Italian Language Learning Reviews

Learn Italian. Product reviews, ratings & recommendations.

Score: 8/10

pros:
fairly well organized; great coverage of wide range of themes & situations; helpfully relevant to Italy; color-coded sections & blue Italian text make searches quick; intro to basic Italian grammar & Italian-English-Italian glossaries; nice extras include sample travel requests to send via e-mail, questions to ask, pics of gestures; although some of the culture notes are generic & boring, others offer useful tips & info

cons:
some of the vocabulary gets too detailed too fast and won’t help many readers; would have liked to see more robust coverage of basic Italian, including more examples in the grammar section cross-referenced with vocabulary lists; glossary could have doubled as an index to quickly find specific words, but page numbers are missing


Barron’s Traveler’s Language Guide: Italian is in many ways a typical phrasebook affair, helping you translate your travel thoughts and needs into Italian. But what it does that is typical, it does well, and even manages to squeeze in some nice extras to make the purchase worth your while.

Like other travel phrase books, this one’s divided into themed sections. Topics include shopping, sightseeing, health, accommodations, on the move, interpersonal matters (thanks, introductions, preferences and small talk) and the all-important “gastronomy (culinary customs)”.

The side tab of each right page is color-coded to one of these topics, and vocabulary list headings share that same color. In other words, it’s easy to locate your desired topic just by flipping the pages.

Vocabulary translations set out the English text in black and Italian in blue. Sample sentences are in bold, with English on top and Italian in blue directly below. Cultural, social and historical notes occur regularly throughout the text, and read as expected.

A brief, approachable introduction to Italian grammar will help beginners make sense of the language. The Italian-English and English-Italian vocab glossaries make for nice, short little dictionaries in a pinch. All of these can be found at the back of the book. The front of the book has a very short pronunciation chart, useful abbreviations and general tips about Italy.

As mentioned, a few extras stand out. The “travel preparations” topic gives sample Italian e-mails you can send to ask Italians about booking a hotel room or renting a car. There are also questions to ask about lodging, what’s included, cost, etc. The “interpersonal matters” includes two pages of color photos demonstrating the basics of Italian body language.

I’ve seen phrasebooks with more vocabulary, or ones that do a better job of organizing topics, or ones that offer an index, or ones that… Sure, in many ways, the Traveler’s Language Guide: Italian is typical. For its extras and its good coverage of the basics, I don’t find it hard to recommend. Travelers looking for more vocabulary could pair this alongside word-building books like Must-Know Italian: 4,000 Words. These two recommendations together give you an expansive arsenal of topical Italian vocabulary. That’s enough to handle most any situation.

Score: 6/10

pros:
themed lists of thousands upon thousands of Italian words & phrases; good variety of topics; solid organization; can help students beef up vocab & tourists complement their travel phrasebooks; vocabulary lists included are up-to-date and pertinent

cons:
no index, no way to look up specific words!; must-know tips offer stingy and random advice about Italian grammar and culture; not basic enough for a phrase book, yet not organized like a dictionary; some more detail or info about certain entries is needed (such as the way dictionaries use key terms); no pronunciation help & no indication of how to pronounce any of these words


Daniella Gobetti’s Must-Know Italian: 4,000 Words that Give You the Power to Communicate is a compendium of words and phrases sorted by topic. This book’s format almost makes it a large Italian phrasebook, or an extensive themed vocabulary list. With that in mind, let’s see how it might help you learn the language.

The introduction explains how the book functions, and how to read each vocabulary entry. In each list of words, the author marks false friends with FF, includes definite articles with nouns, and gives verbal prepositions in brackets (like “occuparsi [di]”).

The book is divided into twelve chapters. Each chapter has an overarching theme, like “A Place to Live”, “Education” or “People and Relationships”. Within each chapter, sections tackle more specific topics, and these sections are dominated by word/phrase lists. “People and Relationships” has sections like “Physical Descriptions” (listing parts of the body) and “Family Relations” (I’ll let you guess what kind of words you’ll learn there…).

