An old cliché says that people speak Italian with their hands.
Hold your hand so that the fingers point upward and touch your fingertips together. This is the “finger purse,” and it’s asking for clarification.
Pull at your lower eyelid with your index finger. This means “watch out.”
Brush your fingernails underneath your chin, then flip them outward. This expresses firm disinterest.
While body language certainly plays an important role in self-expression, learning to speak Italian—and to speak it well—involves words, phrases, pronunciation, intonation and confidence.
How can you learn to speak Italian that’s as solid as Carrara marble, as eloquent as Dante Alighieri’s poetry, as effortless as Roberto Baggio’s dribbling and as mellifluous as artisan gelato?
And why should you make the effort?
Part I: Why Learn to Speak Italian? 6 Inspiring Reasons
If the sheer beauty of the Italian language weren’t enough to spur you on, there are numerous other reasons why “learn Italian” should be on your to-do list.
1. Try a “gateway” language
If you’ve never tried learning a foreign language before and want something fairly straightforward that you can pick up relatively quickly, Italian is a good choice.
Italian uses the same Latin alphabet as English. With very few “accents” (diacritical marks) and fairly phonetic spelling, Italian is considered somewhat easy for English speakers to learn.
Italian is a rhythmic language, with very regular syllable stress. Its sentence structure and grammar aren’t too different from English. And, thanks to the wealth of Italian loanwords in English, you’ll already be familiar with some Italian vocabulary.
2. Get a bigger slice of Italian food culture
Go beyond pizza and spaghetti to embrace the words of la cucina italiana (the Italian cuisine).
Fully participate in hands-on immersion programs that teach you traditional Italian cheesemaking, pasta-making and bread-baking.
Enjoy deep discussions with Italian vintners while exploring their vineyards and wine cellars.
3. Boost your résumé
Make yourself a more attractive job candidate by learning to speak Italian.
Italy is known for both manufacturing and fine food products such as olives, pasta, cheeses and wines. It’s home to some of the world’s most revered vehicle manufacturers, such as Lamborghini, Ferrari, Alfa-Romeo and Ducati.
Italian has 85 million speakers worldwide. It’s an official language in Italy, Switzerland, San Marino and Vatican City—and even in parts of Croatia and Slovenia.
Learn to speak Italian well and you can add a valuable “soft skill” to your résumé or your LinkedIn profile.
4. Increase your music appreciation
The art of opera originated in Italy. Many of its most celebrated works are in Italian.
Even if you’ve never donned a pair of opera glasses, Italian would still be an important part of your music appreciation. After all, consider how many music terms come from Italian: crescendo, diminuendo, glissando, andante, presto, fermata…
No matter what kind of music you like—whether it’s folk, rock, country or jazz—chances are that its composers and musicians speak a little Italian when they write and play.
5. Spark a personal renaissance
With about one-third of the world’s known art treasures, Italy was the birthplace of the Renaissance Age.
Renaissance ideas still illuminate our world today.
Learn the language of Dante Alighieri, Leonardo da Vinci, Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch), Giotto di Bondone, Michelangelo Buonarroti, and other Renaissance luminaries. Then you can proudly read their works—or read what their contemporaries wrote about them—in the original Italian.
6. Amicizia e amore (Friendship and love)
Last, but certainly not least, learning Italian will help you develop closer relationships with Italian speakers around the world. Whether you have family and friends in Italy—or in the Italian-speaking regions of Switzerland—knowing the language can be a big step forward in building closer relationships.
Why let a language barrier stand in your way when you can enrich your life in so many ways by learning a beautiful language?
Part II: How to Speak Italian with 7 Learning Approaches
Feeling excited to learn Italian, like you’ve just downed a double espresso and a couple of cannoli? Are you raring to go, like a finely tuned Ferrari?
Che fico! Che bello! (That’s cool! That’s great!)
Once you’ve said to yourself, “I want to learn Italian,” you need to figure out how to make it happen.
To learn Italian effectively, first think about why you want to learn Italian. Is it for travel? Business? Socializing?
Learning about culture? Personal enrichment?
Figure out your motivation for studying Italian, and determine how much time you can devote to your studies.
We’ll look at a few approaches you can try and considerations to bear in mind as you start your journey to Italian fluency.
