October 23


“Tink aboot dis” When Teaching English to Italians

By Rick

October 23, 2012

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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About the author

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

  • I was just tickled reading this. I’m from the US, have a mother from Guatemala, have lived in Florence short-term in the past and am looking to move there permanently later this year. In learning Italian, teaching English, and talking to the foreign-language lovers and speakers throughout my life whom I just adore, I was majorly giggling through this whole piece. Thanks, Rick!
    (P.S. You are now one of my expat-in-Italy **rock stars** who I am bound and determined to meet some day. Neither you nor Georgette (and a growing list of other delightful people) are safe!) 🙂

  • Hey! I am a Canadian in Italy and I am teaching a 12 year old here English. He has studied English at an Oxford school in Italy for 6 years. Do you have any suggestions on where to start?

  • Brilliant post! Yes many languages struggles with english sounds, and find often strange ways to work around them. In Japanese language “thank you” is pronounced “sankyuu”

    • Right! And then those of us from the English-speaking countries can’t roll our r’s or produce the “gl” or “gn” group. And we don’t recognize double consonants!

  • Great post Rick.
    I spent a morning trying to find out why a colleague was angry (using my dreadful Italian and his poor English) when all I needed to do was buy a couple of coffees and brioche

  • Hi Rick,
    I have particularly enjoyed this post.
    I agree with your opinions coming from your direct experience.
    In regard to me, as an English “student”, I learned to fix especially some pronunciation mistakes.
    For example, I notice that you English speakers don’t pronounce adjectives ending with “-ful” as 90% of Italians do.
    Even journalists and TV personalities often say beautifuuul (stressing a lot the “u”), but the correct pronunciation is with the “u” more similar to an “o”.
    Another error is that about the -ed endings in regular verbs in past simple and past participle forms. I have found out there are precise rules for their different pronunciations.
    You are absolutely right about the “th” sound! In fact, the teacher in my class of business English told us that you can recognize a native English speaker on that sound, especially from the words “the”, “third”, “think”.
    To me English is seemingly an easy language: the grammar rules so apparently simple, but there are exceptions to bear in mind.
    And idiomatic expressions are a singular world one should able to master by switching cultural approach.
    An error I often read on LinkedIn profiles is “I am interested to (+ infinitive)”.
    So I don’t like that much when everybody states how good they are at English, when actually they aren’t even close to a high level.
    Putting my two cents in, you never stop learning English 😉

  • Love this. Reminds me of my dear Italian mum, who couldn’t hear the difference between ‘paint’ and ‘pint and used to ask me to go out and get a ‘paint’ of milk. I also have a cousin who has difficulty distinguishing between ‘no’ and ‘now’ and pronounces Twitter as Tweeterrrrr, which is actually quite cute.

    • Yes, I love it, too! My wife has a few that I’d better not post here because she’s kill me, but I find them adorable. She gets mad because I don’t correct her.

  • It does happen to me that students will ask what the passive or conditionals are and how they work and what are the rules?…or even more grammar to consider. I understand that in school they are being taught more grammar than pronunciation and speech, some of the grammar they need to study are not even being used anymore. I am a Canadian and it has happened that my students will not consider my lessons because they want a native English Britain speaker instead. I do correct them a lot on their pronunciation and sometimes they will ask how it’s said through the Britain way! or even worse! insist on the correct grammar they have been taught and sometimes they would even show me their text books where in fact, at times they seem to be right! i love teaching English and have been teaching it since i came to live in Sicily, but i struggle in all my classes. Oh and sometimes, I just exhaust all of my worksheets, games, ideas…and don’t know what to do next! Oh my!

    • So true, Patricia…I HATE it when they know more grammar than I do! As far as a preference to the British accent, to my surprise, I haven’t really encountered that. Although I’ve heard others say the same thing as you. But it’s a fun job, isn’t it? Not too stressful and you always meet interesting people. Ciao!!

  • Italian Chef in one of my Restaurants, “is a problem with the electric”.
    ” I have to turn off the ..circus breaker” (circuit breaker). Later, when I
    told him the correct pronunciation we laughed for months.
    Of course he loved my Italian/American dialect. Lottsa fun, no harm.

