Italian pronunciation – learn how to pronounce the language

Courses have two ways of teaching you to pronounce Italian: “directly” (you’re taught the rules of pronouncing Italian separately from other parts of the language) and “indirectly” (you learn to pronounce the language as you read, speak and listen to it). Most conversational courses emphasize the indirect approach.

Still, most courses include at least some form of pronunciation guide. These include Teach Yourself Italian, Ultimate Italian and Colloquial Italian, each in its own way. (Be careful to check which ones have audio available.) See the section on “Conversational Italian” courses below for more details.

Courses that expect you to learn by doing rather than being told what to do include Pimsleur Italian and Rosetta Stone Italian. These ask you to listen and, at times, to speak, but don’t stress the memorization of rules.

Beginner courses that deal with nothing other than Italian pronunciation in detail are rare. If you absolutely must learn pronunciation by reading explanations of Italian sounds, Singer’s Italian and the outmoded, yet poetically minded and moderately thorough, Guide to the Pronunciation of the Italian Language are among your few options.

Even the most thorough courses ignore complicated aspects of Italian pronunciation like raddoppiamento sintattico and dialect differences (for example, when do you pronounce ‘s’ like “z” versus “s” in Tuscany?). If you’re linguistically minded, or up for a challenge, pick up expert resources such as The Phonology of Italian to learn more.

Conversational Italian – speaking and hearing Italian beats reading about it

Italian conversation courses stress lifelike language use and often offer a casual approach to everyday conversation. These courses include dialogues, practice exercises and explanations. Conversational products come in a variety of formats including book & CD/tape, audio-only or software packages.

The audio-only approach is championed by Pimsleur, whose solid method is matched by a hefty price tag. Their Comprehensive Italian has received due praise for pushing you to listen to and start speaking in a good amount of Italian from day one. Pimsleur also repackages the first 16 lessons of that course as Conversational Italian and the even more limited Basic Italian, all at reduced prices.

Computer software provides a more direct platform for learning the language, allowing you to do things like check your recorded speech against a native speaker and practice with interactive exercises. Currently, two opposing products stand at the forefront of Italian language software. On the one hand, you have Rosetta Stone Italian, which claims to teach you language in the most natural way by connecting words and phrases with images and ideas. In the other corner, challenger Fluenz Italian prompts you to learn with an on-screen human teacher guiding you through the useful aspects of the language, focusing on words and phrases common in everyday life.

Conversational book & CD courses present a hybrid solution by explaining grammar and listing vocabulary along with the more conversational elements like dialogues, example sentences, cultural notes and exercises. Teach Yourself Italian and Colloquial Italian both follow the basic format (dialog, vocabulary list, explanations of grammar and language use, cultural info, exercises) with rigor. They tackle the essentials with themed situations, and can be bought with an accompanying CD.

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Learning Italian focuses more on structure than dialogue, and perhaps even more on silly attention-grabbing explanations than structure (which works for many learners). 30 Days to Great Italian packages a casual, explanatory (even over-explanatory?) approach in a hybrid coursebook-workbook.

The more straight-laced Ultimate Italian focuses more on conversation, exercises and vocabulary, and incorporates more audio exposure to the spoken language, but still includes plenty of explanations. I also recommend Barron’s Italian Now! if you prefer a balanced approach to dialogues, grammar exercises, vocabulary and serious study with a casual style.

If you learn better with a colorful but demanding college textbook, Oggi In Italia balances conversation, readings, vocabulary and grammar. Prego should also satisfy your needs.

Italian grammar

In the paragraph above, I recommended a few conversational courses that take time to explain a good amount of fundamental grammar. In this section, I’ll talk instead about books that dedicate themselves entirely to the study of Italian grammar.

Unless you’re a grammar savant or have a brain for linguistics, as a beginner you will have trouble reading most grammar-intensive texts. You’re better off keeping these on your shelf and referring to specific sections for clarification or explanation. The thin, small and cheap (in price!) Essential Italian Grammar gives a rough overview of all the basics. Even better, Soluzioni has everything you’ll need to back up your grammar knowledge throughout your beginning years in a well-organized, easy-to-search fashion.

