Updated: Feb 22
It comes as a surprise to some visitors that in Italy the principle language spoken is Italian. And while many Italians do speak English, many – especially among the not-so-young – don’t, and no amount of speaking English loudly and slowly will help.
And even those Italians who can speak English might find it a little off-putting to have some stranger walk straight up to them in the street and begin speaking English. It’s a little disrespectful. Think about how you would feel if someone walked up to you in your hometown and just started speaking in their own language with the expectation that you will comprehend.
Now to be realistic, most people aren’t going to try to become fluent in Italian just for a holiday (although there are those for whom that might be a challenge they are willing to accept) but not matter how long you are intending to visit Italy, it’s worth at least learning a few greetings and common phrases, such as ‘Good morning’ and ‘Do you speak English’, just to help break the ice with the locals you will encounter (please note: this is the same for any country you visit where English is not the mother tongue).
The good thing is that these days there are many ways to acquire some of the basics in Italian, or even to take it up a level higher, so here are eleven ways to brush up on your Italian language skills.
There are a trillion (slight exaggeration) websites offering free Italian language learning resources. Google “Italian language learning resources” and you’ll see for yourself. The quality does vary and it might take a little while to find the one or two you prefer. The UK BBC site is quite good and another I like a lot is Online Italian Club, but there are literally heaps. You can even refine your search by adding your level of learning to your search; such as ‘beginner’ or ‘advanced’.
As with websites, the number of YouTube channels devoted to learning Italian is long. The good thing about YouTube is that often they will have subtitles and you can replay the video over and over again: a strategy that is proven to assist in foreign language learning. A couple of channels I quite like are:
A search on your phone or tablet’s app store will reveal a stack of apps for learning languages and some are good and others less so. A number offer some basic activities but the good stuff is behind a firewall you have to pay to get through. While most can help around the edges, the three I have used (and sometimes been prepared to pay to use) because they go beyond the basics are:
Each has its pluses and minuses, but overall they offer a way to gamify language learning and track your progress, and add a different mode of language learning.
4. Buy a self-study book
There are a number of do-it-yourself language learning books available. Again, they vary in utility and quality. I bought one years ago called Colloquial Italian by an author called Sylivia Lymbery.
I found it very useful and I still take it out and go back over the content when I need some revision. It comes with downloadable audio files and online exercises. That said, I’m sure there are other resources that are just as good – it’s just that I haven’t used any others I could recommend.
5. Your local library
Many libraries have books and magazines (and even DVDs) in different languages, including Italian, that are free for the borrowing. The more you read, and the more you hear words being spoken, the quicker your vocabulary and pronunciation will improve.
Watching and listening is a great way to grow your vocabulary and pronunciation, so watching news and other TV shows can be very useful. In Australia, the SBS channel has daily Italian news shows. From time to time they also broadcast Italian movies and TV shows which are often sub-titled. SBS also have an Italian radio feed. These all provide opportunities for regular practice.
If you aren’t in Australia, perhaps there are local broadcasters near you that you can tap into. These days there are also streaming television feeds and radio stations so you can sit there with a spritz and pretend you are somewhere in Italy.
One option is RAINews24: RAI's dedicated news channel. Despite the English name, the news is in Italian. You can also try WWITV. This link directs the user to a page of links which lead to various Italian TV channels. Not all the channels listed work perfectly, but the ones which do are fun to watch. Other countries besides Italy are available, too.
7. Online newspapers
If you are doing OK with your Italian and are looking for online reading resources, there are quite a few free newspapers published in Italian, such as:
You’ll find an extended list available at http://www.onlinenewspapers.com/italy.htm and you’ll have more than enough reading material to keep you occupied.
Subscribe to a few of the many Italian language podcasts available out there. SBS Australia offers a couple of podcasts for download, but there are plenty of others out there. Here is a vetted 'Top 10' list: https://takelessons.com/blog/learn-italian-podcast-z09. My best advice is to try some and see if they suit you. It shouldn’t take long to have one or two you are happy with. If you follow too many you’ll find it difficult to keep up with them, so don’t get too carried away.
Search on Facebook and you’ll come across a number of groups dedicated to Italian language learning. I’m not locked into these as a key learning resource, but to me the real value is that you can ask questions of the group and generally you will receive quick and enthusiastic responses. So if you’re hung up on how to pronounce a word or what a phrase literally means, you have somewhere to ask your question. One such Italian language group with a community from all over the world is: https://www.facebook.com/groups/learntotalkwithpeopleinitalian/
In any city of a reasonable size, there will be someone offering Italian language classes. Sometimes it’s a university or school; sometimes a private company.
I’m a member of my local Dante Alighieri Society: a non-profit organisation supported by volunteers and with links to the Italian government. The lessons are good and you will meet a number of lovely people who are interested in helping others learn about Italy and the Italian language.
If you can’t make it to a physical class, you can now take lessons in the privacy of your own home by using one of the streaming services now available. My favourite is Italki.
Italki is an online language learning website which connects language learners and teachers through video chat. You pick your tutor, set up a time and away you go. The prices vary but are very reasonable for being able to access individualised learning.
So there you go: we are lucky to live at a time when there are so many ways to grow your language capabilities. See how you go and if you find a particular website, app or other resource that you think is worth sharing, drop me a line on firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you join us on one of our guided tours of Italy, we’ll give you some tips about communicating with the locals. Plus you’ll have lots of opportunities to practice while you’re there!