A Few More Thoughts on Teaching English to Italians

In the spirit of fair play, I will eventually invite an Italian teacher to my blog so that she can make fun of all us Americans who are trying to master the language of Dante.  Every population has its unique challenges when learning a foreign language.  Perhaps we Americans are the most tongue-tied of all, living in a country that is more or less linguistically isolated and culturally homogeneous.  What we sometimes refer to as “dialects” in the U.S. are really not much more than minor regional accents, and even these have very little variation relative to the size of our country.  Especially when compared to Italians, we all speak the exact same language in the United States.

teaching English to Italians

When we learn our first language, not only do we acquire vocabulary and grammar rules, but we also train our lips, tongue, teeth, and palate to produce the sounds that are necessary and often unique to that language.  As many of you might have already discovered, there are sounds present in the Italian language that we Americans have a difficult time producing (for example, the rolling “r” comes to mind).  Likewise there are many sounds in English that Italians simply can’t produce because these sounds do not exist in their mother tongue.  See my earlier blog post on this topic here: http://rickzullo.com/teaching-english-to-italians/

Furthermore, it’s difficult to convince an Italian that the same letter can be pronounced in a variety of different ways depending on…well, often depending on no exact rule, really.  In Italian, the rules for pronunciation are very precise with few, if any, exceptions.  Not so in English.  For example: in English, when we say the word “idiot” and the word “idea,” the “i” is pronounced in two different ways.  It just so happens that these two words are almost identical when translated into Italian: “idiota” and “idea,” where the “i” always sounds like a long “e” in English (as in the word “email”).  I’ve seen an Italian woman who taught English at a public school in Italy invent an explanation for this phenomenon for her students.  She said, “Ragazzi, the ‘i sounds differently depending on where the accent falls: in idiot the accent is on the ‘i itself, whereas for idea it’s on the ‘e that follows.” Ha! Imagine her confusion when a student promptly asked her to explain the difference between “idle” and “idol.”

Teaching English to Italians

If vowel sounds present some lingering questions, then groups of letters only worsen the situation for the Italian beginner.  Above all, the double consonants.  For the Italians it will always remain a mystery why Americans waste paper and ink by writing double consonants that have only one sound.  Now, this is a difficult concept for us English speakers to understand.  For example, you might know that “pane” is the Italian word for “bread.”  But if you hear an Italian exclaim that he’s in “panne,” you might think that he’s eating too much and needs to go on a diet.  But in fact, when pronounced, “pan-ne,” it means that he’s having some serious trouble at the moment.  There are many more examples of this, some of which can be quite embarrassing.  Try looking up the difference between “anno” and “ano.”  Preferably before you ask someone how old they are.


Perhaps this phenomenon might start to make sense when you consider it from the other point of view.  When an American says the word “butter,” it sounds like “buder.”  Then listen to an Italian pronounce words like “butter,” or “happy,” or “sunny.”  They pronounce both of the double consonants distinctly in every case.  It can be very “fun-ny” to listen to, but you have to admit that they have a point.

Lost in Translation?

Idiomatic expressions

We all know that when we say “It’s raining cats and dogs,” there are no Chihuahua puppies or Persian kittens responsible for the traffic jam on the highway.  This is the definition of an idiomatic expression: a phrase that makes no sense in its literal meaning, but it describes something that we’ve conventionally agreed upon as a culture. The fun-ny part comes when these nonsense phrases, which after years and years are taken as absolutes, are literally translated into another language to the confusion (and/or amusement) of our listener.  For example, in Italy it never rains like cats and dogs.  Instead, it rains like sheep.  Huh?

Your student might “not see the hour” (non vedo l’ora) until he meets you again; or, in idiomatic English, “he can’t wait.”  If he’s a bit upset at his classmate who likes to show off his linguistic skills, he might tell him to “lower his wings” (or “eat some humble pie” in English).  If he tells you “Teacher, you went to Rome and did not see the Pope,” don’t waste time explaining that you haven’t had a chance to visit The Vatican yet; he’s just telling you that you’ve neglected something important.  If he fails a test, he’s obviously “gone white.”  But if he cheated, he knows he has “a tail made of straw.”  The list is endless.  So don’t worry if some things “have no sense” (non ha senso) in the beginning, because sooner or later, they will make sense.

“Stranger” words: They are no friends of mine!

Last but not least, the dreaded false friends. There are many of them between our two languages.  Here are a few of the most common among our Italian amici:

  • Actually. It sounds very similar to “attualmente,” and it probably derives from the same root word, except in Italian, “attualmente” means “at the present time.”
  • Eventually. Similar to “eventualmente” but instead of “sooner or later” (“primo o poi”), it means “in case,” or “in the event of.”
  • Corpse. Sounds a lot like “corpo,” which in Italian is simply a “body.”  In English, reporting “a dead corpse” to the police would be redundant.  Not so in Italian.
  • Cream.  So close to “crema.”  When asking for “cream” an Italian probably wants custard.  “Panna,” is the Italian word for the cream that goes on top of your gelato—“whipped” cream.
  • Definitely. Definitivamente: that means forever, definitively.
  • Stranger. I know some Italians who have a lot of “stranger” friends.  What they mean to say is “foreign” friends.  Hopefully they count me among the latter group.  Straniero means foreigner in Italian, while a stranger is “sconosciuto.”  So don’t be offended if they say that you’re strange.  But if they do, it’s probably best not to ask them to clarify; just let it go.
  • MagazineMagazzino: which means a department store or warehouse.  “Rivista” is the word for the many gossip rags on sale at the newsstand.
  • Factory. Fattoria. Ever heard of an assembling line in a farm?  No, me either, but that’s what a “fattoria” is: a farm, not a factory.  “Fabbrica,” is the word for factory, while fabric is “stoffa,” in Italian.

Confused yet?    OK, just one more.  But it’s an important one.

  • PreservativePreservativo.  No, no, and no!  Not the chemicals that they put in your food, but rather a condom.  Try not to let your students make this mistake!

Well, once again I’m having some fun at the expense of my amici italiani.  But I promise to give equal time to my Italian teacher sooner or later so that she may exact some revenge on behalf of Italians world-wide.  And if you think that I can be sarcastic, wait until you hear  from her!

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

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