Hey there! In this guide we’ll see how to gain a solid, basic level of Italian so that you will be able to get by in the most common situations, exchange pleasantries with native speakers 🗣️ and lay the foundation fur further learning of this bewitching language.
The point is: for an English speaker, learning Italian isn’t a huge deal. It’s far closer than Semitic or Sino-Tibetan languages. 🌏
At the same time, we must not fool ourselves:
- word stress and prosody are different,
- grammar is Romance, 😒
- irregularities abound at many levels,
- a lexicon widely alien. 🤨
Summarizing, mastering Italian is totally feasible but only if you learn how to avoid the inevitable pitfalls.
One would presume a course of old, with classmates and teacher at a given venue, in-classroom exercises and homework would do: I think it’s a poor usage of your time and money.
The plan of attack I propose is largely based on self-teaching: any native English speaker can achieve fluency at great speed with some 70% of independent study and 30% of private tuition. 💪
As a tutor of Italian, I’ve been seeing the differences between the two approaches for years now: I believe the latter is way more efficient than group courses in traditional language schools. Let me explain what I mean, then I leave up to you the decision.
Shall we begin? 😉
How to start learning Italian
First of all: are you a real beginner or a false beginner?
- studied something, but then you abandoned it,
- achieved an A2 or B1, but a long time ago already, 📅
- you enjoyed some time in Italy and picked up some language on the street,
- it’s your parents’ or grandparents’ language but you barely know a few pleasantries, 👴🏻
- you lived in Italy during childhood but then left and never returned,
you may want to try this brief test, to have a rough idea of your level. If you remember a decent deal of Italian, you may want to start from intermediate lands. If not, then you are a complete beginner and you can blindly follow these steps below. 🔢
What you are about to read, for achieving a basic level, is composed of four sections:
- First section: materials and strategies to start from zero;
- second section: tools to reinforce the trickiest points;
- graded readers: terrific instruments to expand one’s knowledge; 📘
- tips and tricks.
As per the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, or CEFR, you should acquire the four canonical skills:
- Listening Comprehension (understanding what you hear)
- Reading Comprehension (understanding what you read)
- Speaking (knowing how to speak)
- Writing (knowing how to write) 🖋️
Around four areas:
- Academic 🎓
Acquiring the means to express oneself in a truly comprehensive way is a matter of many years: in this guide, we will see how to begin this fascinating journey, laying the foundations for further learning.
Learn Italian – Phase 1
This method is arguably the best to go from nought to a basic level in Italian:
Get Started in Italian by Teach Yourself: this is where you should start when the only Italian thing you can do is the pinched fingers gesture: 🤌
Complete Italian by Teach Yourself: it is the logical continuation of the textbook above. I think it is well-suited for independent learners.
Teach Yourself is a gorgeous beast. 🥰 Some people snub it as if it was poor quality. I disagree. TY is a household name in the realm of autonomous students because it delivers: for all those focused on learning Italian to use it outside academia, it’s as good as it gets about tools where English is the source language.
Double consonants, subjunctive, passato remoto, the nerve-racking lack of written accents make an exhaustive but understandable textbook so necessary.
The first book I indicated above is a relatively recent novelty: I’ve seen that people using it before the latter, as prescribed by TY, benefit from it. Studying both can take anything between three and nine months, allowing you to secure a B1 level. 👍
Once done, I’d invite you to go ahead this way. 😉
Learn Italian – Phase 2
Now, to keep learning Italian means to include more food in your linguistic menu. What I’d put on the desk now are:
Attiva il lessico (A2/B1), by Le Monnier: excellent. It enables you to consolidate and expand your lexicon. Vocabulary is what you have to focus on, once you have made yours the basic grammar functioning.
Spazio Civiltà – Civiltà italiana per stranieri (A2/B1), by Loescher: very well-crafted, from the first to the last page. It’s one of the few textbooks that avoid caricatures of Italy, it’s readable and informative at the same time.
Something I hear all too often is:
Fabio, dear, I couldn’t care less about culture. I just want to be able to talk to people.
Well, what can I say? There are languages in which it’s plain impossible to talk properly if you don’t know the culture inside out: Korean, Japanese or Yoruba, for example.
It’s not the case with Italian: culturally, the Belpaese is akin to the whole Anglosaxon world. Having said that… you should know something. 🤨
Its religious footprint, the breach between north and south, the devotion for food 🍕, a few hints of history…: it would help not only to avoid messing up when talking to native Italians but also to get your learning straight.