Then, we’ll look at practical types of resources that will help you learn how to speak Italian—whether you decide to take courses, converse with other Italian speakers or even study abroad.
1. Try home immersion
Creating a home immersion experience with Italian multimedia can really help you make strides in your learning.
However, simply surrounding yourself with Italian books, music, TV, movies and videos isn’t enough. You might get a good grasp of the sounds of the Italian language that way, but you won’t necessarily understand what you’re hearing and seeing.
To truly make authentic Italian part of your life, so you learn to speak Italian with complete understanding and aplomb, you’ll want a resource that will make native-speaker Italian fully accessible to you.
That’s why I’d recommend that you give FluentU a try.
There’s nothing like learning Italian from the everyday interactions of native speakers, especially when you have so many built-in learning tools—quizzes, flashcards, instant definitions, grammar tips and multiple usage examples—to illuminate each video you watch. FluentU gives you all of this, along with an ever-expanding library of videos made for native speakers, by native speakers.
Sign up for a free trial of FluentU and see for yourself how it unveils contemporary Italian culture, builds your vocabulary and opens your ears to proper Italian pronunciation.
2. Pay attention to pronunciation
Italian is a much more phonetic language than English. The way it’s written is generally very consistent with the sounds you’ll hear.
However, there are still many rules to learn to perfect your Italian pronunciation. It’s definitely worth the effort, though.
By focusing on pronunciation, you’ll more easily recognize written words that you’ve heard in conversation. You’ll be able to quickly master Italian spelling.
And, best of all, other Italian speakers will be able to understand you when you speak!
3. Improve your accent
Many people consider Italian a lyrical, musical language with a very pleasing aesthetic quality. Do you want your Italian accent to harmonize with those of native speakers?
You can improve your accent by listening to lots of native speech and imitating its rhythm and cadences as closely as you can.
If you’re planning to travel to a certain region of Italy—or even live there—learning the Italian dialects used in that particular region will help you fit it much better with the natives. Neapolitan and Sicilian, after all, are not merely styles of food.
4. Make Italian part of your daily life
One powerful way to get more comfortable speaking Italian is to incorporate it into your everyday life. Improve Italian fluency with a variety of hacks and habits:
- Write daily notes in Italian
- Listen to Italian in the background or do exercises in idle moments
- Change your devices’ language settings to Italian
- Review the Italian you’ve learned at the end of each day
- Learn bite-sized bits of Italian culture
- Use Italian multimedia, like music and movies
- Speak aloud in Italian
By frequently using the language in the safe environment of your home, you’ll start to feel less self-conscious about speaking Italian.
5. Take Italian out on the town
Practicing your Italian at home is an important first step to becoming a fluent speaker. Once you pick up a moderate amount of vocabulary, and you have the basics of Italian pronunciation down, it’s time to show your blossoming Italian skills a good time.
Start small. Learn how to order coffee in Italian—a vital skill—and use your new knowledge to procure an espresso, cappuccino or caffè macchiato at a local Italian coffee bar.
As soon as you’ve mastered getting your caffeine fix in Italian, feed your vocabulary further by learning how to order food in Italian. You’ll be prepared for a delicious learning experience with restaurant food terms and phrases for ordering.
6. Get better conversational fluidity
Once you’ve quenched your thirst and satisfied your hunger for basic, survival Italian, you’ll be better prepared to try real-life conversations.
Improve Italian conversational skills in simple ways, like using digital flashcards and word maps, following Italian blogs that match your interests and joining Italian Meetups.
Bolster your conversational Italian skills by learning filler words, informal Italian phrases, idioms and Italian slang. Use authentic Italian resources, like movies, videos and songs to plunge deeper into real-world, contemporary Italian culture.
Try reading modern short stories aloud to yourself, taking note of the phrases used and the cadence of the dialogue.
Speaking Italian with fluent conversation partners is one of the single most effective ways to improve both your speaking and listening skills.
Do you still feel too shy to engage in face-to-face, one-on-one conversation? If so, you can look for chat rooms and social media outlets where you can start having virtual interaction with fluent Italian speakers. The web has a language all its own, though—so don’t forget to bone up on Italian internet slang so you’ll understand shorthand like c sent (ci sentiamo, which means “we’ll talk later.”)