The word lists themselves take up the majority of the book. This is a reference guide with translations of Italian and English vocabulary, and no explanations or handholding.

These lists have two columns – English text on the left, Italian translation on the right. All the Italian words are bold, making them easy to spot. Here’s a sample pulled from page 82:

Payments I modi di pagamento
ATM card la cartina del bancomat; il bancomat
cash incassare; il contante/i contanti
My cousin is so rich that he pays for everything in cash. Mio cugino è così ricco che paga tutto in contanti.

As you can see, words are the main focus, while phrases using certain words are secondary and given in italics beneath the word used.

Short, gray “Must Know Tip” boxes add some language and even culture advice, but they’re scattered and limited in appearance and scope.

The end of the book has a nice bonus: over 40 pages of exercises. While they’re mostly fill-in-the blank and multiple choice questions, these practice activities are numbered to correspond to the twelve chapters in the book. After that, you’ll find answers to the exercises.

Although the six-page table of contents lists every topic and subtopic in the book, it’s frustrating that this volume lacks any sort of index or cross-referencing of any kind. The back cover proclaims that “your search for the right word in Italian is over”. That’s only true if you can guess which words are organized into which categories/topics. There’s no way to search for specific words here.

If you’re a later beginner or intermediate student looking to expand your base in Italian vocabulary, Must-Know Italian has some word smarts for you. It’s well organized and covers a variety of topics, but it’s not without its faults. You’ll be better off if you come to this book looking to expand your ability to talk about certain topics, rather than searching for specific words and phrases.

A second group to benefit from this book, perhaps unintentionally, is the semi-informed business traveler or leisure tourist. If you’re planning a trip to Italy, and have some basic knowledge of Italian (or plan to buy simpler phrase books to back you up), this vocab builder could act as a great, robust conversation enhancer. It’s organized by theme, just like your average phrasebook, so it’s a worthy recommendation for your travels to Italy as well.

Score: 10/10

pros:
huge number of entries & translations; key words make choosing the right translation easy; example phrases & sentences clarify potentially troublesome translations; lots of depth on each word; IPA pronunciation for every Italian word; great formatting & organization; verb charts (irregular and regular); useful middle section gives tons of help on tough-to-translate Italianisms, sample letters & important expressions for written and spoken activities

cons:
this is BIG (a factor of how much material squeezed into it); perhaps better for later students, but anyone learning Italian can get a lot out of it


The Italian College Dictionary is a thick, hefty dictionary with hundreds of thousands of words and translations. You’re bound to find most any word you’re looking for translated from Italian to English or English to Italian.

The Eng-It section comes first, followed by It-Eng. In both, main entries are listed in bold text, followed by IPA pronunciation (Italian spelling is fairly transparent, but it’s nice to see how to pronounce your e‘s and o‘s, when to double the length of your consonants and where to stress each word). The part of speech is abbreviated, then translations are given.

Key words help you find the right translation when there’s more than one to chose. If you look up speak, perhaps you’re thinking of words or lines, in which case you’d say dire in Italian, or speaking a language, which is parlare. The dictionary presents such choices like this: (words, lines) dire; (language) parlare.

What’s more, any potentially confusing entry offers you the chance to read the word in context, with useful translations of functional language, not just individual words: she speaks Italian lei parla italiano; dire quello che si pensa to speak one’s mind.

Even though this dictionary confronts you with a monstrous number of words, these nice features make it hard to get lost or confused. Meaning helpers like (fam!) for slang/inappropriate, (fam) for familiar and (fig) for figurative cue you into how to use words.

Although the sheer number of words and translations here, combined with ease of search, are the star, this dictionary brings along some extras. The introduction has an irregular English verb chart, along with regular and irregular Italian verb tables. The gray-edged pages, smack dab in the center, demonstrate “language in use” with examples. Those examples include loads of tricky-to-translate phrases between English and Italian. These phrases cover topics like requests, suggestions, apologies, thanks, invitations, and more.