Verbs pose the biggest challenge, so taking the time to master them will pay off the biggest dividends in your Italian grammar skills. A few books list hundreds of verbs, fully conjugated, including all irregular verbs in Italian. Among them, The Big Green Book of Italian Verbs stands as the largest, most thorough and easiest to reference – better than that 501 Italian Verbs so many of your classmates will be carrying. Also, the much smaller Luciani’s Italian Verbs deserves extra credit for marking whether “e” and “o” are pronounced open or closed, and including enough verbs to cover every verb pattern in a highly portable, pocket-sized guide.

Later beginners or intermediate students looking to review the basics (and then some!) are advised to check out Interactive Italian Grammar Made Easy. For a workbook with plenty of exercises that cover a bunch of grammar, I recommend you buy Practice Makes Perfect: Complete Italian Grammar. If you like more complex texts, the most thorough popularly available grammar reference is A Reference Grammar of Modern Italian, but you won’t find it as useful unless you truly know your morphosyntax.

Italian dictionaries (Italian-English & English-Italian translations)

I’ve already done full, detailed reviews of Italian dictionaries big and small on this site, and there are more to come.

On the big side, I prefer dictionaries that include pronunciation in IPA for every entry, plenty of variety in definitions, and examples of potentially confusing words (“could you please use the word in a sentence?”). With all the space they provide, hefty dictionaries should take the time to differentiate each translation rather than just spew them out in a random list. Furthermore, these monsters should have space to include hundreds of thousands of entries while still leaving nice margins, clean columns and key words that stand out. Hey, and the best of them should include extra material, like grammar charts or examples of the language in use.

Do any big Italian dictionaries match my criteria? For the most part, yes. One worth mentioning is the Oxford-Paravia Italian Dictionary. While second to Oxford’s, Collins Italian Dictionary also fits the bill.

Webster’s New World Italian Dictionary provides a large number of clearly differentiated translations complete with pronunciation and examples on a medium size scale instead.

When it comes to portable pocket dictionaries, I like Oxford Color Italian Dictionary.

Italian vocabulary

The majority of your vocabulary will come from language lesson course books/programs (scroll up a few sections) or a good Italian dictionary (see the section immediately above this one). Above all, I recommend a dictionary – I repeat, “a good Italian dictionary” to help you stay on top of your vocabulary. Make your own lists, labels and exercises as needed.

Still, if you need to review or expand your vocabulary by theme or topic, a few books can help you memorize sets of Italian words through practice. Such books include Mastering Italian Vocabulary. Personally, I tend to find vocabulary books unwieldy and arbitrary, and prefer to learn as I go.

One deep, thorough exception is the volume with the title Using Italian. This technical and ever-useful linguistic guide studies the use of Italian words and phrases, and explores the levels of meaning of single terms while also exploring the relations between categories or types of meaning in Italian.

Writing Italian – learn how to write the language

Learners quickly pick up on the fact that writing Italian is a fairly straightforward affair. Nearly every conversational course above includes some writing component, and a few spend a good amount of time clarifying the few inconsistencies that Italian orthography does have.

Students looking to examine the relation between letters, words and sounds at a much deeper level will have to rely on expert materials like The Phonology of Italian mentioned above. You might also enjoy digging into The Dialects of Italy if you plan to learn the speech of a particular region of Italy.

Advanced Italian

Quite a few authors have created intermediate and advanced reading courses (commonly called “readers”) that allow students to practice reading longer compositions and pick up more vocabulary. The type of readings vary greatly, but common theme include any broad theme that strikes readers as sufficiently Italian, such as the history, culture and politics of Italy. The books include vocabulary and tips to help you understand the language better and broaden your horizons. These are often classroom textbooks, but, if you’re among the more knowledgeable and clever individuals reading this blog, I bet you can use them on your own.

Examples of readers I find worth mentioning include Parola a te! (a good example of article-style readings on relevant Italian topics) and Mercurio (a solid text full of modern examples of the language in action).

Other continuing Italian books boost your understanding of grammar and syntax. These courses expect that you already have beginner Italian under your belt. Readings are shorter, explanations more plentiful and the focus is clearly placed on learning function and structure. One successful example of this method is Crescendo!

It’s a long but rewarding viaggio. All the best in your studies. Ciao!