FCI 035 – Italian Pronunciation Guide
Make no mistake, learning a foreign language as an adult is NOT easy. Luckily, there are some aspects of the Italian language which are so simple that a child can understand them. To wit, I’d like to offer an Italian pronunciation guide, “co-produced” by my three year-old daughter, Demetra. More on that later…
As far as acquiring languages go, Italian is actually pretty easy for English speakers. The vocabulary isn’t a big problem, because many of our words use the same Latin or Greek roots as Italian.
And as for a general Italian pronunciation guide, I can offer you this comforting rule: there are only 7 Italian vowel sounds (one each for a, i and u; two each for e and o) compared to 27 or so in English—depending who you ask.
What’s more, Italian vowels are “pure.” A sound written with a single letter has a single, unchanged value—it’s ALWAYS the same. So even if you’ve never seen a particular word before, you are (in theory) able to pronounce it perfectly the first time you encounter it.
The bad news, of course, is that Italian grammar is quite complex and difficult. Most Italians will admit this to you, immediately followed by the statement, “Even the majority of Italians don’t follow the proper grammar rules.” So at least they’ll cut you some slack.
But let’s not worry about that today. For now, let’s just try to sound like an Italian, even if our grammar is not perfectly accurate just yet.
Italian Pronunciation Guide
During the podcast, I discuss some of the most common mistakes by English speakers when learning Italian.
As we’ve already mentioned, we English speakers (Americans in particular) tend to mush our vowels, slopping them around in our mouths with no attempt to distinguish an “a” from an “e.”
This problem becomes even more apparent, ironically, with Italian words that are close to their English counterparts, because you think that you’re pronouncing them correctly, when actually it’s so far off that Italians won’t understand you. Similar words with different sounds: culture vs. cultura; umbrella vs. ombrello; traffic vs. traffico.” These words are mispronounced ALL THE TIME (while “sciopero” is hardly ever mispronounced, since it has no English equivalent–but that’s a whole other topic).
There are other examples, the double consonants being among them. Even within English, the British do a bit better than the Americans on this. The word “butter,” comes to mind. A Brit will pronounce it “but-ter,” while we Yanks tend to turn this word into “buder.” The double “T” becomes one “D,” for some reason. And during the podcast, listen how my three year-old says, “spa-gheT-Ti,” NOT “spu-geDi.”
Even among we Italian-Americans, who “should” know better, this tendency is evident. I can’t count the number of times that I’ve read within an Italian-American Facebook Group how much so-and-so goobah loves his “moma’s” meatballs. The word “mamma” (the most important word in the Italian language!) has two “M’s” in it!! Yet I see it written with just one M all the time. And what’s even worse, they put an “O,” where an “A” should be—it’s mAm-ma, NOT mOma!! Cretini…
Beyond that, here are my Top 3 Tips for improving your pronunciation:
- Focus on the sound of the word. Don’t worry about how it’s written or the meaning. When practicing your diction, ONLY concentrate on the sound itself and try to replicate that. Find a short (2-3 minute) recording of an Italian person (of your same gender) and become one of those stand-up comics who impersonates celebrities. Identify unique voice characteristics and copy them.
- Identify English “cousins” and learn the differences. Like my example above using culture vs. cultura, find as many words as you can that are “false fiends,” and strive to make a clear distinction. Then exaggerate that distinction. (And trust me, it’s still not enough exaggeration, even if you think you sound silly.)
- Practice the inflections. American and British English tends to be fairly monotone while the Italian voice goes up and down a lot. In the English language, listen to the Irish accent for an example of this “musical” quality, although the precise “melody” is different from Italian. Within the individual words, as a rule, Italian words are accented on the next to last syllable, with some exceptions. FRA-go-la (strawberry), for example. And if the accent fall on the last syllable, it’s generally demonstrated with punctuation. Es: città, caffè, virtù, ecc.
For my full discussion on this topic, listen to the podcast episode, which includes a cute conversation between my daughter and her mamma. I should give a special thanks to Demetra’s mamma, Jessica, for ensuring that our daughter speaks proper Italian, and doesn’t pick up on my bad habits.
Growing Up Bilingual
The poor thing, she gets mixed signals. Of course I want her to speak good Italian, but I know that her English will be infinitely more useful (perhaps even more so in Italy) as she gets older. And of course her Italian mother is keen for her to maintain her cultural heritage through the language.
I recall one instance when she was about two years-old and just realizing that she was being taught two completely different ways of communicating. Most of her little friends were native English speakers, so she was already gravitating in that direction.
Around this time, her mother asked her, “Demetra, puoi dire ‘si’ anziché ‘yes’ quando parli con la mamma?” (“Demetra, can you say ‘si’ instead of ‘yes’ when you talk with your mother?”)
To which my daughter enthusiastically responded, “YES, mamma!!!”
Not a great start to that initiative, but she’s since been more accommodating. And she’s gotten really good at bouncing back and forth between the two languages without thought or hesitation. Kids.
A few years ago, I wrote a book called “Talk Like an Italian,” which was my attempt to highlight some of the pitfalls for English speakers learning the bella lingua. So while it is nearly impossible to improve your pronunciation by referencing a book, a little “study” is, alas, still necessary.
I tried to make it as simple as possible, and offered a few shortcuts that will help to boost your vocabulary quickly by identifying patterns. For example, to change the English word into an Italian word, you can apply these rules:
‘ive‘ = ‘ivo‘ (e.g. positive = positivo)
‘ary‘ = ‘ario‘ (e.g. necessary = necessario)
‘ous‘ = ‘oso‘ (e.g religious = religioso)
There are many more “translations” like this, and by knowing them, you expand your vocabulary ten-fold. More often than not, you can “invent” the word on the spot and you’ll be correct.
Through this weekend only, I’m offering my humble guidebook for the humble price of just $0.99. I don’t suggest that it’s the one thing that will transform you into a fluent speaker, but it’s one more piece of that puzzle to advance you to the next step.