The editors also took the time to include samples of written Italian – typical letters, a resume and cover letter, commercial and personal correspondence, tips on essay writing. There’s even a page full of standard expressions for talking on the telephone in Italy. Rest assured, you won’t be at a loss for words in Italian.

The introduction does an excellent job of explaining how to use the dictionary – every last piece of it – including visual examples of dictionary sections.

You may not be ready for it yet, or you may be looking for something smaller and pocket-sized for now, but the Italian College Dictionary will kick your dictionary experience up a notch. Not only does it include words your current dictionary lacks, but it gives more and better translations of even the most basic words. Among the most highly recommended Italian dictionaries I’ve come across.

If you’re skeptical about this resource, or want to do some comparison shopping, check out Oxford-Paravia Italian Dictionary for a similarly weighty and lexically abundant tome. On the other hand, you might be considering a purchase in the exact opposite direction: check out my review of the Beginner’s Italian Dictionary.

Score: 7/10

pros:
color-coded tables make verb forms easy to spot; a couple example sentences of each verb; color cartoon drawings visualize the meaning of every verb in the book; verbs are fully conjugated in all forms included in the book; low price; great introduction to the basics of verbs & layout/use of the book; index of every verb cross references page numbers

cons:
certain Italian verb tense-mood forms are missing here, presumably because they’re too advanced; 101 verbs are not many once you learn to speak more Italian; verbs presented in random order, rather than alphabetically or systematically (fortunately, though, there’s a reference index!); missing Italian pronunciation help: When are e and o pronounced open, and when close? Which syllable is stressed?


101 Italian Verbs a grammar book, but it’s not simply another one of those grammar books. It opts for a colorful, cartoon-filled theme to convey the conjugation of Italian verbs. With one verb per page, and an illustration depicting the verb’s meaning, you’ll have access to many (but not every!) form of – how many was it again? – Italian verbs.

You may already know, or else you’ll soon find out, that verbs are quite probably the trickiest part of Italian grammar. Mastering verbs means understanding when to use a whole slew of endings (suffixes) attached to the verb, which differ depending on 1) who’s performing the action, 2) when the action takes place, 3) the verb’s “mood” and 4) whether the action is ongoing or happens at a single point in time. Whew! This is something the meager handful of suffixes in our language hasn’t prepared us to handle: talk, talks, talking, talked.

The beginning introduces you to the four characters you’ll meet in the drawings. Then, you’ll learn some grammatical stuff – about the six different ‘persons’, arranged in a vertical line, each pronoun in a separate gray box (Italian for: I, you, he/she, we, all of you, they).

You’ll be reminded that Italian verbs have endings that match the personal pronoun, and that those verb endings change based on the verb’s tense. You’ll even take a small bite out of reflexive verbs (the book only has four or five). Each of these explanations is accompanied by examples, and plenty of color on each page.

After that introduction, 101 Italian Verbs takes on one verb at a time, in a seemingly random order. The top of each page lists the Italian verb in blue text, an English translation in gray, the imperative (command) forms of the verb in red, and the present participle in dark yellow. The rest of the top half of each page is devoted to those cartoons that relate the verb’s meaning in pictorial fashion.

The bottom half of each verb page presents verb forms in a table. That table has seven columns and six rows on every verb page. The six rows correspond to the person (the pronouns I listed above, but this time in italiano: io, tu, lui/lei, noi, voi, loro). The seven columns – each one a different color – present the verb in seven tenses: presente, imperfetto, passato remoto, futuro, condizionale, passato prossimo. Below the table, you’ll see too sample sentences using the verb in Italian, with English translations.

Every single use of an Italian verb is color coded – highlighted in one of the seven colors, making it easy to connect the conjugated forms with specific verb tenses – even outside those tables. A verbal index in the back alphabetically lists all verbs used in the book, and an English-Italian section allows you to search for any of the 101 verbs by their meaning.