    • Ha! That’s a great one! I know I’ve done a lot worse than that in Italian, though. As you say, it’s all in good fun. Thanks, Vito…ciao!

  • I love this post.

    – the angry vs hungry.
    -fruit pronounced “Fru-ITE” and juice “Ju-EECE” as well as biscuit “bis-cu-ITE”….

    Then there’s the whole stress over UK vs American accents and blaming an accent on their inability to understand a speaker, CD etc (when it really boils down to their own comprehension problems).

    Also, the “relax myself” and the dropping of EVERY “s” possessive or third person singular.

    Then the obsession over all grammar rules until they no longer make sense. They tend to ask you such splitting-hair questions that you doubt your ability to speak Engish sometimes.

    Living here, you may find that your own vocabulary has shrunk down so much whilst speaking to ESLers that you’re like…”wow, I really need to read a thick novel to brush up on my skills” haha.

    It’s a fun, weird profession.

    • Ha, ha! Natasha you’re so right! I get this strange feeling sometimes, mid-sentence, when I start wondering if the words coming out of my mouth are making any sense at all to my listener. This particularly happens when speaking with another English teacher, since we’re all so hyper-aware of our language. Since being in Rome, I’m not sure if my Italian has improved, but I know that my English has gotten worse! Thanks for your comment!

      • Not long ago a British guy, who’s been teaching in Italy for quite a while, wrote this in a comment on Linkedin: “Depend.”. Exactly the way into which an average Italian learner would tranform the sentence “IT dependS” 🙂

        • Well Alessandra, you didn’t say it directly, but I think you’re implying that this gentleman has been living in Italy for too long. Ha, ha! But this is normal, I think. MY English has certainly gotten worse since living in Italy–perhaps there’s only so much room in our brains for language. Of course that varies from person to person…depende!

          • We will get to the point when our students and we will speak exactly the same language: 50% ours and 50% theirs 😉

            • Yes, a true cultural exchange, perhaps. Maybe one day years from now there will really be a single global language. But I hope not, that wouldn’t be very interesting, would it? And it would put us language teachers out of a job!

  • So true, Monica! I have often wondered about the omitted “s” at the end of the third person singular. I mean, it’s the ONLY difference that they have to remember and yet few seem to do so. In Italian, I constantly have to shuffle through SIX verb forms in my head in order to choose the correct one–you would thing that two would be easy! Thanks for the comment!

  • A colleague from Verona passed on this story to me from one of her students:
    He came to class with his arm in a sling and when asked what happened he said, “I sleep on the floor”. To which she replied, “Don’t you have a bed?!” And then, through much mime, she realized that he meant he had SLIPPED on the floor!
    Which reminds me of another story about the Italian who went to Malta…

  • My Italian mother in law from Bari tells everyone I attended the “Heart Institute” but really it was the “Art Institute”. cute

    • Ha, ha! What a difference one little “h” makes! I would hope that my cardiologist studied at the Heart Institute, and not the Art Institute!

  • Love the article. I think the ‘th’ is very difficult for many language learners, for example Eastern European. Pronunciation is something that always has to be worked on although the phonetic alphabet can be a great comfort to many. Do you think some of your learners (adults??) would like to come for a short intensive course in the UK to help with speaking and pronunciation? Let me know if you think this is useful and would be of interest. We can take it from there. In the meantime I look forward to reading future posts. Janet

    • Hi Janet! Thanks for the comment. The challenge that I often face with my students is that the don’t really want to practice their phonetics. Their school system stresses the importance of grammar and so they’re pretty good at picking up ours, which gives them a lot of immediate gratification. For another thing, being surrounded by other Italians who make the same errors, often they honestly don’t hear their mistakes, even when pointed out directly.
      And yes, I only teach adult learners. I know that they could certainly benefit from an intensive course in speaking/pronunciation and I’d be happy to suggest it to some of my students who might have the resources for such a trip. The only thing is, Italians generally reserve that sort of thing for the month of August when the entire country shuts down for holiday. However, I’d be happy to pass the info along.

  • Ever heard anybody completly dropping subjects and/or objects? “I don’t like” instead of “I don’t like it” is one of my favourites. As per mispronunciation, for me nothing beats “son of a beach!” — It just makes the bad thing sound not so bad!

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