Learning Italian so that you can one day retire to Naples?
Then you’ll want to have some idea what the stooped men at the bar are griping about over a caffè corretto (espresso with a dash of grappa).
Or maybe you have even loftier goals than I do, and perhaps you want to enjoy the worlds of Italian music and cuisine, or listen to some Italian radio programs (via podcasts!).
Or, of course, there’s the literature, flowing from Italy’s Occitan troubadours to Dante to Aleramo—and so, so many others.
Even if reading isn’t the main goal of your quest into Italian, books can be extremely useful in honing and deepening your speaking, listening, reading and writing skills.
In this post, I’ll cover a variety of books of all types intended for all levels of Italian learners.
Some are traditional textbooks and self-learning guides, some take rather nontraditional approaches and some are books that I’ve found that can be quite usefully repurposed for learners.
A lot of my advice here is based on my own experience as an avid Italian learner and fan, but I’m also including some great input from my mother, who has amassed a small library of Italian books during her own adventure into the language, and who helped me modulate my suggestions for other learning styles.
Strategies for Learning Italian Through Books
Whether you’re guiding yourself through the process of learning Italian or allowing one or more teachers to determine your path, having at least one good traditional textbook or self-learning guide to work from can be great for providing structure, ensuring completeness of coverage and giving a sense of progress as you advance.
If you work with online tutors or language exchange partners (and I encourage you to do so!) they may allow your studies to head off in haphazard directions. You can use that single main study guide as an anchor to keep coming back to, and to help direct you and your tutors so that you’re consistently working toward covering all of the most important aspects of Italian grammar and vocabulary.
So, why am I suggesting more than just one book here?
First, of course, different books are right for different people, depending on goals, level and learning style.
Next, using more than one book can provide supplemental perspectives and some much needed variation and fun to the long game that is taking on a language.
When you get to the point where you want to read fiction and essays in Italian, these suggestions can help you approach such texts as a learner:
- The first couple of pages will be very slow. Don’t get frustrated. Expect to take your time and look up lots of words, as you’ll likely see the early vocabulary repeated by the author later on. Be patient in the knowledge that, as you acquire the word set for a particular story/writer, things will speed up.
- You yourself can be a writer! Try, for example, to write about the characters and subjects in what you’re reading. This aids memorization and checking what you write with a teacher (or for free via lang-8) can verify your ability to actually use the new vocabulary and structures.
- Assuming your goal is to also actually speak Italian, make sure you practice using the vocabulary that you’re learning in conversation—a great way to do this is to talk to a language partner or tutor about what you’re reading.
If you’re deep into text-based learning and you’re ready to really immerse yourself in the language, then check out FluentU.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
With the interactive captions provided for every video, you’ll still be getting practice with Italian text; the subtitles allow you to instantly access any word’s definition, audio pronunciation, supporting images and example sentences. However, the presence of both audio and visuals can greatly enhance your ability to memorize new words.
Furthermore, FluentU uses the media content that real native speakers would watch. That means you’ll be experiencing the Italian language as it’s genuinely used in different contexts. This can greatly benefit your own Italian reading excursions.
14 Great Learning Books for All Students of Italian
Before we dive into these great books, a word of warning. Even the best books for language learners can still contain errors—not to mention the dialect-inspired biases, the opinions and even the idiolectical byproducts (i.e., personal quirks) of the writers.
You’ll find Italian grammar to be amorphous and constantly shifting, even if you and your teachers are steadfastly trying to avoid “corruption” from its many dialects. This is frustrating, but also part of the fun.
All this to say, take any one grammar explanation with a large grain of salt. In my experience, the things I learned from Italian books or native speakers tended to be disputed by other books and speakers at a much higher rate than with any of the other Romance languages I’ve studied. It’s worth taking any new piece of knowledge about Italian, even if you see it printed in black and white, as more of a suggestion for further discovery rather than a fact.
Build from this, and expect the ground to shift a little as you continue advancing.
1. “Complete Italian: Beginner to Intermediate Course (Teach Yourself)”
This was my first Italian book and I loved it.
The book’s main goal is to help you communicate in real-life situations in which you might find yourself in Italy. I enjoyed working my way through the entire thing, but it could also be of great use to someone who just wants to get a few basics from the early chapters, which will give you phrases and vocabulary of use on a short trip.