Since it’s missing more “advanced” verb forms like the present and imperfect subjunctive (il conguintivo), I can’t recommend 101 Italian Verbs to anyone beyond the beginner level. Still, the book provides a smooth, colorful, image-rich presentation of the basics of Italian verbs. If you’re the no-nonsense type, and just after the information, try The Big Green Book of Italian Verbs.

Score: 9/10

pros:
makes each translation of a word clear by listing it in context and on a new line; terms and definitions are obvious and easy to spot; pages well formatted and organized for search; important, basic words have fuller sections devoted to their use; covers a good number of terms, even if fewer than other dictionaries of the same size or smaller; offers a variety of extras

cons:
biggest trade off is that you’ll have access to fewer words than most Italian dictionaries; not every learner will appreciate or even use many of the extras; only for beginners (who will outgrow this resource)


The Oxford Beginner’s Italian Dictionary covers fewer words, and fewer translations of each word, than even smaller Italian-English-Italian dictionaries. It does this in an attempt to make the dictionary appeal to newer students. And, for the most part, it does this in a way that works.

The dictionary is divided into two halves: Italian to English translations, and English to Italian translations. In both sections, alphabetical terms are given in large, blue font. In Italian, the stressed syllable of a blue entry term is underlined, and parts of speech are listed to the right (but not abbreviated, as is standard). Definitions have an equals sign before them, and sometimes specify the main entry term. Here’s a sample entry:

schifo * noun, masculine
che schifo! = yuck!
fare schifo = to be disgusting
= to be awful

Translations are kept minimal and simple, with fewer options to choose from and only the most basic. Beginners might find this less clumsy and easier to work with than a denser dictionary bombarding you with more options. On the other hand, you risk missing words and translations that come standard in other Italian dictionaries.

Fundamental words (like “you” in English or “essere” in Italian) have entire sections devoted to them. In those sections, short explanations and example phrases distinguish their uses and meanings in context.

The top of each page lists the first and last term found on that page, and a blue tab on the right hand side of the right page indicates the letter of the alphabet in which you’re searching.

This dictionary comes with a few extras. In the center, easy games and activities help you understand the rudiments of Italian words, grammar and translation. Simplified verb charts, numbers and a list of must-know Italian words, basic phrases and a reference guide explaining Italian cultural and social topics all end the dictionary.

As far as learner dictionaries go, the Oxford Beginner’s Italian Dictionary is nicely formatted and organized. The smaller number of words covered, coupled with more spartan translations, makes it a hit-or-miss affair when you need to look up tougher words. Still, the foundational material is here, and beginner students should get plenty of miles out of this Italian dictionary from the get-go.

Score: 7/10

pros:
rather natural presentation of vocabulary, conversation and grammar; warm, inviting style & tone; covers a lot of beginning grammar; can hear dialogues read out loud on the compact disc; exercises complement the dialogues & explanations; space to write answers to exercises in the book, allowing it to double as a workbook; good pacing & sense of progression; price

cons:
some students will find the constant presence of author’s explanations too long and distracting; dialogs & sentences aren’t always translated, making it hard to follow at times; grammar buffs will complain that this course doesn’t touch on some intermediate grammar points (like subjunctive verbs); audio just good for dialogues


Living Language’s 30 Days to Great Italian is one of many crash courses in beginner’s Italian conversation, vocabulary and grammar sitting on the reference shelf of your local bookstore. It takes a warm, quirky tone as it talks you through beginning and early intermediate points of the language. So, if you have thirty days or more to learn Italian, what will this course do for you?

The introduction clearly explains how to use the course, and what to expect from each lesson. It helps you pace yourself, and then moves on to pronunciation.