We aren’t used to joking salaciously about the Catholic church ⛪, the questione meridionale is an open wound, we have more than 150.000 terms related to pasta 🍝 and more, many more things.
Even about a country as close as Italy, acquiring a deep understanding of its culture is the journey of a lifetime AND it is necessary.
Graded readers for beginners
We can soften the hardest core of the study with readings like these.
When you are closer to A2 than A1, you could try using very easy, ungraded texts, but graded readers are your safest bet anyway: designed to make you absorb structures and vocab quickly and efficiently.
Le città impossibili (A1-A2), by Alma Edizioni
Modelle, pistole e mozzarelle (A2), by Alma Edizioni
Il ladro di scarpe (A2), by Alma Edizioni
Learn Italian through comics
Language and comics are a winning pair: a comic is entertaining, it clothes words with context, there is a lot of direct speech, sentences are simple.
At a basic level, there is enough choice of comics for you to practice reading. Just a couple of titles:
Paperino: Antica Roma, Donald Duck in ancient Rome. Easy language, compelling, a bit of lexicon related to history. Who said that learning languages equal pain? 😂
La Divina Commedia a Fumetti: the most iconic work in Italian literature, vernacularized in an enthralling way.
There are all sorts of Divine Comedy out there: commented, illustrated, paraphrased… this possibly is the easiest entrance to it.
Something I also hear all too often about grader readers and books, at this point, is:
I don’t like pubertal novels and I don’t feel like reading trivialized books.
And my rebuttal is: you have just started learning Italian. What would you read, Stephen Hawking’s PhD dissertation? 🤨
By now, you will have realized what we’ve dealt with so far has been training your Oral and Written Comprehension. You now have to work on your Oral and Written Production.
For these two, there are excellent tools, devised by evolution a couple of million years ago: human beings. If trained language tutors, all the better. Let’s see how.
11 Tips to learn Italian for real
#1 Practise oral Italian
Exchanging your English for Italian? I wouldn’t: too early. 🤨
Don’t get me wrong: it’s recommendable to talk Italian as soon as you can. 🎤 But now, a language exchange partner, however well-intended, might lack the sensitivity to correct you and end up being all but beneficial.
The best would be to resort to a private tutor: they have the skills necessary to teach and motivate. 👏 The more often, the better, but even once a week is advantageous.
#2 Sound Italian
There are people with Superman’s hearing, with great facility for making impressions of people and, therefore, imitating their accents.
You probably know someone who can mimic the voice of public figures: they likely can also speak Italian with a true Italian flair. It’s an astounding ability, with a minor downside: when they have just started learning Italian… they have little to say. 😐
If you tell, with a flawless Italian accent:
Scusi, non ho capito bene, potrebbe cortesemente ripetere?
any Italian would presume you are an Italian who hasn’t caught a sentence, not a beginner with a basic level of Italian.
What should we do? Sure as hell, we should not worsen our accent on purpose to that effect. 😝
A strong foreign accent is like the new driver’s P-plate on your car: you ask others to be careful, but the ultimate aim is for you to learn quickly to drive and take the sticker off as soon as possible. 🏎️
#3 Write, write, write
I have to repeat here what I wrote about the oral practice, with one nuance: you have to work harder with writing. Budget more time than you do for the oral. 📔
Written language is usually more formal and sophisticated than oral: there is more to learn and it tends to be a slower learning process. 🙄 You know, meeting up to speak involves less effort than writing something down, having it corrected and revising it.
Maybe you just want to go on holiday to Italy and you don’t care about the written language. That’s fine.
My recommendation is: no matter what, lay strong foundations. When at a B2, if life, work and passions do not lead you into writing, then leave it.
#4 The limited usefulness of Rosetta Stone & C.
I don’t use them. They may be powerful tools, but if you have time to practice your oral skills, I would suggest you do it with another human being.
Anyone from Palermo or Parma will always be preferable to computer software. 💻
#5 Find Italians offline and online
Without native Italians at hand in our four-dimension world, well, that’s what the Internet is for.
I work about 20% of my time in my town and 80% on Skype. 🖥🎧 Same with the languages that I learn myself: a Skype video call is free and provides an awesome 1-to-1 interaction. You can practise your oral production, send notes, share files: it’s soooooo convenient.
