When native speakers hit you with mile-a-minute Italian, do you wish you could just hide yourself behind a book?
While we are not encouraging becoming a total hermit, embracing your inner bookworm is an incredible way to study Italian with minimal stress.
Yes, we’re talking about learning Italian through reading!
Not only is it a fun and engaging way to study the language, but it’s also an effective way to learn and reinforce new vocabulary, grammar concepts, expressions and oh so much more.
So, sit down someplace quiet and prepare to go on an adventure with Italian words.
Why Learn Italian by Reading?
Learning any language is tough. It is even tougher if you have to do it on your own. But just because you aren’t attending a college language class or living in Italy doesn’t mean that you can’t still teach yourself Italian!
While it is obviously a good idea to learn the basics of Italian grammar through an online or in-person course, reading is a great way to improve your Italian skills overall. There are thousands of Italian books, magazines and websites out there at your disposal, and reading them makes for a fun personal challenge!
Reading is a terrific way to solidify your knowledge of Italian vocabulary and sentence structure, because you can see it all laid out in front of you in black and white.
Learning Italian by reading is an especially good method for shy language learners (like me), because it doesn’t require saying anything out loud—unless you want to, of course.
If you are not convinced yet, here are a few more reasons why learning Italian by reading is one of the most effective ways of getting a firm hold on the Italian language:
- You can take your time. Reading is a solitary activity. It allows you to take your time and go at your own pace. The only one who is keeping track of your progress is you, and that takes a lot of the pressure off.
You don’t have to hurry to read a paragraph just because the teacher called your name—you can read as quickly or as slowly as is comfortable for you, and you can take all the time you need to highlight or look up unfamiliar words.
- Seeing the words written out helps you remember them. You know the old saying, “in one ear and out the other?” Learning languages solely out loud is a perfect example of that. Unless a word is repeated many times, it is hard to make it stick in your mind, especially if you are not clear on its spelling or meaning.
Having the word written down on a page where you can clearly see the spelling and its use in a sentence (and can come back to it whenever you want) greatly helps with retention.
- Helps with writing/spelling. Although the Italian language is designed to be fairly well enunciated (in most cases, Italian words involve making a clear and distinctive sound for every letter in the word), sometimes it is hard to know how to spell a word when you just hear it out loud.
Seeing the words written out in front of you helps you to memorize their spelling, which in turn helps you to grow your vocabulary much faster. It also helps you to understand sentence structure and grammar rules in a way that makes them stick.
- Helps with pronunciation. This is the opposite of the bullet point above. While reading can be helpful with spelling because it clarifies the placement of the letters, it can also be helpful for pronunciation.
Sometimes it is hard to pronounce any word—Italian or otherwise—out loud when you have not seen it in print. Knowing where all the letters are is essential to knowing how to say a word, and seeing this on paper helps you to memorize their order.
Plus, some books (especially textbooks) even have pronunciation guides above the letters of some words, which tells you where to put the emphasis when you pronounce the syllables. Genius, right?
- Helps you to think in Italian. The number one most important part of learning Italian is this: immersion, immersion, immersion. The more you immerse yourself in the language, the quicker and better you will learn it.
Learning Italian by reading contributes to this, because, as with English-language novels, reading (especially reading fiction) transports you to another world, a world in which you think and feel and live in the mind of the character. When you read an Italian book, you think, feel and live through the character too—only you do it all in Italian.
- Learn more about Italian culture. Like most cultures, Italy’s culture has been passed down in great part through its literature. By reading Italian texts in their original language, you are not only reading a story, you are taking part in their history.
With any text, even a newspaper, you are learning how Italians speak, what is important to them and what events bond them together. You are learning history as well as language, which makes you feel even more cultured yourself!
Strategies and Tips for Learning Italian by Reading
Pick a topic you are interested in.
Try to choose a book that you would like to read in English. If historical romance novels bore you in English, you will have a hard time getting through one in Italian. Read something that makes you want to read, so that you will be motivated to stick with it and power through any tough spots you might get into with unfamiliar words or phrases.
