By Katie Harris
So you want to learn Italian, but you’re not sure where to start? Or maybe you’ve already started and you’re not as far along as you’d like.
You’re not alone. I had no idea how to learn Italian when I started.
I’d spend a lot of time rote learning verbs and vocabulary lists. Then realise I couldn’t remember anything, get bored and give up.
But after a lot of trial and error, a miracolo happened and I became fluent in Italian.
I discovered three important things you need to do to learn Italian. Most people are missing at least one.
When you put them into practice, you’ll find yourself progressing a lot faster and enjoying it.
Pronti? Ready? Let’s get you learning Italian.
How to Learn Italian: Three Things Most People Get Wrong
Imagine learning a skill, like playing the guitar. What do you think about this strategy?
- Step 1: Buy a boring and confusing manual about music theory.
- Step 2: Read it every now and then.
- Step 3: Rarely pick up a guitar and wonder why you can’t play any songs.
It seems ridiculous, but that’s how I was trying to learn Italian in the beginning! This is actually how a lot of us learned languages in school, so we tend to keep doing it as adults.
Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t work: less than 1% of Americans are proficient in the language they learned at school.
Why? Because we use learning tools that are boring, confusing or not relevant to everyday conversation. We study sporadically, and we hardly practise speaking (the main thing we want to learn!).
When you solve these problems, everything gets easier. Here are the changes I made that helped me finally learn Italian as an adult:
Step 1: Find tools that are fun, simple and relevant to everyday life
Step 2: Follow a structured path
Step 3: Practise speaking (the non-scary way!)
If you do these things consistently, you’ll learn Italian. In the next sections, you’ll find out how to approach each step.
Step 1: Choose the Right Tools
Bored? Frustrated? Unable to communicate? It’s normal!
These feelings are common when learning Italian and they’re often a sign that you’ve been using the wrong tools. To find the right ones, there are a few things to keep in mind.
Look for something you enjoy
You might assume that to learn Italian, you have to suffer through mind-numbing vocabulary and grammar lists, or those lame ‘Roberto checks into a hotel’ style textbook dialogues.
Not true! The more you enjoy learning Italian, the more likely you are to stick with it.
And there are plenty of fun ways to learn: stories, podcasts, videos, books, magazines, music, cooking classes…
If you’re in the earlier stages of learning, go for resources adapted to your level – our Learn Italian with Joy of Languages Podcast is a great place to start.
Learn some grammar, but not too much!
A lot of courses are grammar heavy – they have you sweating over pages of complex rules when all you really want to do is order un caffè.
They assume you already know all the grammatical terms like pronouns and adverbs. Or worse, call them pronomi and avverbi and explain them in Italian!
You don’t need all that stuff in the beginning, so look for tools which teach grammar in simple, bite-sized pieces while you focus on learning the practical stuff.
Prioritise words and phrases you’ll use in real life
If your goal is to order coffee in Italian and chat with the barista, there’s no point memorising long lists of jobs, nationalities and animals. Or random phrases like ‘the baby is eating an apple’. Steer clear of books and apps which teach vocabulary in this way.
Instead, look for tools which help you learn words and phrases you’ll actually say when speaking to Italians.
Step 2: Follow a Structured Path
Often life gets in the way of learning Italian. Weeks or months can go by, and every time you think about it, you feel guilty!
Or maybe you’re keeping it up, but you keep forgetting stuff and you’re not sure if you’re making progress.
A structured path will help you solve these problems.
Learn something everyday
Instead of doing a lesson once a week (and forgetting everything between classes!), try learning a bit every day.
This way, you’ll keep building on what you know, which adds up to lots of progress over the weeks and months.
And if you follow step 1 and find a fun way to learn, Italian will become an enjoyable part of your daily routine, just like your morning coffee or afternoon walk.
Review and build on what you know
Ever felt overwhelmed with how much stuff there is to remember? Take it piano, piano – step by step – and keep reviewing what you’ve learned to build a strong foundation.
Then, you can layer on new information gradually, in a logical order, by connecting it to things you already know. For example, once you can say ‘I’d like a coffee’
Vorrei un caffè
Try asking for other things:
Vorrei un biglietto – I’d like a ticket
Vorrei pagare – I’d like to pay
Vorrei mangiare una pizza – I’d like to eat a pizza
When you learn new vocabulary and grammar in this way, you’ll surprise yourself by how much you can say in a short time!
Keep Things Fresh
While you’re following your structured path, don’t forget to include lots of variety! Not only does it keep things interesting, it helps you learn better, too.
Imagine you read a story in Italian. The next day, you choose the most useful words from the story and learn them. The day after, you try using these words in conversation with a tutor.
