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Italian Language Profile
Home > Languages > Italian

Popularity: Difficulty: 
Many people consider Italian as the most beautiful spoken language in the world, and I am one of them. Speaking in Italian about opera, painting, design, architecture, cooking, love or god makes you feel you finally understood the topic.
Other topics on this page: Introduction ¦ Usefulness ¦ Chic factor ¦ Countries ¦ Speakers ¦ Economic Importance ¦ Travel ¦ Variations ¦ Culture ¦ Difficulties ¦ Pronunciation ¦ Grammar ¦ Vocabulary ¦ Transparency ¦ Spelling ¦ Time needed ¦ Ressources ¦ Books ¦

Introduction
Usefulness

The choice to learn Italian is most often one of love rather than reason. Unless you have a special reason (family, travel, interest in Vatican affairs or art history), you should probably begin with either French or Spanish, two languages closely related to Italian, then learn Italian at a later stage.

If you live in Italy or want to travel regulary, a knowledge of Italian will increase your experience manifold. Many Italians do not speak anything but Italian. If they realize you speak Italian they can become very talkative - and talkative they can be! Italians do not expect visitors to speak their language and, in my experience, they are quite forgiving of language mistakes and are willing to speak more to compensate for your relative muteness. This makes for an encouraging climate for the language learner.

 
Chic factor

Italian tends to be seen as a language of the arts and gastronomy. In the US, UK and Japan, Italian has the aroma of upper class, where people could afford to spend time learning a beautiful and culturally attractive language with no direct economic utility.

If come from an Italian background, speaking Italian might not be seen as chic, but just some sign that you are close to your community. Some might even call you a dago - don't listen to them.

In countries where a Romance language is spoken, Italian is seen as an easy language. Thus, unless you already speak other more difficult languages, people might assume that you chose an "easy language" because that is all you could manage to learn. This is certainly so in France and Switzerland.

With these two caveats in mind, I'd say that Italian enjoys a very high chic factor.

A word of caution that I hope will be useless : Stay clear of the cheap show-offs sometimes seen in the USA who like to drop a few badly misspelled Italian words, like they would "casually" mention they had dinner with Madonna, in the vain hope that they look smart. The perhaps do to an illiterate audience, but this is a stupid and arrogant strategy and you should take every opportunity to knock them down if you ever encounter one.

CountriesItaly, Switzerland, San Marino and the Vatican
Speakers

Italian is mainly spoken in Italy, with 58 million native speakers. Other countries where it is an official language include San Marino and the Vatican, two tiny enclaves within Italy, and Ticino, a Swiss canton with a population of 840,000. Italian is also spoken in some areas of Croatia and Slovenia.

Expatriate communities abroad make up for an additional 5 million speakers.

Economic importance

Italy has one of the world's top ten economies - way bigger than Russia's for instance (table of languages sorted by combined GDP of the countries where they are spoken). If you work in the furniture, design or construction industries, Italian will be an important asset for your job.

Buying and especially selling from the Italians necessitates a lot of personal contacts. Many Italian businessmen, even those who deal with clients outside Italy, do not speak anything but Italian. Italian companies often have someone in charge of exports who speaks some English, but remember that the great majority of Italian companies are small to medium family companies with up to a few hundred people. If you speak Italian you can normally directly deal with the owner or his children and get better terms.

Travel

Traveling to Italy is intensely pleasurable, with about everything you can dream of : the richest archeological sites in Europe, entire Roman towns miraculously preserved for you to visit, cathedrals, roman circuses, monasteries, paintings, sculptures, lovely historical towns, immaculate beaches and ski resorts.

But Italy is not only about the past. Italian gastronomy is one of the most attractive in the world, with hundreds of varieties of cheeses, breads and wines. Hundreds of highly creative Italian cooks create new dishes with traditional inspiration in artfully decorated restaurants.

A knowledge of Italian will tremendously increase your travel experience by offering you the opportunity to converse with people. Especially in Southern Italy, most people you will meet will be glad to have a chiacchierata (informal conversation) with you. After many years I still remember some conversations with people on the street, at kiosks, restaurants, bakeries, museums, bookshops, and so on. The memories you will bring back will be not only made of stone monument but also of people.

The main problem when traveling in Italy seems to be that you have to go back.

Outside of Italy, the small but beautiful Swiss canton of Ticino is well worth a visit. The Italian spoken there lacks the manly rolled R so enjoyable in Italian, but the place is beautiful.

Variations

Many regional dialects are spoken in Italy. The country was unified only in the 19th century, and regional differences in culture and economic development are still strong.

The standard Italian (the one you can learn) is originally from Tuscany. Tuscans like to poke fun at regional accents, and especially that of Rome, with the saying Lingua toscana in bocca romana ("Tuscan language in a Roman mouth").

Everybody in Italy speaks standard Italian, so you should not worry about those dialects. Unless you plan to live in a village for 20 years, or marry into a Sicilian family, there is no reason why you should need to learn one of those dialects.

