How To Speak Italian
History of the Language
Italian is one of the five main Romance languages – along with Spanish, French, Portuguese and Romanian. The term Romance has nothing to do with how romantic the Italian are (although they do have their reputation), but instead refers to the Latin phrase “romanica loqui”, meaning "to speak in Roman fashion.” When Latin speakers first began settling in the far corners of the Roman empire, their language collided with indigenous languages and the resulting mix formed new Latin dialects. When the Roman empire was in decline and Rome finally lost control over the provinces, these dialects finally diverged into distinct languages.
85 million people worldwide speak Italian fluently as a native or second language. Although Italian is only an official language in Italy, Switzerland and San Marino, dialects are spoken across the Adriatic in Croatia and Slovenia. Italian is also widely spoken by expatriate groups in North and South America, Australia and parts of Northern Africa. Italian is the most widely spoken non-official language in Europe and the second most-spoken foreign language in Canada, Australia and Argentina.
8 ½ Reasons To Love Italy
Since first emerging from vernacular Latin, Italian has developed into an international language strongly associated with high culture. During the Renaissance, the Italian city-states led the world in producing new artistic, architectural, theatrical, literary and musical forms. Italian still dominates terminology in the arts, especially music; tempo, orchestra, opera, aria, a capella, piano, viola, violin, cello, soprano, alto, bass, tenor and virtuoso all come from Italian. Italy continued to represent the height of European culture in the 18th century. All the elites from England to Germany learned Italian in order to tour the country, soak up the sunshine, visit the opera, admire millennia-worth of amazing art and architecture, and enjoy the cuisine.
In the aftermath of WWII, a cinematic Italian Renaissance rose from the rubble and confusion; film directors like Vittorio de Sica and Roberto Rossellini founded Neorealism, a stark, unblinking look at real people and real societal problems. Neorealism revolutionized world cinema – influencing the French New Wave, the Polish Film School and up-and-coming Hollywood auteurs – and ushered in further generations of daring, expressive filmmakers like Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, Sergio Leone and Dario Argento. From ancient Rome, to the Renaissance, straight through to the modern era, Italy has been at the vanguard of the arts. Rome has gone from center of an ancient empire to center of a massive film industry, Milan remains synonymous with high fashion, Florence still attracts students of art, and Venice hosts a highly influential international film festival and the Venice Biennale (“The Olympics of the contemporary art world”).
Most people who learn Italian do so to visit Italy. If you plan to follow in the 18th century tradition of the “Italian Grand Tour” – immersing yourself in the art, architecture, music and cuisine – it is a huge advantage to learn how to speak Italian. Knowing the language offers a level of immersion unavailable to tourists with their noses in phrase books. With Babbel’s award-winning language tools, you’ll be free to ditch the tour groups, get to know the locals and gain an intimate perspective of Italy.
La Lingua Franca Autentica
With its immense cultural influence, it’s no wonder that so many Italian words have been adopted by English. There are the obvious transplants, most relating to food, like al dente, barista, broccoli, latte, espresso, pizza and ravioli, but you might be surprised to learn that hundreds more English words are borrowed from Italian. Music is not the only art form dominated by the language; Italian has given us the words chiaroscuro, graffiti, terra-cotta, novel, stanza, motto, finale, scenario, studio, extravaganza and bravo. We owe English words relating to finance, like bank, bankrupt, capitalism, finance, management, merchandise, money and sale, to medieval Italian merchants who essentially invented modern banking. We also constantly rely on Italian-derived names when describing the natural world: archipelago, lagoon, marina, riviera, lava, volcano, plus animal names like tarantula and zebra all come from Italian. The continents of America were named after the Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci. Even the term lingua franca, which means common language, is Italian. Surprised that you already say Italian words every day? Ditto.
Pronunciation and Grammar
For beginners trying to learn Italian, correctly pronouncing words can seem daunting at first. Italian spelling and pronunciation are actually straightforward, once you know the differences from English. The most confusing aspects are diphthongs – two-vowel combinations that make a single sound (like the ou in sound) – when combined in a sequence. Four vowels in a row – like in gioiello (jewel) can look like a mess until you become acquainted with the usual diphthong pairs. Combinations of consonants (consonantic digraphs) can seem tricky when sch makes a sk sound, ch sounds like the English k, and gh makes an English g sound. Although, if you think about it, the English gh making an f sound is much stranger. With the help of Babbel’s speech recognition feature you will be able to practice your accent and help ensure that your Italian is understandable.
Italian grammar may at first seem strange to an English-speaker, but its rules are actually easier and less irregular than English grammar. Once you have a handle on Italian grammar, the rules are effectively unchanged for Spanish, French and Portuguese. Since they are all derived from Latin, the Romance languages have several grammatical rules in common: adjectives come after the noun they modify, all verbs are conjugated, the subject-verb order is inverted when asking a question, and all nouns have a gender designation. Being familiar with one Romance language will allow you to pick up others more easily.
Ways to Learn Italian
Over 20 million people today speak Italian as a second language or are currently learning. There are several options available when learning how to speak Italian: hiring a private tutor, enrolling in a language course (in school or online), studying alone with a CD-ROM or audio course, joining an exchange program, or practicing conversational Italian with a native speaker (a so-called tandem partner). All of these strategies can be effective, although some (tutors and CD-ROMS) can be expensive, while classes and exchange programs are also a huge time commitment. The fastest way to pick up Italian – and the biggest commitment by far – is still immersion. Moving to a Italian-speaking country requires you to pick up the language in order to live day-to-day. This survival pressure usually produces fluency within a few months. If you do plan to immerse yourself in Italian, it’s not a bad idea to prepare beforehand with one of the methods mentioned above. If you don’t have much spare time, an online program like Babbel may be your best bet.
Learn Italian the Babbel Way
Babbel’s Italian course is affordable, accessible online and via mobile devices, and proven to strengthen your reading, listening, speaking and comprehension skills. As a Babbel user, you have access to a diverse program of grammar, conjugation, pronunciation, listening comprehension and writing exercises. You can practice online or via your iPhone or Android device. Whether you are too busy for a language class, a complete beginner, needing to brush up before a vacation or business trip, or wanting to re-learn everything you forgot in high school, Babbel can be customized to your needs.
Try your first Italian lesson for free and discover Babbel’s easy and intuitive course system which determines your individual level and accommodates different learning styles. You can learn at your own pace, set your own lesson plans and receive helpful hints whenever you need them. You will also be joining an entire community of learners. Babbel users can easily share questions, experiences and advice via message boards and chat, and the Babbel support team is always only a message away. Take the test to see your current level of Italian.