“Tink aboot dis” When Teaching English to Italians

Teaching English to Italians

I really love my job, teaching English to Italians.  Not only is it enjoyable and rewarding, but I meet a lot of great people from all walks of life here in Rome.  The pay is decent (well, halfway decent) and it’s not too stressful.  However, it’s not without some challenges at times.

An American Teaching English to Italians

One challenge involves teaching the phonetics of our language.  While English grammar is relatively simple, the pronunciation can be quite difficult for foreigners.  A particular torment for Italians is undoubtedly the “th” sound.  This sound simply does not exist in their language.  When asked to pronounce “think” or “thin” or “thick,” a beginner level Italian will usually say “tink,” “teen,” and “teak.”

Distrustful of this strange “th” sound, Italians  simply refuse to put their tongue between their teeth(teet), which to them sounds like someone speaking with a profound lisp or some other speech impediment.  And so they try to work around this obstacle by changing the “th” into an “f.”  Consequently, an intermediate Italian will often produce, “fink,” “feen,” and “fick.”

This leads into the next issue: acknowledging that the letter “h” makes any sound at all.  When attending primary school, Italians are taught that the “h” is a “mute little letter.”  In their schoolbooks, you’ll often see an illustration of the pitiful, socially-outcast letter “h” with sad eyes and a bandage over her mouth to shut her up.  In the Italian language, the “h’s,” like good little bambini, should be seen and not heard.

Indeed, there are a few (very few) Italian words that begin with an “h” merely to visually distinguish it from another word that would otherwise sound identical.  For example: “ha,” which is a form of the verb “to have,” (meaning “he/she has”) and “a,” (which is the preposition “to.”) “Ha” and “a” sound absolutely 100% the same in Italian and kids learn this during their first year of kindergarten.  Then, after many long years of silence from the letter “h,” an English teacher suddenly arrives from outer space trying to explain that “Hi!” and “I” are not only different words, but also sound very differently.

Much confusion then ensues when “Are you hungry?” is misunderstood as “Are you angry?” At this point the student will probably begin to believe that the “h” does, in fact, make a sound and that it’s an important part of the English language.  As a result, they will begin putting a random “h” where there shouldn’t be one—while continuing to forget where the “real” ones belong for a few more years.  Or until the teacher just gives up.


Then there are the grammar differences. When teaching their own native language to young students, Italian schools focus much more on grammar than we do in our American system. When learning English later in life, this can be both an advantage and a disadvantage for the student, as well as for the teacher. The student will often insist on finding an appropriate equivalent for each little part of a sentence.  This is when the English teacher might—not having reviewed his or her grammar—be embarrassed to find him/herself not so well-versed in discussing direct and indirect objects, conditional forms, past participles, and so on.  However after a short while, Italian students suddenly realize the good news: English grammar is much less complex than their own.

That’s not to say that they won’t make plenty of grammatical errors.  A common mistake is trying to fit English verbs into reflexive forms.  In Italian there’s a long list of reflexive verbs that in English are not used as reflexive.  For example, the Italian “riposarsi,” “sedersi,” and divertirsi” (“to rest,” “to sit,” and “to have fun”) are all reflexive.  So it should come as no big surprise when you hear an Italian saying, “I’m sitting myself here, if it’s ok with you, because I had myself a lot of fun dancing, and now I need to rest myself for a while.”  All the extra “myselves” are the best they can come up with to translate their reflexive verbs.  Good luck undoing this.

Of course, this only touches on a wide range of linguistic differences when teaching English to Italians.  In future posts I’ll mention a few more, including the dreaded “false friends,” and idiomatic expressions.

(H)and if you tink of hany of your hown anecdotes to add to de discussion, plez don’t not esitate to post dem ear yourselves.

(This post is partially excerpted from my E-book, which is now available on Amazon.com.  Please click the link here: Teaching English to Italians)

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

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