You might be wondering: Is learning Italian a walk in the park or an Olympic challenge? Truthfully, Italian is neither inherently easy nor difficult. For many native English speakers, it’s an easier experience to learn Italian if they have knowledge of French or Spanish. That’s because these languages belong to the Romance language family, so they have similarities in both vocabulary and grammar structures. Whatever your prior knowledge, you should focus on what’ll be easy for you as an English speaker and what matches your motivations for learning the language.
Here are 5 specific tips to learn Italian so your learning journey is easy!
1. Find Cognates (And Thank The French And The Romans)
We’ve already noted that Italian is easier with some knowledge of French, but did you know that all English speakers do? It’s true! Yes, you might already know that English is a Germanic language (sharing linguistic ties to German, Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian and Danish), but over 30% of English words have French origins. Three centuries of Norman presence on British soil didn’t fade away unnoticed, especially regarding language. For this reason, you shouldn’t have problems understanding Italian words like castello, architettura, caramello, autore and others.
But it’s not only this French influence that helps you decode Italian. Let’s not forget the presence of Latin in Britain, which the Romans first introduced when they arrived on the isle in the 1st century BC and again with the cultural influences of the Renaissance. Because of this historical precedent, you’ll be able to understand words like centro, memoria, and energia before you even start your first Italian lesson!
The rule here is to find cognates between Italian and English — trust them and add them to your vocabulary. This will be easy and very, very productive!
2. Start Loving Irregular Verbs
This is something no language learner wants to hear: The most common Italian verbs are almost all irregular. The auxiliary verbs essere (to be) and avere (to have), the modal verbs potere (can), volere (want) and dovere (must), as well as the common andare (to go), dire (to say) and fare (to make/do) are all irregular.
But is it all bad news? Not at all! Learn these conjugations as you would any new vocabulary — with some daily practice. Even 15 minutes a day can be enough and is definitely better than nothing. Find a rhythm that you can apply to the conjugation, repeat it aloud as if it were a mantra, and then commit. There’s also some good news for those who accept this meditative challenge: subject pronouns (I, you, she, he, we…) are almost never used in Italian. Once you know these most common verbs, you’ll be able to manage in many situations from the very beginning.
3. Understand The Secrets Of Proper Pronunciation
This trick is an easy one: Italian is spoken like it’s written.
Maybe as a native English speaker you’re not aware of what a blessing this is, so let’s explain it the other way around: How would an Italian know that “daughter” and “laughter,” which only differ in one letter, are pronounced so differently? Or what about “through,” “cough” and “though”?
With Italian that’s a different story — any single letter has a specific pronunciation, and it’s not up for interpretation. For example, the letter A is always pronounced like the A in “bar.” The only exception is that some letters change their pronunciation according to the letter following them. G has two different pronunciations depending on its nearby vowels: It sounds like the G in “goat” when it’s followed by A, O or U — words like gatto (cat), gorilla and gufo (owl) — or it can be pronounced in a softer way, like in “gentle,” if it’s followed by an E or an I. Examples include genio (genius) or giro (tour).
The R is always clearly pronounced, but doesn’t always have to be rolled. There are many ways of pronouncing the Italian R (more than 10!), so don’t feel weird if you can’t do it at the beginning. Too easy for you? Try to say this: “trentatré trentini entrarono a Trento tutti e trentatré trotterellando” (33 people from Trento entered Trento, trotting along, all 33). Got it?
4. Prepare For Grammar That Isn’t In English
It might seem scary learning topics that don’t appear in your native language, but take it slow — it’s easier than it looks. Let’s start with gender. Many of the nouns in Italian end with -a or -o, which means that they’re feminine or masculine, respectively (with some small exceptions). Nouns ending in -e can be feminine or masculine, so here comes the next trick: the ending “-zione” is always feminine. The final piece of advice we can give on Italian grammatical gender is that adjectives use exactly the same endings as the words they are describing! Isn’t it easy?
Now let’s look at some articles. In the grammatical standoff of definite articles, Italian wins 7-1 against English (which could only play a pitiful “the”). “The” translated 7 different ways may sound frightening, but there’s nothing difficult about the rules that guide their usage. For example, la is the feminine (singular) article for all nouns except those starting with a vowel. Those words just use l’. Meanwhile, le is used for feminine plural nouns. Masculine definite articles have similar rules, but we’ll let you figure the other half out.
5. Don’t Forget Your Motivation
It’s important to remember why you started on this journey to learn Italian. This is obviously a very general tip, valid for learning Italian or any other language. Whether your dream is to herd sheep grazing on the slopes of the Italian Alps, to become the next ambassador to Italy, or you just want to take a cooking course in Naples: Focus on your goal. Dive deep into the vocabulary that will help you understand the topics you want to be able to discuss. Start speaking from the very beginning, maybe with someone that you can talk with in Italian. Read, watch TV and movies and never stop pushing towards your goal.