#6 Beginnings are complicated
The most difficult moments are always the kickoffs. It’s so normal: pronominal particles, double negation, irregular plurals, which word is masculine and which is feminine, phonetics…: breathe, relax, study. 🙏
If your underlying structure is shaky, you better pause, reassess, review. No point in rushing to B2. Without solid foundations, you will not be able to:
- invite over for a coffee your neighbour from Apulia,
- tell your Italian mother-in-law how deeply you regret them not coming to visit you, ✈️
- improve the karaoke scene by singing Umberto Tozzi at the top of your lungs.
#7 A good dictionary
The Italian-English dictionary provided by the online Cambridge Dictionary is acceptable at this stage, so is WordReference’s too. The latter offers also pronunciation and a few exhaustive examples.
They both are as bare as the dashboard of an old Fiat Seicento, but before a B2 I wouldn’t concern myself over this. 🚗
#8 Have a clan around supporting you
Starting to learn a new language is setting off for an adventure. 🥾
If you had the support of your clan, it would be better: unfortunately, sometimes, even the ones who love you become a hindrance. 😔
Why? Because they know you will devote them less time, they believe that learning Italian is a waste of time, they presume you are too old or too young, they tried it themselves before and couldn’t go beyond buongiorno.
Let everyone know that this is important to you. If they keep nagging, go on your way and ignore them. 🖕 Luckily, also in this adventure you will find likely-minded people along the way: new friends in the making. Stick with them.
#9 Learn Italian by listening to the radio
A lot of people suppose that by merely leaving the radio (or podcasts) on, Italian will flow automatically into their brain. 💾
Actually, if you are busy for an hour on something while the radio is on, the benefit of that hour of listening will come from the minutes you will switch your attention from the matter at hand to the radio. No more, no less.
Multitasking is a giant hoax: only active listening matters. 👂
#10 Find time to study Italian
We all lead busy lives, nothing new.
A useful trick is this: one day, keep a record of what you do, from when you get up to when you go to sleep. Example:
- 6h30: get up, shower, dress up
- 7h00: have breakfast
- 7h30: take the bus to commute to work
- 8h30: start working
- 11h00: coffee break
- 11h15: back to work
- 13h30: lunch break
- 14h30: back to work
- 18h00: go to the gym
- 18h20: reach the gym and train
- 19h40: go back home
- 20h00: cook
- 20h30: dine and TV
- 22h30: go to bed
Now think: where could I insert Italian? In what way?
An example of arrangement:
- 6h30: get up, shower, dress up
- 7h00: have breakfast -> read an article on Il Corriere Della Sera
- 7h30: take the bus to commute to work -> study a chapter of your textbook
- 8h30: start working
- 11h00: coffee break -> do a few exercises
- 11h15: back to work
- 13h30: lunch break -> if you can, meet up an Italian native speaker to practice
- 14h30: back to work
- 18h00: go to the gym -> read a few pages of a graded reader on the way
- 18h20: reach the gym -> listen to a few Italian songs while training
- 19h40: go back home -> listen to a podcast
- 20h00: cook
- 20h30: dine and TV -> watch a chapter of an Italian series
- 22h30: go to bed
These are but a few ideas. We do not all have the same rhythms, energy levels during the day or personal taste.
Then, think about downtimes: waiting in the queue at the bank 🏦, post offices, at the GP, at train stations and airports, etc. Keep something ready for those occasions.
The key is: do not underestimate the power of working on your Italian a little every day, with a long-term commitment.
You don’t have to take weeks off to throw yourself into super-intensive courses in Florence. Use unplanned spare minutes constructively, but include quality studying time in your schedule too.
The study must be focused: no distractions whatsoever. No mobiles 📵, no social media, no parents asking to check their phone bill, no kids asking to reboot your tablet, no husbands asking for help with Thermomix. No one, nothing.
I hope this brief guide has been of use to you: I tried to condense here the minimum notions required to start from scratch and acquire a basic level of Italian as an adult, independent learner.
A good foundation is what you should aim for, now: quality. Quantity will come at a later stage. 💪
If you have an interest in Italian but not one trespassing the threshold required to set learning in motion, take a look at this megapost: 🍝 Speaking Italian: Guide to the Language of the Belpaese (coming soon)
If your reason for learning Italian is related to finance or business, as you need to send quotes to customers from Treviso or purchase goods from Pistoia, then this is for you: 💰 Business Italian: a Language for Work and Trade
More posts about learning Italian are about to come. Resta sintonizzato 😉
A big, virus-free hug.
Your personal Italianist,