Learning a few Italian phrases can go a long way to making your trip to Italy more enjoyable. Italy is an old land filled with remarkably diverse people. The official language is, of course, Italian, yet there are many dialects with their own distinct flavor. Fortunately, all Italians are fluent in the official dialect, meaning tourists visiting this country can profit from learning some Italian phrases.
Italian Phrases for Travelers
These basic Italian phrases will help as you tour Italy:
- Arrivederci (ah-ree-vay-der-chee) - Goodbye (formal)
- Bene (behn-ay) - Well/good
- Buon giorno! (bwon gee-orno) - Good day
- Buona sera! (bwon-uh say-ruh) - Good afternoon/evening
- Ciao! (chow) - Hello or goodbye (informal, but used often)
- Come sta? (koh-may stah) - How are you?
- Sto bene (stoh behn-ay) - I am good
- Parla inglese? (par-lah een-glay-zay) - Do you speak English?
- Dov'è...? (doh-veh) - Where is...
- Per favore (pehr fah-voh-ray) - Please
- Grazie! (grah-tseeay) - Thanks!
- Male (mah-lay) - Bad
- Mi scusi (mee skoo-zee) - Excuse me
- No (no) - No
- Si (see) - Yes
- Prego. (pray-go) - You're welcome. Sometimes used as a polite phrase for permission ("May I?" or "If you please."), such as a waiter saying "prego" before taking your empty plate.
- Quanto e'... (kwahn-toh ay) - How much is...
- Quanto costa? (kwahn-toh kos-tah) - How much is it?
- Quello/quella (kweh-loh/kweh-lah) - That
- Questo/questa/questi (kweh-stoh/kweh-stah/kweh-stee) - This/these
Do not be afraid to point, mime, draw or write what you need if you are struggling to find the correct words. Also, do not be afraid of making mistakes; remember that many English-speaking tourists do not make an effort to learn even the basics. Any effort you make will be appreciated.
Learning proper pronunciation is vital when you are learning a new language. You'll still carry the tell-tale sounds of your native language, but the sounds you make in a foreign language will be music to everyone's ears.
For the most part, Italian pronunciation is very straightforward. Each consonant is spoken clearly and crisply; each vowel is clean and untouched by the sounds surrounding it. The stress in Italian words generally falls on the next-to-last syllable. Don't expect to sound like an Italian your first try, it takes a lot of practice.
There are many subtle nuances and differences between Italian and English pronunciation, but the following guidelines will ensure that you are understood:
The following consonants are pronounced very similarly to English consonants:
- B, D, F, L, M, N, P, Q, T, U, V, Z
The following consonants rarely appear in Italian and are, in fact, not native to the language:
- J, K, W, X
Pronouncing the remaining consonants is done as follows:
- The letter C, before vowels A, O and U, is pronounced like a K. However, when appearing before E and I, it's pronounced like the English CH. To add to the confusion, in Italian, a CH combination sounds like a K.
- The letter G, before an A, O or U, is pronounced as in "good." Before E and I, it sounds more like the G in "beige".
- Gli sounds like the "li" in "million".
- The Italian H is always silent.
- S and Z are sometimes hard or soft, depending on their location. Z can sound like "ts" or "ds," while S can sound like "z"
- Double consonants in Italian are pronounced twice (or held longer). This can be a crucial distinction between words that are spelled similarly. It is also one of the biggest causes of confusion among English-speaking tourists
Italian vowels are much simpler than English vowels and always make the same sounds, such as:
- A sounds like the 'a' as in father
- E always says 'a' as in "hey," but it is clipped and shorter
- I says 'e' as in "heat".
- O is rounded and open as in "no"
- U sounds like "oo" in "hoot".
- E and O sometimes appear with accent marks, and are shorter and more clipped than their accent-less brothers.
Italian vs. English
English is a Germanic language with a large Romantic vocabulary, which means that the structure of English sentences comes from a German background, but many words come from Latin. Italian is a Romantic language where the vast majority of the words come from Latin. Consequently, there are thousands of words shared by the Italian and English languages. Often you can discern many words from conversations and understand what people are speaking about even if you know very little Italian.
Italian Language Resources
Pick up a small Italian reference book to take with you on your trip so you can look up new phrases on the road. Some top picks include:
- Rick Steves' Italian Phrase Book and Dictionary
- The Pocket Idiot's Guide to Italian Phrases
- Italian: Lonely Planet Phrase Book
Why Learn Italian?
The Italian people are, as a whole, very open to foreigners. Tourists traveling to Italy's hot spots, like Venice and Rome, will find many Italians who speak some basic English. However, if your travels take you through the smaller cities and villages, it might be harder to find English-speaking residents. If you really want to immerse yourself in the local culture, and experience all Italy has to offer, then consider learning basic Italian.