Culture

Italian culture is dominant in many areas and there are many ways to enjoy it from the confort of your home:

Italian designers of modern furniture and every day items are famous all over the world. I attended many times various trade shows in Milan, including the famous Fiera di Milano where almost every furniture maker in Italy displays his latest creations. This is a unique experience. If you are interested in design, a knowledge of Italian will give you direct access to this world, through trade shows, trade publications and numerous books about contemporary creations.

Italian fashion is sold the world over, and Italian fashion houses such as Armani, Versace or Gucci have become household names in most countries. This is an expensive pursuit but fashion victims should dream about coming to Milan and ransack the shops on Via Montenapoleone while not attending fashion shows.

Italian gastronomy can be enjoyed at a much higher level if you speak Italian. When visiting Italy, there are numerous markets you can visit, such as the one of Piazza Campo dei Fiori in Rome. On these open air, weekly markets, small merchants would come from the country to pitch their local cheeses, prosciutto (hams), zucchini flowers and other vegetables, homemade pastries, olive oils and other delicacies. Most of these come from small producers and if you speak Italian, you can spend hours tasting and discussing the relative merits of each prosciutto or asking exactly where the tartufi bianchi (white truffles) came from and how good they are this year. Back home, you can enjoy many fine Italian recipe books and books about specific products, all in Italian. Only a small fraction of these books are translated, so the knowledge of the language not only increases your experience, but lets you access more information.

Art History - anybody serious about it must learn Italian. Ask anyone who studies Art History at University. Many academic books on the topic are available only in Italian, and when visiting Italy, most museums have notices only in Italian.

Architecture, ancient and mordern, is serious topics in Italy. There is a two thousand year old continuous tradition of designing beautiful buildings in Italy. Consequently, there is a wealth of architectural books and magazines available only in Italian - all very enjoyable.

Opera buffs will not need convincing but for the rest of us, let's not forget that the majority of popular operas are in Italian. Sure, the Italian in La Traviata or Don Giovanni is slightly different from the one spoken now, but if you want to get a full enjoyment of these works, understanding the libretto is a must. And you will be able to sing your favorite airs, with every single world distinctly pronounced, while cooking or under the shower. This is one of the nicest way I have found to practice the language!

Italian pop music is no opera, but there are great songs of hit parade grade. My own preferences are all time disco hits, such as Ti amo by Umberto Tozzi, L'Italiano (Lasciatemi cantare) by Toto Cutugno or FelecitÓ (Al Bano e Romina Power).  Top Italian pop songs are world class, easy to learn and let you practice the language in a highly recreative way.

Roman History - Italians are the closest heirs to the ancient Romans, and if you want to study Roman History, Italian is just as useful as Latin. There are thousands of books in Italian about the Romans, both academic and for the general public. They make an amazing reading. For instance, I have a book about the food in ancient Rome and a very detailed study about the use of concrete (yes, concrete) in Roman buildings, with studies of dozens of samples taken from various monuments.

The catholic church, although universal in its vocation, is more present in Italy than anywhere else. You see priests and nuns all over the place, and bishops and cardinals in Rome. If you stay long enough you can probably catch the pope at a religious function if you feel like it. No matter your religious belief, this is a fun aspect of Italy and newspapers and TV are filled with reports of the church, interviews of priests, news about the latest canonizations. A street in Rome is entirely dedicated to selling clothes for priests, equipment to say Mass in the field and of course hundreds of crucifixes.

Italian books can now easily be ordered from outside Italy using the Internet. My personal choice is Internet Bookshop Italia, which always delivered books on time and were pleasant to deal with. Non-fiction books are of high quality and there are many excellent novels, modern and classical, as well as captivating books on contemporary affairs in Italy. As always, reading novels requires much more vocabulary than reading non-fiction.

Italian newspapers are now easily accessible through the Internet. Among the most famous are the serious Milan daily Il Corriere della Sera, Torino based La Stampa or the Roman La Reppublica. I also use a lot Google News Italia.

Italian television - for those who can receive it - is better than its reputation. People like to poke fun at the many silly games and talk shows on Italian TV, but my own experience is that there are many gems out there. When you turn on the news in the evening, an electric Italian blond anchorwomen tells you in the finest Italian about the news of the day. Some local Italian news is quite baroque, and you get to see interview of people on the street from all over Italy. On talk shows you can see colorful Italian politicians in heated discussions about societal issues with bearded cardinals. On Sundays a helicopter flies over some of the most spectacular historical towns in Italy, stopping at pre-arranged spots where huge italian matronas prepared endless tables covered with local food specialties, then historians explain the history of the local monuments, etc... This is so captivating you can barely turn the TV off.

Italian movies were once famous all over the world. The movie industry is now in decline, but if you don't mind looking at older movies, there are many treasures out there. And you can get them on DVD with subtitles - this doesn't hurt.

 
Other topics on this page: Introduction ¦ Usefulness ¦ Chic factor ¦ Countries ¦ Speakers ¦ Economic Importance ¦ Travel ¦ Variations ¦ Culture ¦ Difficulties ¦ Pronunciation ¦ Grammar ¦ Vocabulary ¦ Transparency ¦ Spelling ¦ Time needed ¦ Ressources ¦ Books ¦
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Difficulties
 
Difficulty

I rate this language as - quite easy to learn. The difficulties of conjugation and words accentuation are not huge in comparison to other languages, and Italian orthograph is much easier than French.

