hopefully you’re off having a sidebar with your phone in Italian now, and queuing up to binge your favorite programs in Italian… tell us what you’re watching in the comments below, and please share any other thoughts on the article. And don’t forget to check out Rossella’s first post where she gives some context to the sounds and words we presented here. We will see you in the next segment!
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!