While reading, you will inevitably come across some words that you don’t know. This is fine—great, even! It is an opportunity to increase your vocabulary.
If you are reading a book or e-book (not a library book!), highlight or underline the words you don’t know and look them up later. Then, just for fun, come back to that highlighted book or page in a few weeks, months or years and see how many of those highlighted words you now know by heart.
Keep a dictionary handy.
Like I said before, you will come across unfamiliar words when you are reading Italian books or newspapers. So, keep a good Italian dictionary close by to look up the words you don’t know.
Sometimes a quick dictionary check can suddenly make a sentence or paragraph much clearer—or change its meaning entirely!
Go slowly, don’t get frustrated.
Reading might be a great way to learn Italian, but it can also be frustrating, especially if what you are reading includes a lot of confusing words and long, blocky paragraphs that seem to go on forever.
Don’t panic, though, and don’t get down on yourself if you have to reread something a few times or look up several words. That is okay. That is how you learn. Just proceed slowly and calmly without beating yourself up for not knowing all the words.
One day you will be able to read any Italian book you choose and those long, meandering paragraphs will be a walk in the park for you!
Focus on overall meaning.
This is a tough one. As I know from experience, your first instinct when reading might be to stop whenever you come across a word you don’t know, then look it up. As I said before, though, this breaks the rhythm of your reading and makes you lose the overall meaning of the text (not to mention that it is annoying to stop every few words to look something up).
Try to pick up the meaning of the word from context clues and the surrounding phrases before looking it up. In most cases, just continuing to read the rest of the paragraph will make the word’s meaning clear. If you absolutely cannot understand the sentence without that word, feel free to grab the dictionary.
If you want, you can underline the word and look it up later just to make sure you got it, but the key is to not get hung up on trying to define every single word you come across. The overall meaning is what is important. When you focus on that, your reading style will become much more natural and less stressed, and you can really get lost in the story.
As I mentioned earlier, reading is also helpful with pronunciation. If you would like to practice your Italian speaking skills, read your Italian book out loud! You can read to your cat or your dog or your little brother, or you can just find a quiet place to read it out loud to yourself. Whatever you decide to do, it is good practice on many levels, so don’t be ashamed to read “L’inferno” to the houseplant if you have to!
Now that you know why you should learn Italian by reading and what the best reading strategies are, you are probably wondering how to get started! There is an entire world of Italian-language literature out there for you to explore, but here are just a few reading recommendations to put you on the right path.
Learn Italian by Reading with 7 Rad Resources and 23 Recommendations
Here are a few suggestions for great Italian textbooks, children’s books, novels, newspapers and websites you can read. Enjoy!
Reading textbooks is a great, practical way to get started learning Italian. They explain the basics and the complexities of grammar, while providing you with examples and exercises to help create a firm foundation for Italian. Here are three different types of textbooks, so that you can choose which learning style suits you the best.
This book is great for students who like to make learning fun. Filled with puzzles, practice conversations and even an audio CD, this Italian textbook is a more casual, personable way to go about learning the language.
Living Language is one of the most popular brands of language learning materials. This book is more structured than the Idiot’s Guide, and reads more like a textbook you would use in an Italian course in college.
It features lessons, quizzes and readings, not just about the structure and vocabulary of the Italian language, but about Italian culture as well, giving you a more well-rounded knowledge base.
“Grammatica Italiana Per Stranieri” (Italian Grammar for Foreign Students)
This is a text for advanced Italian learners, and one that I have had great success with myself. As opposed to other English- or American-written Italian textbooks, this is a textbook written by Italians, in Italian.
There is no English in this book: The lessons and explanations are completely in Italian, just as they would be presented by an Italian professor in an advanced class. It is perfect for immersing yourself in the language, and makes for a smoother read, since you don’t have to keep switching your brain from “English Mode” to “Italian Mode.”
