3 Best Tips for Italian Pronunciation - Guide for English speakers

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.)
  3. 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

learn Italian like a childThe 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.

Talk Like an Italiantalk like an Italian

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.


The promotion period is over, but you can still purchase the eBook on Amazon at the normal price. Talk Like an Italian

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Living in the Caput Mundi and trying to decipher Italian culture for the English speaking world.

  • Wonderful podcast! I agree that we English speakers have an advantage teaching Italian than Italian teachers. We know ourselves from experience where the problems are in trying to speak Italian. I have put many of these tips into my books, Conversational Italian for Travelers on Amazon, which is an attempt to teach very basic Italian to those with absolutely no experience. I also have lots of free recordings from native Italian speakers on my website http://www.LearnTravelItalian.com. Looking forward to sharing more of your podcasts with my Italian language groups!

  • Julie says:

    Divertimento e grazie, Rick! Look forward to the next one…

  • Excellent article. As one who has learned Italian as an adult, I wholeheartedly second your emphasis on pronunciation. Beginners often overlook its importance, but in the long run, it helps with everything. So, it isn’t just about being understood when you speak, but also understanding others, as well as reading and writing, because as you say, if you know how a word is written, you know how it’s spelled and vice versa. With proper pronunciation, you’re reinforcing the development of your language skills in all areas.
    And by the way, love the, “Yes, mamma,” story.

    • Rick says:

      Great points, Karen. Yes, the Italians have given us a great gift with their phonetic spelling. We didn’t return that favor in English, but our grammar is a lot easier. And my daughter has many such stories that keep us all laughing. The other day we were translating animal names from Italian to English. She was doing great until I got to one that she couldn’t remember. So she did what I would have done: made something up on the spot.

      ME: “Demetra, come si dice ‘piccione’ in inglese?”
      HER:”Ummm… flying octopus!”

  • Elvira Brody says:

    A wonderful idea to teach your daughter both Italian and English. I was raised in an Italian-American household with grandparents who had (mostly) lost the use of Italian. My grandfather was brought to NYC as a nine year old and my grandmother was born there and raised by parents who-proudly-said to their children that, as Americans they must speak only English. So; except for a few words here and there, as well as hearing Italian spoken in friend’s houses by parents and grandparents, I knew just a few words. Fast forward 60 odd years, and now that I have a home in Italy, just a five-minute walk from my 20 something daughter; I am struggling to learn to speak with my neighbors. They are all very supportive, and one expression I know perfectly is; “piano, piano.” My daughter, on the other hand, is speaking rather well and on her way to fluency. Teaching your daughter both languages will give her “the head’s up” needed in an increasingly globalized world. In fact, even in our small town, some parents are trying to do the same-if, they know an English speaker. Bravi to you and your wife!

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