Italian Stallion: 5 Ways to Rein In and Tame Your Conversational Italian
Are you hesitant to start a conversation in Italian?
Do you shy away from native speakers because you’re afraid you won’t be able to get beyond the basics?
After all, a conversation in a second language can get a bit tricky after you get the greetings out of the way.
For example, you probably know the following phrases (don’t worry, we’ll give you the answers if you don’t).
“Buongiorno, come sta?”
“Bene, grazie. E Lei?”
“Non c’è male.”
Did you get all of that?
Those are common phrases that mean “Hello, how are you?” “Good, thanks. And you?” and “Not too bad.”
If you got all of the answers right, you’re probably ready for conversational Italian. But there’s more! While these are great openers, you’ll need to know a little more Italian to boost your speaking skills and become a Casanova of conversation.
Why You Need to Learn Conversational Italian
The most important part of learning any new language is actually being able to speak it. That’s the reason we learn, right? We want to communicate with native speakers and really get to know about the culture we’re studying.
The only trouble is, more often than not, conversational language is drastically different from written language. While we learn a certain kind of language from an Italian textbook or a course, this is often very different from the Italian language used in real conversation.
Furthermore, speaking Italian in a conversation has a certain “in the wild” element. That means that topics can vary and words can change, and you never know when something unexpected (like, *gasp* a word you don’t know) will occur.
But never fear! To avoid that “in the wild” stress and focus on keeping up, let’s get some Italian conversation basics out of the way. Keep these things in mind and you’ll be speaking with the natives in no time.
Let’s check out the top five tips for speaking conversational Italian like a pro.
Parliamo Insieme: 5 Tips for Speaking Natural, Conversational Italian
1. Know Conversation Norms and Patterns
Just like in any other language, the majority of Italian conversations follow a pattern. While there are cultures that avoid small talk, Italians love it.
So most conversations (especially those between people who don’t know each other) have some element of polite chit-chat at the beginning. Even meetings in the corporate world begin with small talk and pleasantries before getting down to business.
For starters, and for those looking to master the Italian conversation conventions, you should know that most Italian conversations begin with a greeting. A simple greeting such as “buongiorno” (hello) or “ciao” (hello) are good ways to start.
Note, however, that “ciao” is generally reserved for particularly informal conversations, but more on that later. In addition to these, you can use “buonasera” (good evening) or “buonanotte” (good night) for other times of the day. These two phrases are also pretty formal, so no worries there.
Next, you’ll ask about the other person by saying “Come stai?” (How are you?). If you’re among friends or in an informal conversation, this is typically followed by a “bene” (good) or “male” (bad) in response. Don’t forget to ask, “E Lei?” (And you?) to be reciprocal.
After those pleasantries are out of the way, the conversation generally goes into learning about the other speaker. For example, you might ask, “Come si chiama?” (What is your name?).
To reply, you would say, “Mi chiamo..” (My name is…).
You might also ask, “Da dove viene?” (Where do you come from?) and (if they were to ask you) reply, “Vengo da ____.” (I come from ____.) with a location in the blank.
To end a conversation, one often says “arrivederci” (goodbye) or “ciao” (goodbye), but be aware again that “ciao” is pretty informal. Also, keep in mind that there are many topics that can come up in a “wild” Italian conversation, so learning travel phrases and having a good arsenal of Italian would be a great asset.
2. Know the Appropriate Level of Respect
In addition to conversational conventions, it’s also important to know what level of respect you should use. Like many other languages, the words you use change depending on the level of formality of the conversation.
For example, if you’re talking to someone you don’t know or to someone who you’d like to show respect, you have to use formal language. In other situations, like in ones with friends, informal language is okay.
For starters, the most common change will be in the way you address others. The pronoun “tu” (you) can be used in informal situations, but “Lei” (you) should be used in formal situations. Also, throwing in a “signore” (sir), “signora” (madame) or “signorina” (miss) definitely wouldn’t hurt in formal situations.
Aside from addressing people, a formal level of conversation will also change what greetings to use. As previously stated, it’s best to stick to “buongiorno” (good day), “buonasera” (good evening) or “buonanotte” (good night) as an opening. To ask how someone is doing, use “Come sta?” in formal situations, but you can use “Come stai?” in informal situations.
