Score: 8/10

Pros:
covers every major topic of beginner-intermediate Italian grammar; keeps explanations short & relevant; examples are easy to read, understand & correlate to the topics they highlight; typical but relevant exercises in each lesson; chapter theme ties dialogues, examples & vocabulary together; one set of audio CD/cassettes complements the book as you read, while another allows you to listen to lessons without the book; lots of audio exposure allowing you to hear nearly all the Italian in the book read out loud

Cons:
some lengthy vocabulary lists can burden the memory; course spends time on one-off topics (as specific as the present tense of bere) rather than covering top-level linguistic rules; especially on the audio-only set of CDs/tapes, you’ll have to rewind to give yourself time to process some info


With Ultimate Italian: Basic-Intermediate, Living Language offers a book and CD set to potential Italian learners. In 40 lessons, the course tackles Italian grammar, pronunciation, and conversation skills.

The course begins with an Italian pronunciation guide. This guide lists letters, gives an ad hoc English equivalent, and transliterates Italian examples (such as “neutro NEHOO-troh”). I found it fortunate and atypical that this transliteration system stays in the guide and doesn’t clutter the lessons. The CDs/cassettes do a more graceful job of guiding you to pronounce Italian natively.

The bulk of the book is made up of 40 lessons. Each lesson follows a set pattern: dialogo (dialogue), grammatica e suoi usi (grammar and its uses), vocabolario (vocabulary), esercizi (exercises), nota culturale (cultural note), chiave per gli esercizi (key to the exercises). Earlier chapters also include pronuncia (pronunciation) sections after the dialogues to teach you the intricacies of pronouncing Italian.

The dialogues involve roughly a dozen lines of conversational exchange between unknown individuals in expected social situations. Each dialogue appears in Italian first, then is translated into English.

The grammar sections that follow the dialogues tackle potentially difficult topics with short explanations and clear examples. This method supports inductive learners who will easily understand what’s going on and apply that knowledge to other situations. Boxes and tables also highlight key grammar patterns and paradigms. Most of these sections stick to grammar topics: verb tenses, pronoun cases, etc. Sometimes, grammar sections cover more functional topics like telling time or using certain idiomatic expressions.

As the course promises, you will cover a wide range of grammar and language use – including topics like superlatives, double object pronouns and the present & imperfect subjunctive.

After studying grammar, you’ll find a vocabulary list of about a page in length. I rarely recommend studying such lists out of context, but these lists at least repeat words found in the dialogue and grammar examples, which make for good reference.

Exercises are of the unimpressive but practical type. You’ll fill in the blanks, rewrite sentences with small changes, and translate into Italian. Although you’ll find these practice activities short (too short?), there’s often a strong connection between the material discussed in each chapter and the exercises.

Lessons end with a paragraph-long “nota culturale” (cultural note) along with answers to that lesson’s exercises. Cultural notes give typical travel-book-style snippets of info about Italian culture, society, history, regions of Italy. I found those that focus on practical institutions and daily life (like going to the grocery store or caffè) to be more helpful, but all merely scratch the surface.

A few appendixes round out the book’s offerings. The first presents two pages of vocabulary for countries, cities and languages. The second appendix summarizes Italian grammar, focusing on nouns, pronouns and adjectives. The third presents a fairly robust selection of regular and irregular verb charts, along with the auxiliary verbs “essere” and “avere”. The last appendix gives examples of letter writing to help with your formal written Italian.

A typical Italian-English & English-Italian vocabulary glossary ends the book. There’s a short reference index listing mostly grammar topics on the very last page, and, more important, a lengthy, detailed table of contents at the beginning. While not the most thoroughly cross-referenced manual, it helps you find what you’re after.

Living Language’s Ultimate Italian offers a compelling compromise between conversation-driven programs, replete with dialogues, exercises & examples, and a serious study of Italian grammar. The extensive audio accompaniment and reasonable price only serve to sweeten my recommendation.