Thornton Wilder once said everyone should travel to a country where English isn’t spoken and they don’t even want to speak it. Italy isn’t that country. English is taught from the first grade onwards and private language schools abound. Most Italians have some understanding of English and whatever vocabulary they lack is compensated for with gesticulation. It’s more rewarding however to attempt expression in the melodic vocals of Dante than succumb to the ease and familiarity of monolingualism. The result can be a warmer welcome and surprise by Italians who are patient with beginners and happy to repeat a sentence as many times as comprehension takes. They may eagerly shift into English but resisting your linguistic comfort zone has its rewards.
The key is to overcome intimidation or embarrassment, especially if you have no experience with a second language. Start by listening to locals in bars, shops and buses. Turn on the TV or radio in your hotel room and fall asleep listening to Italian music. Pretty soon you’ll start to recognize words and expressions and what seemed mysterious will begin to sound familiar. Besides you already know more Italian than you think. Ciao, stadium, jacuzzi, opera, gusto, tempo and thousands of other words are direct descendants of Italian (or Latin) and can form the basis of a conversation.
Pronunciation is straight forward once you understand the basics. There are seven Italian vowel sounds (one for a, i and u and two each for e and o) compared to 15 in English but the most audible difference is the consistent pronunciation of Italian letters as opposed to English with its multiple, often arbitrary sounds. Consonants by and large are used the same in both languages and Italian has a couple less letters in its alphabet. If you have any experience with French, Spanish, Portuguese or Latin you have an advantage but even if you don’t learning a few phrases is simple and will prepare you to dive into Italian culture. Inquiring how much something costs or asking for directions in Italian is thrilling and a lot more fun than using English. It certainly adds to the sense of adventure and provides a linguistic experience you’ll never forget.
Ciao [ch-OW] This world famous word is an informal greeting that means both hello and goodbye. It’s used between friends or once you get aquainted with someone.
Buongiorno [bwon-JUR-no] / Buonasera [bwo-na-SEH-ra] The first means hello or literally good day and the latter good afternoon. These are formal variations of ciao and are the first words to use when entering a restaurant, bar or shop.
Scusi [SKU-zee] is an invaluable word which sounds like its English counter part: excuse me. It can be used whenever you want to get someone’s attention, ask for something or need to excuse yourself.
Per Favore [PEAR fa-VOR-eh] / Grazie [GRA-zee-eh] are the pillars of Italian politeness. Per favore is useful when ordering at a bar or restaurant and can go at the beginning or end of a sentence (un café per favore or per favore un caffé). Once you’ve been served something it’s always polite to say graze (thank you).
Dov’è…? [doe-VAY…?] the Italian phrase for where is…? can save you from getting lost. Just add the location to the end and do your best to comprehend the answer. Scusi, dov’e la Fontana di Trevi?
Parli inglese? [par-LEE in-GLAY-zay?] should only be used as a last resort but if you must it’s more polite than launching directly into English.
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