With these tips, you can avoid making the most common mistakes in Italian.
Bravo! You’re learning to speak the Italian language. As one of the Romance languages that had a heavy influence on English, Italian is a fairly easy language for English speakers to learn. That doesn’t mean that you’ll just be able to use a book or some software and come off sounding like a local. Mistakes with vocabulary and grammar will expose even the best language learner. Here are some of the mistakes most often made by beginners in the Italian language.
One of the biggest mistakes non-native speakers make when using the Italian language has to do with double consonants. This pairing is found in numerous Italian words and is always found in the middle of the word, never the beginning or end.
Because it is a phonetic language, Italian requires double consonants to be emphasized in speech. English is not phonetic, so for native English speakers, this can cause quite a bit of difficulty with pronunciation. Not stressing the double consonant can sometimes leave you saying a word completely different from the one you intended. Considering the number of Italian words that contain double consonants, this can make for a confusing and even embarrassing conversation!
Imagine trying to ask someone how old they are. You say,“Quanti anni hai?”But instead of pronouncing the word “anni” (years) like “an ni,” you pronounce it like “annie” without emphasizing the double “n.” Because of your mispronunciation, you have just said the Italian word ”ani” rather than ”anni”—which means you have just asked the person how many anuses they have. How embarrassing!
Another example is the Italian word “penna,” which translates to “pen.” If you ask someone to borrow a “pena” instead of a “pen na,” you’ll be asking for a pain instead of a pen. So be sure to pronounce it correctly!
Double consonants don’t need to be a source of embarrassment or aggravation. A simple rule to remember is if you see it, you speak it. If you see that a word contains a double consonant, it is meant to be pronounced. If you hear a double consonant, it is meant to be written. Another tip to follow is to use a short sound for the vowel that comes immediately before the double consonant. This helps to break up the double letters, making pronunciation easier.
Doubles in the Italian language can also pertain to words. For example, take the phrase “A me mi” compared to just “Mi” or “A me.” Though “Mi” and “A me” essentially mean the same thing and therefore should not be used together, some Italian speakers like to stress “Mi” by pairing it with “A me” when using piacere construction. This is very common, especially for Italian children.
So, for “I like ice cream,” you may hear the grammatically incorrect “A me mi piace il gelato.” This translates verbatim to “I I like ice cream.” The correct translation would be “Mi piace il gelato” or “A me piace il gelato.”
Italians are known to be animated speakers, particularly in the South. They engage their bodies, especially through hand gestures, to accentuate an important point or express their excitement. If you don’t want to immediately show you are a novice to the Italian language, you need to adopt this manner of expression. There are many sites online that can teach you common Italian body language to pair with speech. Even learning just a few typical Italian gestures can prevent you from being instantly labeled as a newbie.
If using your body as a part of language just isn’t in you, don’t despair. You have a powerful tool of expression right on your face. Learn to use your mouth to really enunciate. Simply by using your mouth in a livelier manner, your face will start to really express the excitement you feel about any given subject.
English speakers use pronouns to declare their subject. Italians conjugate verbs to identify their subject. This can cause problems for new Italian speakers trying to blend in. When translating what you want to say, pairing subject pronouns (io, tu, lui, lei, noi, voi, loro) with conjugated verbs will not only make you sound redundant, but will immediately cast you in the novice spotlight. If you don’t want to stand out, focus on conjugating your verbs. Keep this in mind starting with even the most basic conversation. For example, when someone asks you what your name is, don’t answer “Io mi chiamo…” Instead, simply say“Mi chiamo,” followed by your name.
The pronoun “ne”
One pronoun that you should take time to learn about is “ne.” Typically found immediately preceding the conjugated verb, “ne” can be used in place of terms like “of them,”“about,”“some,”“from there,” etc. While it is not always necessary to use in the English language, not using “ne”in Italian is a dead giveaway.
Other than for pronouns, English speakers typically don’t concern themselves with grammatical gender. This is a huge mistake when speaking Italian. The Italian language includes many gender-specific words. Mixing the wrong word pairs together can make for puzzling exchanges, so if you don’t want to stand out, you must learn the rules of word gender.
One of the most important gender-specific distinctions to learn is when to use the masculine indirect pronoun “gli” and when to use the feminine indirect pronoun “le.” Though native Italian speakers commonly use “gli” when speaking about a female, grammatically, this is wrong.
Here is an example of this difference: The sentence “I said to him that he was handsome” translates as “Gli ho detto che era bello,” while “I said to her that she was beautiful” translates as ”Le ho detto che era bella.”
Italian and English words are constructed from the same 26 letters. This might make you believe that each of those letters produces the same sounds, but that belief is wrong. While some letters do sound alike, others do not. It is important to thoroughly learn the sounds of the Italian alphabet to avoid mistakes. The earlier you master these sounds, the better prepared you’ll be to master the Italian language.
Once you’ve learned the individual letter sounds, focus on learning word sounds. In Italian, every single letter in a word should be vocalized.