2. Parallel Texts
Books with parallel text are books that, when opened, have Italian and its English translation side by side. This is a fantastic way to learn, because you can read along with the Italian and if you get stuck on a word, all you have to do is glance over at the English side for the translation.
Here are three of the top Italian Parallel Texts you can buy on Amazon:
Featuring stories by Italian writers like Pavese and Pratolina, “Italian Short Stories 1” takes a look at some of the most famous works of contemporary Italian literature, and presents them with an literal English translation (meaning, a word for word translation, as opposed to a translation of overall meaning), so that you can more easily find the words you need on the English side if necessary.
This book features 16 short stories by English-speaking authors that have been translated into Italian and then back again, so that you can have a reference in both languages.
This is an especially good tool for those students who are American or British literature buffs, because they will already know the gist of the stories they are reading when they encounter them in Italian.
“Il Piccolo Principe,” or “The Little Prince,” by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is a beloved story about a little boy who goes on a journey through space and learns many lessons about life and the human condition. It is a touching, “tug-at-your-heartstrings” kind of story, and with this book you can enjoy it in both Italian and English.
3. Children’s Books
Once you’ve gotten a handle on the basics of the Italian language, a good place to start branching out is into the world of Italian children’s books.
Since they’re written for a young audience, the vocabulary is simpler, making it easier for you to follow along. Even if you are a more advanced reader, it is still a nice ego boost to get to the end of a book and think that you read it that easily!
The following three books can be purchased on Amazon.it:
“Prosciutto e uova verdi” (“Green Eggs and Ham”)
One of Dr. Seuss’ most enduring masterpieces, this book is just as fun in Italian as it is in English. Recapture the whimsicality of your youth as you read along, and try not to laugh as you read the Italian versions of the original rhymes!
“La casa più grande del mondo” (“The Biggest House in the World”)
This is a story about a snail who goes in search of a bigger shell, and learns some important lessons about life along the way. It is a sweet story and a quick read at only thirty pages.
“Il grande libro delle fiabe” (“The Big Book of Fairy Tales”)
Containing such classics as “I tre porcellini” (“The Three Little Pigs”), “Biancaneve e i sette nani” (“Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”) and “Cappuccetto Rosso” (“Little Red Riding Hood”), this book has a bit of everything and gives you all the fairy tales you loved as a kid in one big book… and in Italian, of course.
4. Classic Literature
For some people, the desire to learn Italian stems from the wish to be able to read famous Italian novels and stories in their original language. Here are two of the most popular (and most beautiful) works of classic Italian literature to give you a big boost of confidence and culture.
“La Divina Commedia di Dante Alighieri” (Dante Alighieri’s “The Divine Comedy”)
Arguably the most enduring and ubiquitous work of literature ever written, Dante’s “Divine Comedy” is the tale of a man’s journey from Hell to Heaven. Written in the 1300s, the 14,233-line poem changed Italian history as a whole and established the Tuscan language as the official language of Italy.
This one might be a bit tough to read due to just that (the Tuscan language it is written in is a bit loftier than the average Italian student might be used to), but hang in there—you will make it to Heaven in the end.
“Canti” (“Poems”) by Giacomo Leopardi
Leopardi’s poems are upheld as some of the most beautiful canti ever written. Leopardi writes of life, death, nature, heroes and everything in between, so there is something for everyone in this book.
Plus, these poems are a lot shorter than Dante’s, so they are a much quicker read!
5. Translated Novels
Translated novels are, as the name suggests, novels that have been translated from their original language into the Italian language. This a fun subset of Italian literature, because it is very interesting to be able to read your favorite books in Italian!
“Dieci Piccoli Indiani” (“Ten Little Indians” or “And Then There Were None”) by Agatha Christie
This is a classic mystery about eight strangers called to an isolated island, where they are picked off, one by one, as a result of their past deeds.
“Il vecchio e il mare” (“The Old Man and the Sea”) by Ernest Hemingway
“The Old Man and the Sea” is the story of a Cuban fisherman and his young protege who set out to catch a humongous, dangerous fish. This book is a quick read, Hemingway’s writing is simple and to the point, even in the Italian edition.