Seeing information in different contexts signals to your brain that it’s important: ‘Oh, I’ve seen this in a few different places now, I’d better remember it!’.
Step 3: Practise Speaking (The Non-Scary Way!)
You’re about to have a conversation in Italian. How do you feel?
- Happy and confident
- Nervous and embarrassed
If you picked A, congratulazioni! You can skip this part.
Still here? Great, I thought you would be. Nearly everyone finds the idea of speaking a foreign language terrifying.
But if you want to speak Italian, you have to, well, speak it. The key is to practise in the least scary way possible, so you can build your confidence.
Practise in Learner-Friendly Situations
I used to think that to practise speaking, I had to find an Italian person and strike up a conversation with them. But I struggle to do this in English, my native language, so in Italian, it was terrifying.
It’s easier to practise speaking Italian in low-pressure situations, where everyone knows you’re a learner. You’re free to speak slowly, make mistakes and not know much yet, because that’s what people expect!
You can hire a tutor, join a conversation group, or set up a language exchange – anything where the sole purpose is to practise speaking Italian. And look for patient and friendly people, so you feel comfortable having a go.
Once you’re ready to practise your Italian in the wild, you can take the pressure off with this magic phrase:
Provo in italiano, va bene? Mi aiuta? – I’ll try in Italian, is that OK? Will you help me?
You might also find this episode handy: Nervous to Speak Italian? Here’s what to do.
Embrace your mistakes
What about all those mistakes you’ll make? Try not to worry about those. You can’t avoid them, and if you’re willing to embrace them, you’ll learn faster.
Here’s how to learn from your mistakes:
1. Be curiosi (that’s ‘curious’)
If you notice you make one, why? What’s the correct way to say it instead? This will help you avoid making the same ones in future.
2. Don’t take yourself so seriously
When you laugh at your mistakes, they lose their power, so you can feel more relaxed when speaking.
And once you’ve asked for a pene (penis) when you wanted a penna (pen), like I did at the post office, you’ll be extra motivated to get it right next time!
Get friendly feedback
What if you don’t know you’re making mistakes? Just ask!
Può correggermi quando faccio un errore? – Can you correct me when I make a mistake?
Getting feedback from native speakers is helpful in other ways too – if you have a tutor, speaking partner, or other Italian you speak to regularly, they can answer your questions and show you what you need to focus on next.
So there you have it. How to learn Italian in 3 steps:
- Choose the right tools
- Follow a structured path
- Practise speaking (the non-scary way)
Do these things for a few months, and you’ll be really pleased with how much progress you’ve made!
And if you need a little help…
Bonus Step: Join our Online Italian School
Back when I was learning Italian, I had to discover this stuff on my own and piece it together from different places. When I started teaching Italian, I wanted a way to help students learn Italian in the same way, so I created our Online Italian School!
Together with Matteo and our team of Italian teachers, we’ve put together lots of fun lessons, based on the same system that helped me learn Italian:
1. Find the Right Tools
Learn with fun little stories and dialogues, with words and phrases you’ll use in everyday conversations and super simple grammar explanations.
2. Follow a Structured Path
Get daily lessons, gradually learn new things in a logical order and learn in a variety of ways, from stories to vocabulary cards, quizzes and conversation lessons.
3. Get Speaking Practice
There are plenty of non-scary opportunities to practise speaking, with feedback and guidance from our friendly team of Italian teachers.
There are 100s of students in the school learning Italian in this way and making lots of progress. We’d love to welcome you, too!
Vocabulary: How to Learn Italian
Provo in italiano, va bene? = I’ll try in Italian, is that ok?
Può aiutarmi? = Can you help me?
Provo in italiano, va bene? Può aiutarmi? = I’ll try in Italian, is that ok? Can you help me?
Può correggermi? = Can you correct me?
Quando faccio un errore = When I make a mistake
Può correggermi quando faccio un errore? = Can you correct me when I make a mistake?
Penna = Pen (Avoid Katie’s mistake! Don’t say ‘pene’ which means ‘penis’ 😅)
Vorrei un caffè = I’d like a coffee
Vorrei un biglietto = I’d like a ticket
Vorrei pagare = I’d like to pay
Vorrei una pizza = I’d like a pizza
Time to check your understanding and remember everything you just learned! Below you’ll find a mini-quiz and some vocabulary cards to help it all go in.
Quiz: How to Learn Italian
How much did you learn? Find out in the quiz!
