July 4


Speaking Italian has ruined my English

By Rick

July 4, 2014

speaking italian while teaching english
Parla come mangi!

This week’s theme for our Italy Expat Blogger Roundtable (official name and acronym to be announced VERY soon) is language learning and speaking Italian.  Now, I’ve written before on various aspects of this topic, from my first encounter with Italian in Italy, to the later stages of my language learning journey.  I’ve talked about the many diverse dialects throughout the country, and even scratched out a little eBook on the subject.

And I’ve also discussed the other side of the coin, which is Teaching English to Italians.  Perhaps this last one is a good jumping off point for what I’d like to discuss today:  How teaching English while speaking Italian has ruined my English language skills.  These days, I catch myself saying, “I make a shower now,” instead of “I’m going to take a shower now.”  Or, “Let’s repose ourselves for a few minutes,” instead of “Let’s rest for a while.”  And then there the times when I say a perfectly correct English sentence, but replace one of the objects with an Italian noun.  For example, “Put the baby in the passeggino, please.”  Nothing wrong with the word “stroller,” but I happen to prefer passeggino.  Of course, there are circumstances where there simply isn’t an English equivalent, such as “Darn it! There’s another sciopero in Rome today!”  Or better still, when the English just isn’t strong enough to convey the emotion.  “Porca puttana!  There’s another sciopero in Rome today!”

Speaking Italian in the English Language

We all know that many Italian words have made their way into everyday English over the course of time, especially in the areas of food (pizza, pasta), music (piano, aria), and organized crime (mafia, vendetta).  So these terms we are already familiar with and don’t require translation.  Other words such as paparazzi, graffiti, and ghetto are also used frequently, if usually mispronounced.

Likewise, there are many English words that have been directly adopted by the Italians without translating them.  Some of these words are club, flirt, bar, and shopping.  Terms relating to business and technology are particularly common, such as meeting, staff, marketing, computer, fax, and mouse.  There are some practical reasons for this.  Imagine instead of “mouse” you had to say something like, “dispositivo di puntamento elettronico.”  Of course, you could just say “topo”  (literally: mouse), but every time I suggest this translation, my wife scrunches up her nose as if I had just emitted a foul odor.

Or sometimes they take an English word and make it Italian by adding an Italian suffix.  For example, the verb, “to download” should be translated as “scaricare,” but instead you’ll often hear an Italian say, “downloadare.” Why they opt for the bastardized English word when the Italian word is perfectly fine, I don’t know.

Et tu, americano?

However, we should also point out that there are many words that Italian and English already share due to common etymology or root word origin.  These are referred to as “cognates,” or words that look similar and have nearly identical meanings.  (This term derives from the Latin cognatus, meaning blood relative.)  The list of cognates is long, and being alert to them can give you a jump start in learning Italian.  A few examples of these are as follows: farmacia—pharmacy; intelligente—intelligent; necessario—necessary; dividere—to divide; studiare—to study; and so on.  An awareness of these similar terms can provide a huge initial boost to your vocabulary without actually memorizing new words.  Sometimes I even invent them up on the spot, and more often than not, they turn out to be correct.

Furthermore, there are letter groupings that can help you decipher many words.  For example, the English suffix, “tion” becomes, “zione” in Italian, such as station, stazione.  Or the English, “ly” translates as, “mente.” (e.g. probably = probabilmente).  The English “ous” turns into “oso” (e.g religious = religioso), the “y” ending becomes “ia” (e.g. copy = copia).

Then there are also the false cognates, which are sometimes referred to as “false friends.”  These are tricky little buggers, and they still catch me off guard once in a while.  Here’s a few that’ll spin your head around:

  • 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” (which is “primo o poi”), in Italian 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 egg custard.  “Panna,” is the Italian word for the cream that goes on top of your gelato—“whipped” cream, in other words.
  • Definitely. Definitivamente: that means forever, definitively. NOT definitely.  Get it?
  • 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 look strange.  They are probably referring to your wardrobe in any case.
  • Magazine.  Magazzino: 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 at 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.

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


Baby Talk

She has already learned the importance of hand gestures in Italian.
She has already learned the importance of hand gestures in Italian.

Yes, speaking Italian has definitely had a negative effect on my English.  As if that weren’t enough, my English is also suffering from the influence of my bambina.  We’re trying to teach our little principessa both languages at the same time as she grows up.  At this point, she’s a bit confused, but I suppose it won’t be long until she starts correcting (or just laughing at) my Italian.  I’m in full panic mode right now, trying to learn how to conjugate the passato remoto before she does.

And she’s worked out her own language, too, and I find myself learning her words instead of teaching her mine.  “Eh-bu-ah” means “give me milk and nobody gets hurt,” apparently.  So now when I blurt out that same phrase, my wife knows to substitute the word “Campari” for “milk” and it means basically the same thing.  Communication–the cornerstone of every good relationship no matter what language.

