Expat Essentials

Learning Italian, Pt. 2: Okay, now for the tricky part

(Editor’s note: This is Pt. 2 of a two-part series about learning Italian. You can jump to Pt. 1 here.)

Ever dream of living in a villa in Tuscany?

The good news is, learning Italian – like every European language – has it quirks and challenges. For Americans, the cognates and more consistent pronunciation make it easier to learn than say, Lithuanian. But now comes the hard part: It’s not all pasta and villas.

After the introduction in Pt. 1, and the focus on what’s easy, we’re going to dive into the intricacies of Italian so you’ll be better prepared to achieve fluency and impress your Italian friends.

WHAT’S DIFFICULT OR UNIQUE

Grammatical items that I found difficult or unique were as follows: pronouns, verbs, other prepositions and the “ornateness” of many elements of the language, such as articles, adjectives, and agreement. 

Pronouns

One thing that is interesting about Italian is that they have pronouns, but they don’t typically use them except for clarity or emphasis because each verb ending is unique, which indicates what the subject is. 

For instance: 

parlo – I speak,

parli – you speak (singular),

parla – he/she speaks,

parliamo – we speak,

parlate – you speak (plural),

parlano (stress is on the first syllable) – they speak. 

Verbs

Since there are six verb forms for each verb tense, which are all spelled differently as you saw above, they will take a while to learn. One thing that will help you is that there are lots of regular verbs (are, ere, ire), just like in French, but there are also irregular ones, which are more challenging.  So be prepared to spend time on your verbs! 

The six verb forms and many verb tenses (present, past, future, conditional, subjunctive, imperative, reflexive) will make you crazy, but don’t give up.

You can say a lot with the present and past tenses. 

Other prepositions

Some prepositions are not straightforward, such as al pesto (with pesto), a Venezia (in Venice) or da Alberto (at Alberto’s), for example, if they do not have a one-to-one correspondence with the language you know. 

Articles, adjectives and agreement

As far as articles, adjectives and agreement, the Italian language is much more complicated than the other European languages I have studied, though Spanish is a close second. 

For instance, in English, we would say “the book,” “the books,” “the red book”, “the red books” with only one form of the article “the” and the adjective “red”. 

In Italian, because the book is masculine, they would say il libro, i libri, il libro rosso, i libri rossi.  Note that the article and the adjective change when going from singular to plural.  (English doesn’t have gender, which is simple unless you are used to gender.  French only has one plural form, not two, which makes it easier than Italian.) 

Here’s another instance: In English we would say “the house,” “the houses,” “the red house,” “the red houses.”  In Italian, because house is feminine, they would say, la casa, le case, la casa rossa, le case rosse

In these two examples, you have four forms of the article (il, i, la, le) and four forms of the adjective (rosso, rossi, rossa, rosse), and that is just the beginning! There are more forms of the article, such as l’ and gli, if the word begins with a vowel or other particular sounds. 

But try not to get too discouraged, this is the difficult part about Italian! 

TIPS AND TRICKS

  • Remember Italian is phonic, so be sure to memorize the rules of pronunciation, which will also tell you how to spell the language.
  • Recall that the stress on each word is usually on the second to last syllable for words of more than one syllable. Think pizza and gelato. 
  • Don’t forget most nouns ending in “o” are masculine and most ending in “a” are feminine.
  • When studying nouns, if you are not used to doing this already, make sure you memorize the article and gender of each noun, such as il vino (the wine or wine, masculine), la musica (the music, feminine), il fiore (the flower, masculine), and la creazione (the creation, feminine), so you will get your agreement correct. 
  • To make an adverb, start with the adjective, and follow the three rules for adding “mente.”
  • For pronouns, you will only use them for emphasis or clarity. 
  • Spend time on your verbs and memorize the six forms of each one
  • Draw on your knowledge of Romance languages or Latin to help you understand vocabulary and grammatical concepts more easily. French will help you the most!  But Spanish, Portuguese, and some Romanian will help you, too. 
  • Use your knowledge of English, which gets 30 percent of its vocabulary from French.
  • Look for English and other foreign words, such as il computer, la privacy, to help you with your vocabulary.  FYI-If the foreign word ends in a y or a vowel, it will be feminine.  If it ends in a consonant, it will be masculine. 
  • Another helpful thing is, German uses “to have” and “to be” with transitive and intransitive verbs in the compound past in the same way.  
  • Lastly, memorize the pleasantries, such as buon giorno (hello/good morning), buona sera (good evening), arrivederci (goodbye), per favore (please), prego (you are welcome), grazie (thank you), and scusi (excuse me), which are easy because you will hear them all the time as you are entering and exiting stores, going to restaurants and being out and about. They will also endear you to people! 
  • You will probably also hear buona giornata (have a good day) and buona serata (have a nice evening). Ciao is casual for hello and goodbye—use it with your friends, not people you don’t know unless they use it first. Buona notte is if you are literally going to bed. 

I hope this introductory guide will help you on your Italian language journey.

Buon divertimento!  Have fun!! 

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Read more from Mary here.

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Mary Porcella is a Europhile who has lived in Germany, Norway, Italy, and the U.S.  She is a writer, editor, and photographer. She loves seeing new places, returning to old haunts, and meeting up with family and friends.  As of today, her travels have taken her to 20 European countries, and she hopes to visit the rest.

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