Tricks & Tips
The following are some techinques for making learning Italian fun and easy.
Tip #1: Don't be afraid—Have fun!
Too many people are afraid of making mistakes and sounding silly. Well, guess what—you're a foreigner, so you'll sound silly anyway! Even if you only know a few words, just use those few words and don't resort to English. You can "talk around" many subjects, especially with gestures and common references. For example, let's say you don't know the word for "eggplant." You can say "Where is the thing that's like this [hands showing approximate size/shape]...black...good with pasta?" (Dov'è una cosa cosi...nero...buona con la pasta?) Is it perfect? No! But it gets the point across, and the more you speak, the more comfortable you'll get. Italians (especially Southern Italians) are extremely forgiving of errors, and are usually delighted that you're trying to speak their language.
Tip #2: Talk like an Italian.
As much as possible, try to learn proper pronunciation and intonation. Don't be afraid of sounding silly—if it sounds funny, it's probably correct! Not only will this make speaking Italian more fun and easy, but it will be easier for them to understand you. Many times if you say an English word with an Italian accent, they will understand you better.
Example: I helped organize an event at a bowling alley for a bunch of Americans. One of the Americans had trouble getting a waiter to understand her order for a "Coke Zero" and called me over to "translate"...all I did was pronounce it the Italian way ("KOH-cah ZEH-roh") and the waiter understood immediately. (To explain: when most Americans say "zero", to an Italian it sounds like zio, which is "uncle"...no wonder the waiter was confused!)
Tip #3: Take advantage of cognates.
Italian and English have borrowed many words from each other (either directly or indirectly), and there are also many common roots (since so much of English is based on Latin, the "mother" of Italian). If you know what kinds of words are similar, and how they sound in Italian, you can make educated guesses about words you may not know. For example...
- abitare = to live (think: to habitate)
- mani = hands (think: manipulate)
- sale = salt (think: desalinate)
- prenotazione = reservation (think: pre-notation)
- anno = year (think: A.D. = anno domini)
- ballare = to dance (think: ballet)
- macchina = car (think: machine)
- nato (or nata) = born (think: neo-natal...also Christmas, the birth of Jesus, is Natale)
- scrivere = to write (think: scribble...or scribe)
- capello = hat (think: cap...also capelli = hair)
...and these are the hard ones. It should be easy for you to figure out words like informazione (information), bistecca (steak), and foto (photo)...not to mention more recent borrowings like marketing, privacy, and all-you-can-eat.
Also: did you take music lessons growing up? Try to remember all the Italian words: Presto ma non troppo = Fast but not too much, Fermata = stop, Scherzo = joke (think of the playful nature of the 2nd movement to Beethoven's 9th), Forte = loud, Piano = soft...not to mention instruments like the piccolo (a "small" flute) or basso (a "low" instrument)
Tip #4: Force yourself out of your comfort zone.
Force yourself to speak Italian—only Italian—as much as possible. Even practice with co-workers/friends who have already learned or who are learning with you. Just like you'll never get physically fit unless you push yourself, you'll never get good at Italian unless you push yourself.
Tip #5: Start with what you know/like
Read, learn, and talk about stuff that interests you: Cars, sports, music, food, whatever it is. See if you can find stores and activities out in town that mesh with your hobbies and interests. Look up stuff on the internet—maybe even try watching YouTube videos in Italian on those subjects.
Tip #6: Make Up Memory Cues
Memory cues called "mnemonics" use the sounds of words to help you remember them. For example:
- Stanco means "tired." You could imagine the following conversation: "How tired were you?" "Stinking tired—so tired that I stank-o"
- Sporco means "dirty." "My plate is dirty because I had trouble using the spork-o"
- As noted on food words, pesce means fish but pesca means peach...remember that "fish has the sh sound"
- Spiedo means "rotisserie." At least one Italian rotisserie chicken place has incorrectly translated this as "Speedy Chicken"—an easy way to remember the word for "rotisserie"!
You get the idea—if it isn't an actual cognate (tip 3) then make something up to help you remember!
Tip #7: Find Patterns
You can often find patterns that help you figure out what the Italian equivalent of an English word is, or vice versa. For example, if an English word starts with "bl", "pl", or "fl", it's likely that the Italian starts with "bi", "pi", or "fi":
- blank --> bianco (also means "white")
- plant --> pianta
- flower --> fiore
- flank --> fianco (also means "side")
- plan/plain/plane --> piano (means all three, plus "soft," "slow," "floor," or the instrument [pianoforte])
- plaza --> piazza
- plus --> più (also means "more")
- Florence/Florentine --> Firenze/Fiorentino
- ...lots of other examples (planet-->pianeta, pleasure-->piacere, blonde-->bionda, flame-->fiamma, flask-->fiasco, plate/platter-->piatto, plumage-->piuma)
There is a similar rule where "bs"+vowel in English often becomes "ss"+vowel in Italian.
Tip #8: Talk to Yourself
One way of rapidly increasing your comfort with speaking—and helping you to remember words—is to talk to yourself. For example, in the car, have a conversation with yourself in Italian about how your day went. Or, especially when you are just starting out, just use a new word you learned in every context you can think of (for example, say you just learned the word casa—"house": Make up phrases and sentences like La casa grande "The big house" La casa è bella "The house is beautiful" Ho una casa a New York "I have a house in New York" E questo la sua casa? "Is this your house?"). Not only will you get valuable practice speaking the language, but there's no pressure! Also, you will inevitably discover words that you don't know but wish you did: this is the time to use tip #1 and see if you can talk around it using words you do know. Then, when you have access to a dictionary, look up the word...and then make up phrases to practice that word! This is also a good way to practice prior to a conversation with an Italian: let's say you are taking your car to the mechanic. You can look up key vocabulary at car words, and then practice a bunch of phrases that might come up by talking to yourself. When you get to the real mechanic, you'll already have lots of practice talking about cars!
Tip #9: Use Songs
Learning words to Italian songs (or even making up your own) makes learning easier—because things set to music are easier to remember, but also because repeating a song over and over again is more fun than saying the same thing over and over again.