American speakers often make the mistake of thinking about the words and phrases they want to say in English and then translating verbatim into Italian. One of the most common examples of this error has to do with the colors of the Italian flag.
Americans have a deep-rooted response when asked to name the colors of their national flag. They will always respond with “red, white, and blue.” Thanks to poems, movies, songs, marketing, and history, this is just a natural response, as the colors are always listed in that particular order.
When it comes to naming the colors of the Italian flag, Americans tend to want to follow the same color structure. Their natural response is “rosso, bianco, e verde” (“red, white, and green”). While not an outrageous blunder, this error is a sure sign that you are not a native Italian linguist. The correct way to state the colors of the Italian flag is “verde, bianco, e rosso” for “green, white, and red.”
One of the most misused terms by non-native speakers is “al fresco.” Cooking magazines would have you believe that dining “al fresco” means to enjoy your meal outside on a deck or porch. American restaurants also heavily misuse this term, even naming their establishments after it. This constant misuse has led many newcomers to the Italian language astray.
When you go out to enjoy a meal and hope to be seated on the terrace, you are only going to embarrass yourself if you ask to sit “al fresco.” The reasoning behind this is all in the translation. In the Italian language, “al fresco” means “in the cooler.” This phrase is akin to the English jargon meaning to be in prison. To dine outside, ask to dine “all’aperto” or “fuori.”
Another term often misused by native English speakers is “il Bel Paese,” meaning “the beautiful country.” English speakers use this term to refer to Italy, but Italians would not do this. It’s essentially the same thing as a native to New York City calling it “The Big Apple.” It just doesn’t happen. The same reasoning can be used with the phrase “la bella lingua,” which means “the beautiful language.” Though Italian is an extremely beautiful language, native Italians would never use this phrase.
Given that they use the same 26 letters to make words, there are many similar words in Italian and English that mean the same thing. However, this isn’t always the case; there are also many words that may share both spelling and pronunciation but mean completely different things. One such word is “pepperoni.” While English speakers know “pepperoni” as a spicy pizza topping, the Italian word “peperoni” means “peppers.” Another example is the word “camera.” English speakers know a “camera” as a device used to take pictures, but for Italians, it means “bedroom,” while the Italian word for “camera” is “fotocamera.”
When it comes to false friends, there is no set rule to follow. Like most things in the Italian language, mastery comes with training and lots of practice. When uncertain how to use a word, look at the bigger context in which it is being used and make your best educated guess.
Just because a word or phrase has the same meaning in both Italian and English, it doesn’t mean they share the same connotation. Mistakes are made when new language learners use these terms in the wrong context. This can lead to offending the person to whom you are speaking. One of these words is “finocchio,” which not only means “fennel” but can also be used as an offensive word toward a homosexual man.
There is no surefire way to master connotations during the early part of your linguistic learning. The best you can do to offset an insult you may inadvertently make is master the art of apologizing. Learn as you go, and when you mess up, be sure to express remorse.
Idioms & Proverbs
Idioms and proverbs can be found in the daily speech of every language. Idioms are phrases that convey a different message than what the actual words say, like “saved by the bell.” Proverbs are simple but well-known phrases that generally give a piece of advice, such as “The early bird gets the worm.”
Idioms vary from country to country, and they tend to come from the particular country’s history and culture. This can make it difficult for non-native speakers and native speakers alike to each follow what the other is saying. Early on, it is best to refrain from using idioms. As you progress in your language learning, these phrases will make their way into your vocabulary naturally. Take time to grasp each idiom and learn when it is appropriate to use the phrase.
This is also a good rule of thumb when it comes to proverbs. They also tend to emerge from a nation’s particular history, geography, and culture, which can make for confusing translations. Many Italian proverbs come from the agricultural and nautical aspects of the country. For instance, instead of saying, “The early bird gets the worm,” Italians say, “Chi dorme non piglia pesci,” which translates to “Who sleeps doesn’t catch fish.”
That’s not to say that students should avoid idioms and proverbs altogether. According to the thought of “proverbiando, s’impara,” learning and speaking proverbs can help new speakers excel in their vocabulary and increase their knowledge of Italian traditions and values.
Value Those Verbs
Variety with Vocabulary
Newcomers to the Italian language, and those learning any other non-native language for that matter, typically overuse the little bits of speech that they know. This is especially true with the verb “potere,” which means “can” or “to be able to.” Once beginners have “potere” in their vocabulary toolbox, they often flood their speech with questions starting with “Posso,” its conjugation for the first person singular.
Using “potere” in place of verbs that more accurately convey things such as “to be able,” “to succeed,” or “to manage” is a surefire way to reveal that you have not yet acquired a good grasp of the Italian language. One example of this would be to say “Non ho potuto superare gli esami” to say “I could not pass the exams” rather than “Non sono riuscito a superare gli esami,” which means “I wasn’t able to pass the exams.”
Conjugate, Conjugate, Conjugate
Verb conjugation is used in a limited capacity in the English language. The same cannot be said about Italian. Native English speakers can become overwhelmed with the volume of verb conjugation. It is very common for beginners to bungle their attempts at conjugation. The remedy for this is practice, practice, practice.