One unique feature of this book is that it uses a “discovery” method of teaching.
Sample dialogues are presented in text and on the accompanying audio CDs, and then the basic grammar and vocabulary is broken down so that you can find out how to use it yourself.
There are exercises to help you practice this grammar and vocabulary, but to my mind not quite enough—I’d suggest finding ways to practice what you learn in each unit with writing activities and language partners, and possibly even pairing this book with a workbook, if you’re the kind of person who likes to sit down and do grammar worksheets.
The book also provides cultural notes that are enjoyable and provide some context for how the language is actually employed. Simply translating what we’d say in English into Italian can sound pretty silly, even if your grammar is pristine. Such notes help you understand what you should say when you’re trying to function in Italian culture, not just how to say it.
2. “Soluzioni! A Practical Guide to Italian Grammar”
This is a fabulous guide for the intermediate to advanced learner.
The book is structured by parts of speech, moving from nouns to articles and so on, eventually going on to tame the chaos of Italian tenses.
You can work through it front to back if you want to do a thorough overhaul of your Italian, or (more likely) you can flip on to sections as needed to repair your problem areas. It also works well as a reference, for example, if you just need to be reminded how to use Italian numbers.
The grammar explanations manage to walk the line between completeness and getting quickly to the point. I particularly appreciate the book’s attempts to describe Italian grammar as it actually tends to be used by most writers and speakers, rather than prescribing unworkable and little-used rules.
The third edition is linked to above, but the first edition (which I own) is also fantastic and easy to come by much more affordably at the time of this writing. Pricing for the most recent editions of books that get assigned to university students can be outrageous. The third edition comes with access to a website with extra quizzes.
3. “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Learning Italian”
This is a rather large guide to many aspects of the Italian language for those who are wary—or even terrified—of it.
If grammar terms in English like “reflexive verb” make you shudder, this book will be a useful supplement to your learning. It even has a long paragraph to explain what “slang” is.
The style is conversational nearly to the point of being long-winded, but that can be more reassuring than being left hanging on a tricky Italian grammar point. You can think of this book like a friend who’s going to hold your hand and make sure you get all the way through a grammar lesson together, from start to finish.
4. “English Grammar for Students of Italian”
“What is a noun?”
“What is a demonstrative adjective?”
Each section of this book starts with a basic question about the vocabulary used to describe language. The grammar word in question is defined in English in very approachable terms, and then examples are given of how English uses, say, “nouns” and “demonstrative adjectives.” Only once you’ve come to a thorough understanding of what’s happening in English does the book enter Italian waters, explaining the options that Italian presents for that grammar piece.
This thankfully works out not too badly in general, as English and Italian both use of many of the same tenses and parts of speech (the approach can be less useful, for example, in explaining things like gender and subjunctive which English doesn’t make as much use of).
This is obviously not a book for those who are hardcore language geeks, nor do I even think it’s for those who struggle with grammar and whose goal it is to teach themselves conversational Italian (see rather the first and third suggestions in this post). But I do think this book would be an excellent reference for those who are in a formal Italian class or other such situations and find themselves at a loss whenever words like “subjunctive mood” or “participle” get tossed around.
A lot of Americans, especially under 40 or so, have never had to diagram sentences, and so this book can arm them with the vocabulary to understand a formal Italian grammar lesson. And even my mother, who did diagram sentences, says that this book is a handy reference to turn to when a particular term from her school days escapes her.
5. “Practice Makes Perfect: Complete Italian Grammar”
This grammar-exercise-laden book provides lots of fill-in-the-blanks and other practice for just about any subject in Italian grammar for the lower-to-upper intermediate learner. Its structure is quite similar to the second recommendation above, but where that book offered too few opportunities for practice for me, this book has tons.
I found that the book’s grammar explanations were clear but I didn’t always trust them, nor the correctness of the provided answers; my teachers often found too many of what they considered to be bizarre errors. But I kept using the book anyway, as the practice suggestions were often good; I simply always went over what I had learned with a teacher or language exchange partner, which is, in any case and with any learning book, a best practice.
In addition to Amazon, you can find this book on VitalSource, a site where you can rent or buy textbooks and access them on the Bookshelf app, along with a variety of other Italian learning books.
6. “Short Stories in Italian (New Penguin Parallel Texts)”
If you want to dive into modern Italian literature but you’re not sure where to start, this could be the book for you.
