It’s estimated that around 60-65 million people in the EU speak Italian as a native language.
Italian may not be one of the most widely spoken European languages, but it is certainly one of the most desirable to learn.
Compared to languages like Spanish and French, Italian may not be as beneficial for business but the value it offers for tourism and cultural immersion can’t be overstated (and who doesn’t want to live there?). 🙂
People often ask me what the best way to get started learning Italian is.
Believe it or not, it’s not an overly difficult language for English speakers but it’s often hard for new learners to know where exactly to begin.
So if you’re a first-time learner of Italian then this article is for you.
UPDATE: I highly recommend this Italian course for anyone starting out with Italian (it’s the most comprehensive one I’ve used).
Why learn the Italian language?
The number one problem (in my experience) is that most people proceed to learn Italian with the wrong motivation.
They romanticize the language and base their motivation on fleeting interest.
Of course there’s nothing wrong with loving Italian culture and the language (not at all!) but for most people, this alone will not be a sustainable, long-term motivational strategy.
We all lose interest quickly.
Other things come along and take center stage.
So I want to give you some examples of motivators that have a much higher chance of pushing you to succeed at becoming fluent in Italian in the long-term:
- Job necessity.
- Moving to Italy and requiring it to live.
- Marrying an Italian.
- Educational/course requirements.
The reason why these motivators work is because they’re all necessity-driven.
We learn well when we have to. We have no choice.
Also make sure that you allow other people close to you to keep you accountable.
This means telling everyone that you’re learning Italian – tell your partner, family and friends. By going public like this, you’ll put healthy pressure on yourself to stick at it and people will continue to remind you of your goal.
Nobody likes to fail – especially not when they’re being watched by others. 🙂
The best resources and tools for learning Italian
Most new learners get overwhelmed by the sheer volume of Italian language resources.
It’s a fairly flooded market – there are plenty of Italian language courses, books and products to choose from.
This can be stressful.
“Which resources are the best and which will suit my learning style?”
I always say that before you can start learning Italian, you need to get a clear picture of what’s available.
Allow yourself some time – a few days at least – to research products, read reviews and create a list for yourself.
Remember: it’s quality over quantity.
You can go and buy half a dozen books on Italian that are all mediocre at best and that’s not going to help you more than one excellent book.
Same goes for online courses and products.
It’s going to depend on what works best for you.
Create a simple, categorized list of the resources you find so you can refer to it later on. A good idea is to separate these resources based on their focus – ‘Grammar Resources’, ‘Listening Resources’, ‘Speaking Resources’, and so on.
I also create my own list of “YouTube Resources”, where I place interesting Italian channels useful for learning.
Organize it however you see fit – as long as the index of resources is easy for you to refer to.
Definitely start with a cheap (think Berlitz) phrasebook (with accompanying audio).
One of my favorite starting tools for Italian is a musical phrasebook called Rapid Italian that I’ve recommended many times here on my blog (it’s an audio phrasebook with a catchy music track that forces words and phrases to get ‘stuck’ in your head).
You just have to allow yourself a little time to research Italian resources before jumping in.
It’ll pay off later big league.
Craft your first Italian conversations
You can’t start speaking a language without a foundation to build on.
This means that before actually learning how Italian works, you get some foundational conversation under your belt and start using it as soon as possible.
By doing so, it’ll enable you to begin conversing with Italian native speakers very quickly.
But this all comes back to your motivation.
Your primary reason for learning Italian will determine the kind of dialogue content you focus on and how you proceed.
Learning for business?
You can skip a lot of tourism dialogue.
Learning for marriage?
Skip the business content.
Phrase and course books tend to generally cover a lot of different topics – some of which will matter to you. Some of it absolutely won’t.
Don’t waste time learning material you don’t need.
It should go without saying that as a total beginner of Italian, you want to get the most essential terms and phrases for Italian conversations under your belt first.
Some basic examples might be:
Come stai? (or formal: Come sta?)
Come si dice … in Italiano?
Non lo so (or Non capisco)
There’s a good chance that you already know these expressions. Many Italian words and phrases are familiar to native English speakers.
These fundamental conversational expressions are vital to any Italian conversation so it’s imperative that you pick them up first.
Take your time going over Italian phrasebook expressions so you can build a foundation for more useful conversations later on.
So… getting back to my point on motivation again.
Let’s say you’re learning Italian because you’re moving to Tuscany for a year and want to communicate with the locals. In this case, you don’t want to waste any time learning content for business deals.