Pronunciation

Italian is fun and easy to pronunciate with the exception of the rolled r. Only one letter is not such a big deal, and after some practice you will be thrilled not only at the virile r 's you will roll out, but also at the amazing musical rhytm of Italian words.

You need to make sure that you get the intonation right - like in English. If you do not pronounce some parts of the word louder than others, people will probably not understand you. And you'll miss half the fun.

Italian intonation is actually similar to English but more regular. Native English speakers might not notice it, but when a foreigner speaks a word like elevator with equal stress on each letter, many people will not understand. You need to accentuate some sounds ( elevator) to get the word across. Native speakers do it naturally, but second language speaker must pay special attention to master this aspect of the language.

In Italian, words are written in such way that you can immediately tell how to pronounce them. For instance, when a consonant is doubled, it means the vowel before it is longer. Farfalle (a type of pasta) is pronounced with the second a long - farfalle. When the accent is not regular, a little sign (accento) on the top of the letter tells you which one is accented.

Grammar

Italian grammar presents the same difficulties as other romance languages - a rather complex conjugation system, two words genders, some irregularities in plurals and conjugation of frequent verbs. All in all it is not too hard to master.

Vocabulary

Italian words are spelled in a way that looks peculiar to the speaker of French, Portuguese and Spanish. You'll have to get used to the various pronominal particles that add up at the end of words like they were part of it. And of the initial 'S' of negative verbs. But after some study of vocabulary your brain will work out the systematic rules that bridge Italian words to their relatives in other Romance languages. I found newspaper reading a powerful mean to increase my Italian vocabulary, as often all it took to understand an unkown word was reading the phrase and trying to figure out what a French would have written there. Bang, the would have used the exact same word - in French.

Transparency

Romance language (French, Italian, Portuguese, Latin or Romanian) are all quite close to each other, and if you speak one, learning Italian will be much, much easier. The closest is French.

Differences between Romance languages and Italian occur mainly with a few hundred totally different frequent words, false friends and pronunciation. It is important to study carefully these three areas before you go to Italy. This is an easy task and the most cost-effective time you can invest in studying a language. So do it seriously.

False friends are always a source of amusement, but need to be studied with care. For instance:

  • An italian Dottore is neither a person with a doctorate degree nor a medical doctor (un medico), but only a college graduate.
  • In Italy, a palazzo is not a palace, it is just any multi-story building.
  • Perhaps Italians have a slight tendency to exagerate that became ingrained in the language?

    Click for a list of languages related to Italian with percentage of lexical similarity and relative grammatical difficulty.
    Spelling

    Italian spelling is relatively easy. Words are mostly spelled phonetically . This means that if you read a word, you should be able to pronounce it correctly. However, the reverse is not true, as you cannot be entirely sure of how to write an Italian word if you have never seen it in writing.

    Italian spelling is easier than French but harder than Spanish which is perfectly phonetic.

    Time needed

    Speakers of another Romance language (French, Spanish, Portuguese, Latin or Romanian) can learn Italian is less than 12 months, and native speakers of French can learn it whithin 6 months (I did it myself). For the latter, make sure to invest enough time to understand the differences with French. It is all too easy to try to capitalize on systematic rules to change a French word into an Italian word with no regard for the many cosmetic differences. Do not address Italians in a lazy pidgin-French-Italian as they might feel offended.

    If you speak English and no other Romance languages, an hour of study a day you should get through to advanced fluency within 12 to 18 months at most. You need to make sure that you have access to a lot of audio tapes so that you get the intonation and rythm right.

     
    Other topics on this page: Introduction ¦ Usefulness ¦ Chic factor ¦ Countries ¦ Speakers ¦ Economic Importance ¦ Travel ¦ Variations ¦ Culture ¦ Difficulties ¦ Pronunciation ¦ Grammar ¦ Vocabulary ¦ Transparency ¦ Spelling ¦ Time needed ¦ Ressources ¦ Books ¦
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    Ressources
    BooksThe only package with enough tapes I found was Pimsleur Read and Speak Essential Italian, which I then lent to half a dozen of my friends here in Switzerland with great success.

    You can buy them from Simon and Schuster who bought Dr Pimsleur's business (about 800$) , but it's cheaper from Amazon :

     

    For grammar books, these old but excellent books are the best I have found :

    Katerinov, La lingua italiana per stranieri, 1985, Guerra : Perugia, Italy, 3 vol.

    Chiuchi¨, Le preposizioni, 1982, Guerra : Perugia, Italy

    (no, I neither work for Pimsleur nor for Guerra)

     
     
    Other topics on this page: Introduction ¦ Usefulness ¦ Chic factor ¦ Countries ¦ Speakers ¦ Economic Importance ¦ Travel ¦ Variations ¦ Culture ¦ Difficulties ¦ Pronunciation ¦ Grammar ¦ Vocabulary ¦ Transparency ¦ Spelling ¦ Time needed ¦ Ressources ¦ Books ¦
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