Additionally, you can use “Come ti chiami?” (What is your name?) and “Da dove vieni?” (Where do you come from?) in informal situations. To end a conversation, instead of “arrivederci” or “ciao” (goodbye), you can use the ultra-formal “arrivederLa” (goodbye), but this is definitely very formal and even a little bit dated.
In addition to changing the phrases you’re already using, you can add some standard formal expressions in formal situations. For example, saying “scusa” or “mi scusi” (excuse me) is a perfect phrase for many situations. You can use “mi dispiace” (I’m sorry) to apologize.
Definitely don’t forget “per favore” and “per piacere” (please), “La ringrazio dell’aiuto” (thank you for your help), “grazie” (thank you) and “prego” (you’re welcome).
3. Learn Italian Conversational Slang
Not all conversations will be formal, so you’ll need to be able to use and recognize slang. You wouldn’t want one idiomatic expression or slang word taken literally to throw your entire conversation off track.
So let’s dive in! One phrase you might find useful is “ce l’hai con qualcuno” (be angry with someone). If you want to express your opinion, you’d say, “Mi sa che…” (I believe). Your conversation might lead to the topic of “i vecchi” (the parents). Or you might want to wish someone good luck, so you’ll need the phrase “in bocca al lupo” (into the mouth of the wolf; Good luck!).
We’ll trust you to judge the particular situation you’re in and know when to use these words. For example, certain Italian slang like “mannaggia” (damn) or “che cavolo” (what the heck) is best reserved for those conversations you have with your new Italian friends at the bar, not with the local priest.
But slang doesn’t end there! Check out this video on common Italian slang to learn all the latest phrases to include in your Italian conversations.
4. Master the Rhythm of the Italian Language
If nothing else, Italian is perhaps best known for the rhythm of its language.
Unlike other languages like English or Russian, word stress and intonation in Italian is very regular. It might prove difficult to keep up with a conversation if you don’t recognize it. And if you don’t master it yourself, your Italian can be jarring and odd-sounding to native speakers.
As a general observation, word stress generally falls on the penultimate (second-to-last) syllable. For example, the stress is on the second syllable in the word “ragazzi” (guys), so we get something like ra-GAZ-zi. However, if a word has an accent mark, such as “sì” (yes) or “caffè” (coffee), stress is put on that syllable instead of following the stress rule.
I guess, as with most languages and with Italian grammar rules in general, there are plenty of exceptions such as “macchina” (car) where the stress is on the first syllable (MAC-chi-na).
In order to practice word stress, I suggest Forvo. With Forvo, you can look up individual words and hear them pronounced by native Italian speakers.
Furthermore, it should be noted that Italian is often spoken quickly by Italian speakers and that can be a little dizzying for non-native Italian speakers. In order to get used to this, I suggest listening to native Italian speech on YouTube or getting a language partner on italki.
Actually, the italki option is worth more serious consideration. If you find that you love these free language exchanges, you can pay a little extra (something in the ballpark of $8 to $20) to hire a private Italian tutor here. It’s a little investment, but you don’t have to spend any time practicing English with someone. All the time spent online will be dedicated to hearing real Italian and getting great feedback on your skills. Check out the Italian tutors who are available on italki to get an idea of what to expect!
Also, check out some Italian podcasts or Italian audio. Having some of those on deck in your playlist never hurts! The more exposure you get to Italian, the better.
5. Take an Informal Italian Course to Get Your Feet Wet
Our last tip for mastering Italian conversation is a pretty simple one: You have to practice conversational Italian. Believe or not, learning how to have a conversation is its own skill.
One of the best ways to do this is to take a course. In a course, you’re allowed to practice with others in a controlled environment. You can take an informal course such as one with One World Italiano that combines a written and video course—the perfect way to hear how phrases and words are actually pronounced.
FluentU is also a great resource to hear authentic Italian.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
You can also check out ItalianPod101 that has tutorials for all levels, or check out speaking and listening courses from Babbel for a more formal option.
“Adesso sei pronto per parlare l’italiano?” (Are you ready to speak Italian now?)
“Sì, andiamo!” (Yes! Let’s go!)