I am fluent in Italian.
I forget words. I emphasize the wrong syllable. I hate that every object on earth has a gender. And don’t ever ask me what I “would have been doing” because I guarantee you, my answer will take a while and most likely be incomprehensible.
But, I can go entire days without thinking a single English thought, or uttering a single English word. I dream in Italian. I sing in Italian. I laugh at the absurdity that is Italian television. So, I feel I have earned the right to say: I am fluent in Italian.
Language has always been easy for me, so I have never understood when people get panicky about going to a country where they do not know the language. I know there are some people who are just blocked about it – I get the same feeling when someone talks about Algebra – and those people are allowed to be panicky.
But the rest of you? Take one hour – one single hour! – out of your life before going on vacation and learn the basic phrases you’ll need to get by. No one is asking you to be fluent. No one is going to stop you on the street while you are taking a picture of your family in front of a monument and ask you to discuss political theory in the native tongue.
Italian is really the easiest language with which to get used to the idea of communicating with the citizens. For one, it’s a fun language (at least to me). It’s easy to pronounce – there are very few ways to mess it up. And, Italians LOVE IT when you try to speak to them in Italian. LOVE. IT. As long as you’re able to laugh at yourself, you’ll be welcomed with open arms.
The key to sounding like an Italian are two things:
- Every letter in every word is pronounced.
- Each vowel has its own sound, and only that sound. There are no two ways to pronounce a vowel.
Here is how the vowels should be thought of if you normally speak American English (Brits are on their own):
a sounds like the “o” in “cot”
is like “bed” – but we have the tendency to round that out so to foreign ears it sounds more like “bud” – it’s a brighter “e” in Italian, more like halfway between “bid” and “bed.” Actually, scratch that – it’s more like the “a” in “day” if you didn’t then go on to finish the word
i sounds like the “ee” in “feet”
o as in “go”
u sounds the the “oo” in “boot”
Even when there are two vowels together, their pronunciation does not change; they’re just said a little faster.
The only other major thing you have to know is about c’s and g’s.
- When c is followed by i or e, it is pronounced as in “church.” All other times, it pronounced as in “cook.” “Chi” sounds like “key” and “che” sounds like “kay.”
- When g is followed by i or e, it is pronounced as in “Georgia.” All other times, it pronounced as in “goal.” “Ghi” sounds like “Peggy” and “ghe” sounds like “gay.”
Other stuff to know:
- gn – listen to yourself when you say, “can you.” That “n-y” is what you’re going for. I’d say think of when you say “gnocchi” or “filet mignon” but I’ve heard these two words butchered enough to not suggest it.
- gl– this is a tough one. The closest I can come to is “fall you” – the “ll-y” feeling in your mouth. This letter combo is always with an -ia or an -io after it, so: “fall yonder” or “fall yoke” gives you the sound you’re looking for there.
- double letters, like the two “t”s in “spaghetti” – they are held a microsecond longer, like your mouth doesn’t want to let go of the word. Don’t worry about this one, it’s seriously not that big a deal. Just pronounce them and you’ll sound fine – i.e., spah-get-tee, not spah-geddy.
- sf – yep, just say ’em both.
- r – roll it on out. Come on, roll that r! If you’re genetically incapable of doing so, give it a soft “d” sound as in “pudding”and you should do alright.
Tomorrow, I’ll give you some basic phrases you should know if you want to get by while in Italy!