The Usual Suspects

As I mentioned in the beginning, our nutty group now has an official name.  Henceforth, we shall be referred to as:

COSI (Crazy Observations by Stranieri in Italy)

So now we’ve got a name, a logo, and we’re working on a theme song and iPhone app (not really).  But at least we’ve been officially recognized by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (another lie), and soon we’ll be asked to sit in on Parliamentary sessions as cultural advisers (OK, enough).

To read some other great ways expats are dealing with learning the Italian language, check these out:

Recent Posts:

About the author

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

  • Thank you for the list of false friends. How about suggestivo – does not mean suggestive! I’m sure I as an English person make lots of similar mistakes with Italian. Any suggestions of Italian words to avoid or be careful with for English speakers? Bravi all of you in COSI and good luck. BTW we say Chiuso to mean shut when you would expect it to be open.

  • Just wondering why you said there was no English equivalent to sciopero Rick when it means strike? Thankfully much less common outside of Italy but there is a direct English translation. Living in Italy we are all too familiar with this word.

    • Oh, well, “strike,” yes, but that hardly begins to address the deeper subtitles of sciopero. Like why are they always scheduled in advance and published in the papers (sometimes)? Or how come it always seems to happen around a Monday or Friday making for a nice “ponte?” No, no, no…sciopero can’t be directly translated as “strike,” there’s so much more to it than that.

  • Got here by chance, so this is the first time I read your blog. I’ve immediately bookmarked it! Lovely to see how the false friends are seen from the other side. Greetings from Trieste! 😀

  • I love this article because I really understand this problem.
    I am not a native English speaker (but Dutch) but the time I lived in Rome I spoke a lot of English with my non-Italian friends (with sometimes Italian words that just sound better in English) and I learned Italian with the translations of words from exercises every time in English. Now I really recognize that I get confused with Italian translating to Dutch. For example the word ‘mandorla’. I never know immediately the translation in Dutch, first I have to translate to English, almond, and than I remember the dutch word (which is amandel).
    But sometimes it is also an advantage if you speak more languages. You gave as examples fabbrica and stoffa. In English the translation doesn’t look like the Italian word, but it does in Dutch (fabriek & stof).

    Before going to Rome I thought that I would get this problem but now I have to admit that I also have some problems with my own language haha.

    • It’s so true…and a little embarrassing when you forget a word in your native language! Interesting to hear your point of view as person whose native language is neither English nor Italian…although I’m often impressed (and again, embarrassed) when a Dutch person speaks better English than me!

      • The interesting point of knowing many languages, and communicating mainly in english on international fora (correct plural form of the latin world “forum”) is the fact that often I forgot words in my native language too! ^_^
        The funny part of the whole thing is starting joking talking with italian words and change it in their friends or false friends in english, or french, spanish or japanese.
        Also noteworthy, all italian humor movies are made by joking with words. Be capable of manage it and you reach a new level in understanding italian and also your own language.
        I remember with joy the first time I was capable to understand a barzelletta in english or manage to make myself a joke in japanese.
        Mixing words and languages? Using words likw passeggino?
        Don’t worry. Maybe you started a new language meme in the melting pot of global world universal lingo! ^_^


  • haha love your post Rick, we are so much alike! I think we will all develop our own crazy language after living here.. and “Eh-bu-ah” I should try that with my dog and see if it has that same affect 😉

  • To be fair, I (as a native Italian speaker) have always heard “scaricare” and not “downloadare”… which is simply horrible, to say the least.

    • Well, I agree that these types of words are horrible but you’ve NEVER heard of them??? Never heard of: chattare = chiacchierare
      scannerizzare = scansionare
      hostare = ospitare
      quotare = citare
      sharare = condividere
      switchare = cambiare

      And of course there are dozens more that I’ve heard or read. I’m really surprised that a native Italian speaker has never heard these words. Lucky for you, because you’re right, they’re horrible!

      • Sorry, Rick, but I’ve never heard “sharare” (we do in fact use “condividere”), “downloadare” (“scaricare” is much more common), “hostare” or “swithchare” (“cambiare is, again, much more common… and i’ve got plenty of friends who are tech junkies and can con firm that).

        Not only I’ve never heard them (perhaps they sound like something a Milanese would say?) with the exception of “quotare”, which can be found in a lot of forums, but I’ve never used them.

            • Ha, ha…no worries, your input is quite helpful. I think we agree that while horrible, some of the words actually make sense. Like in English, we use pizza instead of “round dough with cheese and tomato baked in the oven.” Doesn’t even sound as appetizing!

  • I like your insights to language, I can really see the language teacher coming out there. I so understand your fears with losing your english (a bit of a worry when you are a writer!?!?) and I’m already being corrected by my four year old son when I mispronounce my Italian. It’s a hard life.

  • Very good Rick. I notice when I am in Italy speaking my little bit of Italian my English changes. Also when I speak to an Italian in English it changes. I do use some Italian words at home including andiamo, Prego, allora.
    I have found also that learning and speaking Italian has given me a much broader understanding of many “English” words. Mind you I also have much more sympathy for anyone learning English as a second language. English is so inconsistent in so many ways particularly the pronunciation

    • Very good point about understanding English words. I’d go a step further and say that it has helped me understand English grammar. In the US, we don’t really know our own grammar very well…and that’s a huge handicap when learning other languages. Ciao Lyn!