Making nouns plural is easy in languages like English and Spanish, where you can just tack an “s” onto the end of the word and be on your way. Italian plurals are not as simple and can be quite challenging to native English, and probably Spanish, speakers. With the Italian language, according to the main rules, nouns that are singular and end in “o” need to be changed to end in “i” for the plural form. Singular nouns that end in “a” change to end in “e,”“e” changes to “i,” and “ca”/“ga” changes to “chi”/“ghi” if the word is masculine or “che”/“ghe” if the word is feminine.
Not all singular nouns need to be changed. For example, those that end in consonants (mainly words of foreign origin) or in accents remain in the same form to depict the plural usage. However, the article that goes with the noun does change, as it would for any other word. So, in Italian you will have plural words like “i fan” (singular “il fan”) and“le città” (singular “la città”).
Articles, Conjunctions, and Prepositions
Articles are a type of adjective that pairs with a noun in order to give information about that noun. The three articles in the English language are “a,” “an,” and “the.” Many times, beginners to the Italian language will either skip using an article altogether or use the article in the wrong context. While article misusage won’t keep you from conveying your message to native speakers, it will make you sound absurd.
Conjunctions are connecting words such as “and” or “but.” It is possible you might overhear Italians pair the conjunction “ma” (but) with “però” (however). Though common conversationally, grammatically, this is incorrect, as “ma però” literally means “but however.” If you want to present an adversative sentence, choose either “ma” or “però.”
Prepositions are small words used to lead in to phrases, such as “to,” “with,” “from,” “of,” “for,” and “on,” which respectively translate to “a,” “con,” “da,” “di,” “per,” and “su.” Like English, the Italian language does not have an abundance of rules when it comes to prepositions, but it does have an abundance of exceptions. Take as an example the different prepositions used to express a location: “sono a scuola,”“sono al mare,”and “sono in biblioteca.”The only way to ensure that you use simple prepositions correctly is to practice and memorize them.
Miscellaneous Mumbo Jumbo
The subjunctive tense is used to express how one feels toward an occurrence or to convey an outlook. In Italy, you typically won’t encounter the subjunctive when conversing with locals, as many don’t ever use this tense. Typically, Italians use the indicativo tense, even when expressing personal opinions, worries, doubts, beliefs, and wishes. Grammatically speaking, this is wrong, as the congiuntivo form should be used to convey these emotions. When someone wants to say that they think you’re right about something, you can easily hear “penso che hai ragione” instead of “penso che tu abbia ragione.”
Native Italian speakers commonly use the D eufonica, which in Greek means “good sound.” This refers to the “d” that is added after the vowel “a” when the next word also begins with an “a” and after the vowel “e” when the next word begins with an “e.” One example of this is “lo vado ad Ancona,” which means “I go to Ancona.” Another example is “Luigi ed Emiliano sono italiani,” which translates to “Luigi and Emiliano are Italian.”
When using “ad”/“ed,” be sure that the following word begins with the same letter to which the D eufonica is being added. Using “ad” when the next word starts with a vowel other than “a” or “ed” when the next word starts with a vowel other than “e” is incorrect.
When it comes to learning a new language, there is just no way to avoid running into situations that make you feel like a total fool. The following are some common mistakes with words and phrases that often land newcomers in some hilarious but awkward situations.
Many people actually think that they can change a word from English to Italian simply by tacking on an “a” or an “o” at the end. The word “preservativo” is an example of just why this adage should always be taken with a grain of salt. You may think that by asking for a meal “senza preservativo,” you are asking for no preservatives, but you are actually asking for a meal with no condoms. The correct term to use in this case is “senza conservanti.”
You’ve already learned the importance of pronunciation when it comes to the Italian language. A perfect example of the reason forthis is the word “pene.” Let’s say you need to write something down, so you innocently ask for a “pene” instead of a “penna” (pronounced “pen na”). Well, you may not like it when people start laughing, butconsidering you just asked for a penis to write with,you can’t exactly blame them.
No matter what country you’re in, there are always household chores to be done. But in Italian, you’ll need to be careful when telling others that you are going to sweep. Though dictionaries list the word “scopare” as meaning “to sweep,” it is a common verb for having sex. If you don’t want your listener to think you are about to screw your floor, be sure to use the verb “pulire,” which means “to clean,” instead.
“Sono caldo”/“Sono eccitato”
You’re sitting on a beach enjoying the sun when you turn to your friend to mention how warm you are. Innocently, you say, “Sono caldo.” Don’t be surprised when your friend gives you a weird look and laughs. What you actually expressed was that you are horny. A more appropriate way to say you are warm is to use the phrase “Ho caldo.”
Another mistake sure to result in more laughter and embarrassment may occur when you try to tell your friend that you are excited about something. You say, “Sono eccitato,” but instead of saying “I’m excited,” you have once again told your friend you are horny. Unless you want to make your friend very uncomfortable, next time, use the phrase “Sono emozionato.”