“L’Eneide” (“The Aeneid”) by Virgil
Virgil’s epic story of Enea (Aeneas), a Trojan solder who traveled to Italy to ultimately found the city of Rome and establish the Roman empire, is a tale for the ages. It is a story of fate and hardship and duty, and makes the reader question whether destiny is something you are given, or something you choose for yourself.
Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling
The little girl in me was very excited to see that the entire Harry Potter series is available in Italian. What could be more magical than reading about everyone’s favorite adolescent wizard in a language that sounds almost like the spells he casts in the English version? (Most of Harry’s spells are in Latin, the language that gave birth to the Italian we know today.)
If you like keeping up with current events (especially international and Italian current events), then you should check out some of Italy’s daily newspapers.
You probably cannot get the physical version delivered to your house every morning, but you can read the stories online.
Here are three of the most popular newspapers, that all feature news articles and update daily (or even hourly), so you are always up to date!
Founded in 1997, La Repubblica has been providing Italians (and Italian learners) with daily news for twenty years.
This is one of the most famous and prestigious of all the Italian newspapers. Nearly everyone in Italy has a subscription.
Like the other two newspapers, this provides you with all the latest news and events in politics and social affairs, as well as a section devoted to what is on TV.
Books and newspapers are not the only things you can read in Italian. There are hundreds of websites out there that are either designed to help you learn Italian or just simply written in Italian in the first place.
If you really want to improve your Italian skills, you can practice them every time you use the internet by looking things up on the Italian equivalents of your usual websites.
As the name implies, this website is written in English and exists to help you learn Italian. It gives you access to tons of Italian reading material, which you can sort by skill level.
Although FluentU’s greatest resource is the Italian video library and learning program, it also has many blog posts about Italian, reading materials and written lessons to help you learn Italian by reading.
FluentU helps you get comfortable with everyday Italian by combining all the benefits of complete immersion and native-level conversations with interactive subtitles.
Tap on any word to instantly see an image, in-context definition, example sentences and other videos in which the word is used.
Access a complete interactive transcript of every video under the Dialogue tab, and review words and phrases with convenient audio clips under Vocab.
Once you've watched a video, you can use FluentU's quizzes to actively practice all the vocabulary in that video. Swipe left or right to see more examples of the word you’re on.
FluentU will even keep track of all the Italian words you’ve learned to recommend videos and ask you questions based on what you already know.
Plus, it'll tell you exactly when it's time for review. Now that's a 100% personalized experience!
The best part? You can try FluentU for free!
Start using FluentU on the website, or better yet, download the app from iTunes or the Google Play store.
Need to look something up on Wikipedia? Try looking it up on it.wikipedia.org instead of wikipedia.com. The results will be in Italian instead of English, and you can exercise your skills by reading the full articles in Italian!
The web version of MosaLingua lets you easily create personalized flashcards from content you find in their library and on your favorite websites—you can then have these flashcards added to the app version of the program for learning at your convenience.
You can also use their convenient translation tool as you browse authentic materials.
Google Italia is the Italian version of Google, which is the biggest search engine in the world.
The average person spends an absurdly large portion of their day doing Google searches, so why not try doing a few of yours in Italian? It will be fun to try to think of your search terms in Italian, and the resulting articles will help you immerse yourself in the language while you try to find out just how Ryan Gosling got those famous abs!
Obviously this (albeit very long) list is just a tiny fraction of all of the Italian-language works that are out there for you to read.
No matter what piques your interest, you should have no trouble finding the right reading material to help you learn Italian and to help you to experience la gioia di leggere (the joy of reading).
Jessica A. Scott is a novelist from Louisville, Kentucky. While her first love is writing, her second love is learning Italian, a goal that she has been pursuing since her sophomore year at the University of Louisville. You can find out more about Jessica and her work at www.jessicascottauthor.com
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