The pronunciation guide presents Italian vowels and consonants in the context of Italian words. You’re given English “sound-alikes” for each word (so you’re asked to pronounce calzolaio as “kahl-tsoh-LAH-yoh”), but, fortunately, this typical – yet cumbersome – transcription system doesn’t leak into the main lessons.

Lessons have bullet points that list what you’ll learn in the chapter, warm-up activities, “HEAR…SAY” dialogues, and a back-and-forth interplay between 1) explanations of grammar and language functions (including many examples) and 2) practice activities. The practice exercises match the material you find in the dialogues and explanations, and are typically of the ‘question & answer’ or ‘fill in the blank’ variety.

Explanations may be too long-winded or intentionally cheeky for some learners. The attempted (or, at times, genuine) wittiness is reminiscent of the Idiot’s Guides or For Dummies series in its lighthearted informality. Explanations are plentiful – in stark contrast to the Barron’s course I reviewed & recommended the other day. Notes about Italy, Italians or Italian culture, about grammar, dialect differences, or everyday lingo take up as much space as Italian language material – verb charts, words and sample sentences.

The formatting is clear and comes off as polished and organized. Chapter and section titles stand out bold and clear. Tables with grammatical info read easily. Italian examples are given in bold italic text with English translations below or beside them (but not all words & phrases are translated!). The order of presentation of themes and topics could be called into question, but they at least struck me as relevant to Italy.

The end of each lesson lists answers to exercises in “crib notes”. The lively chapter and section titles don’t always clarify what you’ll find in a given lesson, but a nice index of grammar and conversation topics at the back of the book makes up for it.

The book ends with an appendix of Italian grammar and verb charts, which are quick and handy refreshers or shortcuts when you need them. You’ll also see a few pages with useful phrases and genuine “sound like an Italian” filler words.

30 Days to Great Italian fails to offer much that’s not found in other conversational language course books. Still, its thorough coverage, good organization, light tone and overall balance should appeal to self-taught learners looking for a good Italian lesson book at a low price. However, I do NOT recommend this book and CD package if you can’t handle lengthy, casual explanations that talk you through the language (as if your own informal tutor or teacher wrote the book).

Score: 5/10

pros:
exposure to some simple Italian words & phrases; manages to include a decent number of phrases; audio CD complements phrase book by reading every phrase aloud; some travelers may find the extras mildly useful (intro & pronunciation guide); good reference index allows you to look up key words in a pinch

cons:
only covers absolute basic survival Italian; grammar and culture notes at end are just distractions; not a course, really a phrasebook with audio; pronunciation key is rough, so you’ll need to imitate speakers on audio CD to be better understood; I question the inclusion of certain phrases, as well as others that are missing, with respect to Italy


Although Berlitz’ Language/30 series Italian: Start Speaking Today! markets itself as a language course, it’s really an audio CD and booklet full of basic phrases. In other words, expect to get some exposure to survival sentences here, not a method for learning to speak Italian. For travelers, not for dedicated students.

The small, 50 page phrase book and audio CDs or cassette tapes go hand-in-hand here. You can listen to the phrases as you read along in the booklet.

The booklet starts with a simple introduction to pronunciation. The two-page pronunciation guide lists Italian letters, similar sounds in English (like “ee” for the Italian vowel “i”), and gives a sample Italian word using that letter. This phonetic transcription is key here, since you’ll see it alongside every single phrase in the book. When you learn to say ho fame “I’m hungry”, you’ll be told to pronounce it “oh fa-meh”.

The rest of the book divides phrases into seven topics across forty pages. Every page manages to cover about ten phrases, give or take, with variations. Phrases are divided by horizontal bars, and have three parts (in three columns): English, pronunciation key, and italiano. All of this can clutter pages – practicality outweighs looks, I suppose.

The phrase book and CD include phrases dealing with many helpful topics, from transportation and emergencies to time, seasons, hotels and food & drink. The booklet even lists CD track numbers for each section, making it easier to follow along.