7. Strengthen your conversational confidence
There’s more to mastering conversational Italian than just vocabulary and grammar. The social aspects are equally important. Without understanding them, you’re bound to make gaffes and lose confidence in your Italian speaking skills.
Pay attention to conversational patterns and norms. Make sure you address people respectfully and appropriately, in ways that make sense from an Italian cultural standpoint.
Absorb the rhythm of Italian speech, which is an important part of sounding more like a native and helping native speakers feel more comfortable in conversations with you.
Humor is a universal way to break the ice and build rapport. That said, each culture has its own ideas about what’s acceptable—and what would be considered humorous. Learn a few Italian jokes to get more into the mindset of the language and the people who speak it.
Part III: 8 Resources to Improve Your Italian Speaking Skills
Even if you’re not ready to board the plane for Florence, Rome, Venice or Milan, you still have a wide world full of resources you can use to speak Italian more fluently each day.
YouTube is more than just video di gatti (cat videos).
You can learn to do almost anything through this popular video platform. Why not learn how to speak Italian with YouTube?
There’s an astoundingly large collection of fascinating videos, many of them made explicitly for Italian learners—and more channels and videos are being added all the time.
2. Apps for independent study
With the remarkable proliferation of mobile apps for everything imaginable, you’re sure to find several to suit your taste when you search for a “speak Italian app” on Google Play or iTunes.
If learning in a social setting—whether online or in-person—is more your speed than independent study, you might enjoy taking an Italian course. Many colleges and universities offer courses in Italian conversation, where you can learn to speak Italian through guided interactions with your classmates.
4. Voice recording apps
To learn to speak Italian with proper pronunciation, rhythm and intonation, you’ll need to hear yourself speak—and then compare your speech to that of native speakers. Voice recording apps are a convenient way to capture your pronunciation and accent, any time you have a few minutes to practice.
5. Tongue twisters
Try saying Trentatré trentini entrarono a Trento, tutti e trentatré trotterellando (Thirty-three people from Trentino entered Trento, all thirty-three trotting around).
Now, try saying it molto rapidamente (very quickly).
Italian tongue twisters are more than just frivolous fun. They’re a fantastic way to loosen up your tongue.
Tongue twisters force you to focus on the Italian sounds you’re making and the mechanics of pronouncing them correctly.
Since part of the challenge of tongue twisters is attempting to say them quickly, you’ll soon gain confidence and fluency with even the trickiest Italian pronunciations.
Once you’ve mastered some Italian tongue twisters, regular conversation should be a snap!
6. Conversation partners
To take your conversational fluency beyond reciting stilted dialogues from a textbook, talking with real-life conversation partners is essential.
Dip your toe in the water by joining an Italian language exchange online. Get conversational in a social media setting with HelloTalk or a similar app.
A virtual conversation partner on a site like Tandem or italki can give you one-on-one experience with another Italian speaker.
When you’re ready for even more Italian conversation practice, consider joining a Meetup group or Italian cultural association.
An Italian tutor can help you address any areas that need more attention, so you can speak Italian with self-assurance and ease. There are many options for working with native tutors from anywhere in the world.
Tutors are particularly helpful because they can customize your sessions specifically to match your needs and your learning style.
8. Study abroad
If you’re an inveterate traveler and want to speak Italian while experiencing the world of native speakers firsthand, consider a study abroad program. There are opportunities for work-study, full immersion and partial immersion—as well as programs designed for learners of all ages.
Your options for Italian speaking practice are more numerous than the array of exotic flavors at the Gelateria Dondoli in San Gimignano—or the hundreds of Italian hand gestures used for nonverbal communication.
Use a variety of learning resources to gain confidence and work towards Italian fluency.
Speak often. Vary your topics. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes.
With perseverance, you’ll learn to speak Italian fluente come un nativo (as fluently as a native).
Michelle Baumgartner is a language nerd who has formally studied seven languages and informally dabbled in a few others. In addition to geeking out over slender vowels, interrogative particles, and phonemes, Michelle is a FluentU staff writer and education blogger specializing in language learning topics. Find out more at StellaWriting.com.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Italian with real-world videos.