Book a ticket.
Lose yourself in some small Italian coastal town where nobody speaks English.
Stay put for a few years.
You’ll not only learn to speak perfect Italian, but you’ll get some fine fish, wine and coffee.
Maybe you’ll even fall in love and find yourself teaching Italian lullabies to your own Italian children.
That said, if you can’t finagle a one-way ticket to Italy at this time, don’t sweat it.
Learning a language online in no way beats the real thing, but it definitely works.
And it’s generally much better and cheaper than traditional classroom learning methods.
In this post, we’ll look at exactly where and how you can learn Italian online, whether or not travel is in your near future.
Why Learn Italian Online?
Here are the major advantages of online Italian learning:
- Convenience: A major impediment to language learning is often the time commitment required. Being able to simply log on for a class or a video practice session, rather than spend time in transportation, can make a huge difference in the amount of time that you can devote to Italian. With apps, you can even harness those lost moments in public transport, waiting rooms, etc. to review your Italian verbs or watch videos.
- Value: Online teachers, at an hourly rate, tend to work out much cheaper than university language classes and even language schools. You’re also usually getting one-on-one instruction, so the bang-for-your-buck is exponentially greater than with classroom learning.
- Exposure to native Italian speech: Some of the tools we’ll look at below give you a way to learn from real Italian speakers in authentic situations without hiring a tutor or flying to Italy, and of course most teachers that you’d hire for online classes are also native speakers. After all, your eventual goal is to speak with Italians, not with a kid from Iowa who spent a semester in Rome, right?
Boot Up! The 9 Key Tools You Need to Learn Italian Online
This is an excellent resource for both online tutors (classes are generally held over Skype or Google Hangouts) and for free language exchanges with Italians. Italian teachers may be fabulous or not-so-great according to your personal needs, so it’s extremely important to try out several to see whose style you like.
A mistake that I made early in my Italian learning was to prefer teachers from the North of Italy, who I thought would perhaps be less influenced by their regional dialects. This was silly—most of my greatest teachers actually ended up being from Sicily, Naples and other regions where dialects strongly hold sway. Those teachers still spoke excellent educated Italian, and more importantly, happened to be good at explaining grammar and were interesting to chat with.
That said, it’s particularly important with Italian to learn from several different tutors, as there is so much regional and personal variation even within “standard” Italian. Try not to get frustrated when one teacher corrects you for using a phrase you memorized verbatim from another…this is part of the fun and chaos of the language!
For free language exchanges, you need to first make an account on the site (you don’t need to pay anything) and then go to “language partners,” which is tucked away under the community menu. There are plenty of Italians on the site looking to practice English and other languages.
You may have to send out quite a few messages in order to find serious learners for regular language exchanges, but they’re out there. (One of the main benefits of paying for lessons is just that the teacher invariably shows up; online language exchanges can be more hit-and-miss.)
This app for computers, the web and mobile devices is free (except for a small fee on iOS), and is a simple way to make and use audio, text and visual flashcards anywhere.
There are dozens of decks of Italian Anki flashcards that other users have already made that are free and ready for download. That said, you should forgo those and make your own. First of all, if you’ve ever made your own flashcards, you know that the process itself of making them can be enough to learn the material. And secondly, by doing so you can focus on vocabulary, grammar and structures that are important and meaningful to you.
This means that you can gather the material for your flashcards from any of the other learning resources mentioned here. For example, if your teacher or exchange partner says something that you think you might forget, you can record their voice and write the correct spelling in an Anki card. Likewise, you can copy and paste verb conjugations from WordReference.com (see below).
You can also use Anki on the go. Just recently, a Neapolitan woman in a bar implored me to try o’ pere e o’ musso (a street delicacy in Naples), and I popped open Anki on my phone to record both the suggestion and the pronunciation. Anki now ensures that I continue to see the phrase regularly until it’s fully memorized, so that when I find myself on the streets of Naples later this summer I’ll definitely be ready.
FluentU takes immersive language learning to a whole new level!
FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
You can browse videos by difficulty (beginner to native), topic (arts and entertainment, health and lifestyle, etc.) and format (video blog, news, shows, etc.).
The Italian language version of FluentU includes videos that are intended for natives, but divided into many different interests and language levels (along with an integrated learning platform). This means you can acquire the vocabulary and structures that are actually spoken by real Italian speakers in real life.
What’s more, FluentU will keep track of all the Italian words you’ve already learned, giving you a 100% personalized experience.
Regardless of what level your Italian is at, this is probably the one-stop reference site that you’ll want. You can look up English-to-Italian, Italian-to-English, Italian only and Italian conjugations. And perhaps the best feature of all is its English-Italian and Italian-only forums, where you can pose your trickier questions and nearly always get useful responses from translators, other learners and native speakers.
While Google’s automatic translation of Italian is going to produce some oddities, it can also sometimes give you a good approximation of what a particular Italian phrase means, particularly if it’s informal vocabulary that’s less likely to show up in an official dictionary. That said, its output needs to be taken with a grain of salt, of course.
If you’re learning about food or other things in Italian that can be experienced visually, sometimes Google Images is much better than a dictionary. For example, I could look up what dolci (desserts) means using various text sources, but a Google Image search of the same is going to be much, much more informative, memorable and mouth-watering. You can also copy-paste particularly compelling images into Anki flashcards (see above) to use instead of English translations.
This no-frills site has some information on grammar topics, and most usefully, a nice set of free Italian exercise worksheets to help you practice whatever grammar topic is giving you issues at the moment. There’s a lot of fill-in-the-blank, so you can try out a particular concept, like when to use which Italian past tense, within a context that makes sense.
Rai Cultura Italiano
This site is in Italian only, so it could be a bit intimidating for some beginners, but it has a lot of great video content that was produced specifically for language learners facing typical situations for foreigners in Italy. To use it, go to the second menu from the left, “Impariamo l’italiano” (Let’s learn Italian), and choose a level and a unit that seems right for you.
When you choose a video of a simulated situation (“Docufiction e sketch”) you’ll get a full text script in the box below the video. There are also exercises for each unit to help you practice the grammar and structures that you’ve learned.
If the site seems bewildering, you may want to ask a teacher or language exchange partner for help in navigating and finding something that’s right for you; there’s a lot of good material that makes it worthwhile, especially at an intermediate level.
Writing dialogues, stories and journal entries can be a great way to review and reinforce whatever aspect of Italian you’ve been working on. With this site, there’s no need to wait until your next lesson to correct your work. Simply sign up for a free account here and post what you’ve written, and native Italian speakers will correct your writing.
In my experience, you can usually get good corrections from more than one Italian in less than 24 hours. For karma, and to increase your odds of getting corrections, you should also take the time to correct others’ attempts to write in your own native language.
This post has covered the very best online tools for learning Italian, but of course there’s also an entire Italian universe on the Internet that’s waiting to be enjoyed.
As your Italian improves, get out there and take advantage of it. If you enjoy cooking as much as I do, for example, search for recipes in Italian instead of English!
Whatever interests you want to pursue, there’s an Italian approach to them that will help you improve your language skills at the same time.
Mose Hayward blogs about romance, food and drinking in Italy and around the world.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Italian with real-world videos.