The book ends with two mildly informative pages on Italian culture and social customs, and even throws in a two and a half page summary of Italian grammar. You’ll really need other resources to understand either one.

There’s a vocabulary index in English at the end, with reference page numbers, with allows you to track down words like “ambulance” or “beer” in a hurry.

Language/30 Italian: Start Speaking Today only meets the needs of a tourist looking for the most basic coverage of survival Italian, or curious individuals who want to learn a few phrases in the language. To anyone else, I’d recommend that you keep looking. There must be better travel phrase books out there, for example. The booklet and audio complement each other nicely, but the material they cover is nothing special.

Score: 8/10

pros:
thematic, organized approach to conversation topics; the topics cover everyday life and travel; grammar presented in conversational context; plenty of exercises; formatting & style makes relevant text stand out; audio CDs (assuming you can find them!) offer chance to hear native speakers; explanations kept short, with focus on Italian words, dialogues & activities

cons:
spotty coverage of grammar, which only covers basics (especially of verbs); conversational approach requires you to listen & repeat what’s on the audio CDs – only written activities are at all interactive


Barron’s Learn Italian the Fast and Fun Way is a lesson course and workbook with eight themed units. All along the way, this book tries to engage you with writing activities, colorful drawings, learner-friendly highlighting and pronunciation help. You’ll tackle conversations, readings, explanations of grammar and exercises, you’ll listen to native Italian speakers on the audio CDs (or cassettes) that accompany the course, and you’ll even get a few extras.

This course describes itself as an activity kit, and each of the 29 lessons, spread across eight units, lives up to that description. Explanations are kept to a minimum. Italian words are clearly written in bold text, with boxes, lines and yellow highlights drawing your attention to key words and phrases.

Most of your new learning is done in dialogues (with new words highlighted yellow) or vocabulary lists (where words are accompanied by color cartoon illustrations). You’ll also find blue-tinted tables with grammar summaries, but these don’t get bogged down or lengthy. Every new Italian word has English-friendly pronunciation key written near it, like dieci DYEH-chee “ten”.

Apart from the vocabulary, dialogs and grammar, you’ll be completing activities. These will have you filling in blanks, matching words and even completing a few crossword puzzles. The nearly constant flow of exercises keeps the course fresh and engaging, even if it’s never innovative or immersive.

Now, how much Italian can you expect to learn? You’ll definitely cover a fair share of vocabulary – numbers, greetings, weather, time, as well as loads of phrases related to people, places and events. You’ll learn to talk about everyday activities like going to the store, the bank, ordering food, finding your way around town, and hotels and lodging. The situations are generic, and not overtly specific to Italy (apart from the inclusion of some city maps).

You’ll also learn a good deal of beginner grammar – nouns, articles, pronouns, adjectives and adverbs, and sentence structure. You’ll learn the present tense (‘does’) of regular and irregular Italian verbs, and the future (‘will do’) and conditional (‘would do’) of a few verbs. It’s a good foundation for further studies, but, since all of these are brought up at random moments in a conversational context, you won’t find the treatment of grammar routine or too methodical.

A final multiple choice review exam tests your knowledge of the language before you leave, and a set of yellow index cards with Italian vocab words on one side and translations on the other serve as a decent memory aide.

To top it off, you’ll get a short “dictionary” with the book, which is really just an Italian-English and English-Italian vocabulary glossary. You’ll also find the perforated yellow index cards I mentioned above as extras in the back of the book. It’s a shame there’s no vocabulary, phrase, or grammar index by topic, which would make it easier to come back to these lessons later. Still, the table of contents and your memory should help you reference what you need to here.

Make sure to look for a copy with the CD, and not the book alone, especially if you’re learning on your own. It helps you practice as you pronounce Italian out loud along with native speakers.

Learn Italian the Fast and Fun Way provides an active romp through beginning Italian. If you enjoy a conversational approach with a cartoony style and plenty of simple written activities along the way, this may be the Italian course for you.