While bits and pieces may still be relevant, it’s not an efficient use of your time. You should really be zeroing in on Italian course material that is directly relevant to your situation.
To give you an example, my own most important language dialogues focus on education and talking about my family.
This gives me a perfect starting point to work from.
Whatever course or book I decide to use for my Italian, I only focus on the material that’s directly relevant to those issues that matter to me.
I write out predictable sample dialogues for myself (in Italian and English):
“I have two kids.”
“My son is 18 months old and my daughter is 1 month old.”
“I am learning Italian.”
“I also speak Arabic, Russian, Irish and Korean.”
See what I’m doing here?
I make this list long and detailed, putting phrases into categories so I can easily study them. Then it’s a matter of poring over phrase and course material to find the conversations that are relevant and useful to these dialogues.
Of course, the next question is – what if it’s not that easy?
What if the material you have doesn’t cover the content you need?
How to find quality Italian teachers or conversation partners online (for cheap)
Most people don’t have the benefit of living in communities with large Italian-speaking populations.
But many do.
You really have no excuse if you live close to an Italian community not to be practicing regularly.
If you live in a big city with a “little Italy”, then you should be out using your Italian at every possible opportunity you get.
However, if you’re not that lucky and are genuinely unable to find practice partners and teachers to help with your Italian then there’s an excellent alternative.
One of my favorite tools is one called italki.
This is an online community (free to join) that can easily connect you with native speakers in Italy so you can learn at home. There are both professional teachers and non-professional community members to connect with.
Best of all: it’s so cheap. 🙂
If you can’t make it to Italy and you have no “little Italy” areas in your city to meet Italians, then make an account at italki and set up a 30 minute trial lesson.
Take the custom dialogues you created and start using them!
Get feedback. Ask questions. Do it often.
But there are some really important tips I want to share with you:
- Make sure they only speak Italian. Absolutely no English. If they keep trying to explain everything in English then they’re either a bad teacher or lazy. ITALIAN ONLY.
- Don’t let them jump ahead and try to push you to cover too much, too quickly. This is a sign of an impatient teacher.
- Cover small amounts in high doses. You learn and retain more if you repeatedly cover small amounts at a time.
Remember that you are in control of the session.
You’re the paying student.
Forget about Italian grammar – you don’t need it!
I bet you’re curious now. 🙂
“How can I learn Italian without studying Italian grammar?
What if I told you that we’ve been doing language education all wrong for many decades by teaching grammar rules first?
Nobody anywhere learns their first language by memorizing grammar rules.
We learn our first language by high repetition of language “chunks” – we listen to our parents and people around us say things over and over again until they stick. We hear patterns thousands of times on a daily basis and we absorb them without even thinking about it.
To say “don’t study grammar” sounds counter-intuitive I know but this is why language education consistently results in failure.
Many people start learning a language (grammar first) and fail soon after.
I’ve been teaching people all over the world for years how to speak a foreign language and this has always been the most controversial point I make.
Studying grammar rules in order to speak is a totally unnatural, robotic way to learn (I explained why in detail here).
Most people hate studying grammar.
It’s vital that languages are thought of as building blocks rather than rules.
For example, look at the expression “__” (_).
Traditional language courses and books would break this down by rules.
But you don’t need to do this. Learn it as a whole instead. Memorize the entire Italian expression and use it as is until it becomes natural to you.
When you learned your first language, you were able to speak before learning grammar.
Grammar is something we study in school to help us refine our literacy (reading and writing) skills.
It’s important don’t get me wrong but not necessary for spoken Italian communication.
I’ve personally learned multiple languages to spoken fluency without studying their grammar (at least not until I was at an Intermediate level). I just had lots of repetition of phrases and collocations (Glossika Italian is also perfect for this).
And you know what?
Learning like this is more fun. It’s more practical and it’s more effective.
The beautiful thing is that grammar has a way of naturally starting to make sense on its own over time. You’ll start to recognize patterns as you use the language.
How to understand Italian when you hear it
You have to listen to Italian constantly.
I’m not talking one or two hours a week – I’m talking every available spare moment of every day.
Whatever your situation and wherever you live, you have to make it your mission to be immersed at all times by the sound of Italian.
This includes music, TV, movies and most importantly, Italian native-speaking people.
Surround yourself with Italian.
Listen to Italian even when you don’t have a clue what’s being said. It’s important for Italian to become audibly familiar to you.
Even on those days when you’re not ‘studying’, just listen.
You know how songs start to get stuck in your head when you hear them a lot?
Italian will as well.
For some of my best tools and recommendations for learning Italian, take a look at this.