  • I am reading the comments with interest as they are pursuant to language and kids. In the Us where I live, we see these issues all over in many cultures for many years, where parents want to preserve the their ;language and children do that up to a point… I am one of these people. Wanted my little son to peak German which he did until he went to school here in Ca and then he very determinately quit at some point . In our house we speak English though we are German and Spanish. These are not new issues, but in general, kids want to integrate into the society they live. Here in the US, we have a long experiment on that and in the third generation, the original language , but not with a lot of interest….

    • Great points, Sabine. If understand you correctly, it’s the second generation that wants to integrate so badly, while occasionally the third or fourth generation becomes interested in the “mother tongue.” That’s what happened in my family, anyway. Ciao!

  • Great post Rick! Very enjoyable and informative. Some day I hope to both live in Italy and become fluent in the language.

    • Thanks!! As you’ve obviously realized Tony, living here is the ONLY way to become fluent. You can learn a lot studying on your own, but you’ll never be more than “functional” that way. Good luck!

  • hahahaha….I used to scoff at people who noted they “forgot” how to speak English after learning/immersing in Italian, but I’ve since caught myself busting out an “artiginal!” when I was looking to say “hand-made” or yeah, the “repose” is another I’ve used as well.
    Also, like you, teaching English has also played into a difficult back-and-forth game for me…there have been times when a student has asked me the english translation of some word, and I didn’t have an answer at the time. Not because I didn’t know the Italian (although hey, that’s happened too), but because I was so used to saying or thinking the word in Italian, I completely forgot the English version for the time being. “oh, uh….yes, how do you call (!!) that in English….oh, i’m blocked, sorry, can I let you know later?”
    An Italianized English word I’ve seen/hard a lot lately is “lovvare”. “Ti lovvo!” lol

  • Of course, I enjoyed the post as usual. However, I don’t have a serious comment as some do. Mine is just kind of worthless really, but I’ll write it any way. I know what “puttana” means and after checking both my Iitalian dictionaries, I find that “porca” means sow. Somehow the combination lacks the force of the term I might use though it is certainly sounds musical in Italian. Maybe I need one of the “bad word” type of dictionary.
    Oh well–as I said a worthless musing.

    • Actually a good point, Joan. We often don’t question idiomatic phrases in our own language, but when dissecting foreign ones, they make us scratch our heads. And yes, the “sound” is as important as the meaning….ciao!

  • This is great! Rick, I am really enjoying your blog. When I was studying abroad in Italy with Middlebury, my fellow American students and I spoke Italian to each other. We learned quickly… but when we left Italy on vacation and “cheated” by speaking English, we found that not only was our English broken, we couldn’t replicate some Italian expressions in our mother tongue. To this day (five years later, and back in the US) one of my friends and I still say to each other, “This video is so funny — you have to see it. I’m going to make you watch it,” because in Italian we used to say, “Te lo faccio vedere!” One of our host parents’ grandchildren (with an American mother) was quite bilingual. But she used to say, “Play this game with me. It’s so easy — even you can do it!” We thought she was just another Italian child who thought she was more mature than Americans. Later, we realized the double translation of the word “anche.” She meant to say, “It’s so easy — you can do it, too!”

    I could come up with many more examples, but I have to catch a train! More later, a dopo!

    PS_ I always want to say “Andiamo” or “Vamanos” when it’s time to go, not “Let’s go.” For some reason the Italian version seems to express the concept better.

  • I love your post Rick! It’s very useful, now I know why my “stranger” friends look weirdly at me sometimes 🙂

  • A note on kids & languages: my Italian wife and I only speak English at home, which has probably given them a better grasp of English than they would if “dad” were the only one to use it, especially since mom is really who their world revolves around and sees them much more. They get plenty of Italian at school and from relatives, friends, and of course mom speaks to them in Italian some, and we both speak Italian if we have guests over, of course. If we were ever to go to the US, I think we’d switch: only Italian at home.

    • That’s a good point, David. In fact, we’re heading back to the US in about a month and none of my family speaks Italian. My daughter will be 11 months in a week or so, and so she’s at a critical point. As you suggest, we’ll probably only speak Italian to her at that point to make sure that she still hears it, at least at home. (P.S. Been meaning to write you about the US immigration issue. I can let you know how it played out for us, if you’d like.)

      • I’d be very interested to hear about your practical experience with US immigration. Reading about how bad the wait list is for people was really a blow to the gut. You kind of figure you’re leaving behind some of the worst bureaucracy heading to the US, but frankly the Italian system is easier/quicker with married couples.

      • Rick, you’re leaving Italy? Are you coming to the USA for the long haul or just for a visit / extended trip?

  • You can’t really call a computer mouse a “topo” in Italian, as that is referring to the small, rather dirty mammal, which can’t in any case allowed to be on the same table where you’re going to put your coffee cup 🙂

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