Nine short stories from late-20th-century Italian writers are presented here with Italian on one side of the page and English on the other.
There’s a brief introduction in English to fill you in a bit about the writers whose work you’re about to take in, and there are useful-if-brief notes at the end of the book about some takeaways on the Italian language that each story presents.
7. “A Reference Grammar of Modern Italian (Routledge Reference Grammars)”
If you want to really get into the weeds of Italian grammar, this is one of the most exhaustive works that you can find in English on the subject. It’s not for the casual student, but as a reference this is the book to turn to if you’re an advanced-level, all-out Italian language nerd.
8. “Contemporary Italian Women Poets: A Bilingual Anthology”
Women can be less visible in the Italian canon, but they’re there, and this volume gives Italian learners access to 25 of them.
There’s a selection of poems in Italian by each one, with an English translation on the facing page. They’re short, so they make easy pieces of material to dive into when you have a few minutes free to study. They also make brilliant conversation pieces for an Italian-English language exchange.
9. “Easy Italian Reader”
Much of the reading material for Italian students is necessarily at the intermediate level or above, and this book aims to fill a gap by offering super-easy stories for beginning students.
The first part tells the story of Christine, an American in Italy, and prepares learners for not just the vocabulary but also the cultural experiences that they will encounter on a similar trip. The second part is just a bit more advanced, telling about various episodes in Italian history, and the third part offers some authentic contemporary literature selections.
Each reading is accompanied by glossaries and exercises to help you practice the words that you learn.
10. “Streetwise Italian Dictionary/Thesaurus”
I loved learning Italian slang and informal vocabulary as it improves the quality and feel of interactions in the language. That said, as soon as you learn an expression used by Italians in one socio-economic group, region or group of friends, you often find that others think it’s passé, wrong or ridiculous.
This book presents some of those same pleasures and problems. It describes some fascinating slang used by some Italians perfectly, but many Italians will necessarily think that a lot of it’s also wrong or not authentic. The book can be taken as a great jumping off point, however, for asking questions and discovering how Italians really speak.
11. “Rick Steve’s Italian Phrase Book & Dictionary”
The book is small enough to fit into a coat pocket or purse.
Sure, this book is great for beginners traveling to Italy who need a phrasebook relevant to the type of experiences that they will have there.
But even if you think you’re already more advanced in Italian, know that this book devotes a page and a half just to talking about gelato. Do you know how to ask for a little taste of raspberry gelato? Are you sure you’re really going to travel to Italy without knowing that?
12. “Damnatio Memoriae: A Play”
No, immigration isn’t a recent phenomenon to befall Italy. It’s a timeless feature of that land and its people. This play looks at what it means to be a citizen of Rome or of anywhere.
It’s a story for pretenders to the Roman throne—and of competing theater troops clashing over the right to stage history. It was written by an Italian-American literary couple, and as it’s a play, the Italian is conversational and the level is quite approachable for the intermediate learner.
The first half of the book is the text of the play in English, the second is the same text in Italian.
13. “Better Reading Italian”
This book provides short texts for upper-beginner and intermediate Italian learners on a variety of subjects that would be of interest to those who study the language: slow food, the Italian countryside, fashion, design, Italians’ opinions of American culture and more.
Following each piece in Italian are lots of comprehension questions and exercises to help you make sure you’re getting the most out of the vocabulary and structures you’ve just experienced.
14. “Basic Italian Conversation”
This book takes very much the same approach as the first book I mentioned in this list. It’s designed to help you discover Italian grammar and vocabulary through situations that you’re likely to encounter when you’re in Italy.
It’s a bit old and I don’t think it’s quite as approachable as “Complete Italian,” but I do think this would be an excellent book for anyone who enjoyed that book and wants to learn more vocabulary with the same approach, or review rusty grammar. The level is beginning to intermediate.
That’s just the beginning, of course.
Thousands of books are out there to help you learn this delightful, messy and intriguing language. And once you’re done with those, you might want to devour the endless Italian literary world itself—or just use the vocabulary you’ve acquired to enjoy some conversation in a bar over your caffè corretto.
I think I’ll go for the latter right now.
Mose Hayward makes his living much like Holden Caulfield’s older brother. He is working from Italy this summer and lives out of a small, wheeled carry-on backpack.