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Ten Ways to Improve Your Italian
Tips and Tricks They Don't Teach in Italian Language School
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Take a class in Italian language, and you'll review definite articles, direct object pronouns, and prepositions. The instructor will demonstrate how to pronounce Italian words and you'll probably have access to an Italian language audio lab. But at a certain point, you'll want to learn some shortcuts and quick pointers that will supercharge your lessons. Here, then, are ten ways to improve your Italian that they don't teach in language school!

1. What You See Is What You Hear
Enunciation–native Italian speakers open their mouths wide not just to shout, but to get those big, round, vowel sounds. For example, if you want to pronounce the Italian letter a, just open wide and say aahh!

For help in spelling and pronouncing words in Italian, here's a simple rule: what you hear is what you get. Another point to keep in mind is that Italian is a phonetic language, which means most words are pronounced as written. The Italian words cane, mane, and pane will always rhyme (compare the English triplet chalice, police, and lice).

2. Falsi Amici
Learning Italian is made easier by the fact that many Italian words look like English words and have similar meanings. These words are called cognates or parole simili. There are only minor differences in spelling between English and Italian cognates. For example, stazione/station, museo/museum, professore/professor, and intelligente/intelligent.

The wrong word syndrome, though, presents itself with words that look alike in the two languages but have different meanings. These are called false cognates or falsi amici: parente/relative (not parent), libreria/bookstore (not library)

3. Avoid "Io–ismo"
Since the endings of conjugated verb forms indicate person and number, Italian subject pronouns may be omitted except when necessary: (1) for clarity, (2) when modified by anche (also), or (3) when emphasis or contrast is desired. Prefacing first–person comments with io: "I read this", "I study," sounds like you are constantly calling attention to yourself.

4. Slow Down!
Quickness counts at the San Marino Grand Prix, but fast definitely doesn't equal fluent in the race to be understood. Spoken English is notorious for slurring words together (remember the classic scene in Woody Allen's Annie Hall: "Jeet yet?" and the reply "No, d'jou?") but don't get caught speeding on the autostrada. In spoken Italian vowels and consonants maintain their particular, unchanging sound. Relax, take a deep breath, and enjoy the sweet sounds of la bella lingua at a leisurely pace.

5. Adjectives
How many times can you say molto bene before you bore even yourself? With the usual emphasis on nouns and verbs, sometimes Italian adjectives–the very words that are the most expressive–get short–changed. Learn alternative ways of expressing yourself, including the use of prefixes (such as stra–) and suffixes (such as –ino, –etto, –ello, and –accio), and you'll quickly increase your vocabulary.

6. Formalities
Ingratiate yourself with shopkeepers, neighbors, and guests, and you'll see a big difference in how others perceive you. Remember your manners and you're much more likely to be greeted with a smile. Learn the essential survival words and phrases in Italian, and chances are they'll also help you with your new–found language skills.

One important note about the courteous form of address in Italian. There are four ways of saying you in Italian: tu, voi, Lei, and Loro. Tu (for one person) and voi (for two or more people) are the familiar forms, used only with family members, children, and close friends. An Italian will often ask: "Possiamo darci del tu?" which figuratively means "May we switch to the tu form?" after a relationship progresses. That's your signal to use the less formal tu form.

7. The Stumbles
Er, umm, ah, like you know—this is about those conversation fillers that make you sound like a teenager or worse. You know what you want to say, but the dazzling architecture of la basilica di San Marco in Venice has temporarily rendered you incoherent. One way to remedy this is to practice interjections, sentence starters, and other useful phrases to help get your tongue in gear. Commit your favorite snappy answers to memory and you won't be mistaken for a scemo.

8. Lower the Volume
For some unexplained reason, non–native speakers tend to practically scream if asked to repeat themselves. Instead of considering the possibility that their Italian language skills need polishing, they assume that the listener is hard–of–hearing—and raise their voices to compensate for their poor pronunciation or wrong choice of words. Just a bit of advice: speak softly and carry a big dictionary. No one will understand you any better if you shout at them.

9. Fare una Bella Figura
Spend some time in Italy, and one thing you'll notice is the Italian effort to fare una bella figura—"to look good." Whether it's during their daily passeggiata, the ritual evening walk when the townspeople gather to talk to friends, dinner at a restaurant, or opera at Teatro alla Scala, Italians dress to impress. After all, the Italian fashion industry is world–renowned. So avoid the shorts and sandals when touring churches, and upgrade your wardrobe when visiting Italy. You may not remember how to conjugate –ire verbs, but it will probably improve your confidence among all those well–dressed Italians, which, after all, is a key to improving your Italian.

10. Those Crazy Americans
No matter how well you say something in Italian, sometimes it will be so nonsensical that not even a linguist could interpret it. What you are saying, and not how you are saying it, may be the problem. Cultural differences become apparent when speaking a foreign language, so beware. If you're sure what you're trying to say is grammatically correct and you're only getting blank stares, then try a different approach.


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