Click here to take the quiz for this episode: How to Learn Italian
Flashcards: How to Learn Italian
Remember the vocabulary from this lesson by downloading the digital flashcards
Not sure how it works? Click here to watch the tutorial
Transcript: How to Learn Italian – 3 Tips to Learn Quickly and Start Speaking
Please note, this is not a word for word transcript.
K: Ciao a tutti e benvenuti! Hi everyone and welcome to “Learn Italian with Joy of Languages”.
M: Ciao a tutti! Today, we’re talking about something everyone struggles with: how to learn Italian effectively.
K: This is close to my heart because I started learning Italian very ineffectively, without realising it. I was terrible! My Italian teacher sent me an official letter telling me they’d kick me off the course if I didn’t improve.
M: That’s quite funny, especially because now you run an Italian school! What changed?
K: Well, I think I was trying to learn Italian the same way I learned languages at school, which doesn’t actually work for most people. If you think about a different practical skill, like playing the guitar, you can see why. Imagine trying to learn like this:
- Step 1: Buy a boring, confusing manual about music theory.
- Step 2: Read it every now and then.
- Step 3: Rarely pick up a guitar and wonder why you can’t play any songs.
M: You’re right, that is what a lot of us do when learning a foreign language!
K: I was sporadically rote-learning stuff, then I’d feel constantly disappointed with myself when I couldn’t remember anything and I still couldn’t speak. Through trial and error, I started doing the opposite of these 3 things, and that’s what helped me learn Italian over time.
M: Let’s go through them one by one.
K: Step one: find the right tools.
M: Absolutely. No more irrelevant vocabulary lists or confusing grammar manuals. There are plenty of enjoyable ways to learn Italian, like podcasts, videos, stories, or even cooking classes.
K: In the beginning, you should look for resources that are adapted for learners, like this podcast!
M: And choose tools that help you learn things you’ll use in Italy. Avoid apps with phrases like ‘the baby is eating an apple’. That’s not much use when you want to order coffee or chat to a taxi driver!
K: Step two: follow a structured path. It’s really important to be consistent. If you do an Italian class once a week, by the time you go back, you’ve forgotten everything you’ve learned. Instead, when you incorporate learning Italian into your daily routine, you’ll gradually build on what you know and make lots of progress.
M: Step 1 and step 2 work together, because if you enjoy learning, you’ll find yourself wanting to do it every day.
K: Next, step 3: Practise speaking Italian in a non-scary way. I used to think that the only way for me to practise speaking was to strike up a conversation with an Italian. The problem was, I’m nervous doing that in English, so in Italian it was terrifying!
M: Create low-pressure situations where you can practise speaking comfortably. This could be finding a tutor, joining a conversation group, or setting up a language exchange.
K: In these situations, everyone knows you’re learning: it’s normal if you can’t say much yet, or you speak slowly and make mistakes.
M: Then, when you’re out in the wild with real Italians, you can take the pressure off by letting them know you’re learning.
K: You can say: ‘I’ll try in Italian, is that OK?’
M: Provo in italiano, va bene? (x3)
K: And ask for help. ‘Will you help me?’ Literally ‘me, you help’:
M: Mi aiuta? (x3)
K: I’ll try in Italian, OK? Will you help me?
M: Provo in italiano, va bene? Mi aiuta?
M: And try not to worry about mistakes. They’re a natural part of learning, and they actually help you improve. So, be curious and learn from them.
K: And don’t take yourself too seriously! When I started laughing at my mistakes, and inviting Italians to laugh with me, I wasn’t afraid to speak anymore. I’ve had lots of practice. Like that time I asked for a ‘penis’ at the post office.
K: I said pene (penis) by accident, when I wanted a penna (a pen). The long double ‘nn’ sound is important. And the ‘a’ at the end. Pen is penna.
K: I also like to get feedback about whether I’m saying it right or not. A good way to do this is to simply ask! ‘Can you correct me?’
M: Può correggermi? (x3)
K: When I make a mistake
M: Quando faccio un errore (x3)
K: Can you correct me when I make a mistake?
M. Può correggermi quando faccio un errore?
K: So those three steps are: 1. Choose the right tools; 2. Follow a structured learning path. 3. Practise speaking in a non-scary way.
M: If you need some help with these things, we’d love to welcome you to our Online Italian School. Doors open next week: Sìììì!
K: Our programmes are based on the same system I used to learn Italian: fun lessons, with a focus on common phrases you’ll use in everyday life. And a structured path with daily lessons that are adapted to your level.
M: Most importantly, you’ll get plenty of opportunities to practise speaking Italian in a non-intimidating environment, with feedback and guidance from our friendly Italian teachers.
K: If you think you might be interested in joining us, enrollments open on Thursday, 7th Sept.
M: Places tend to sell out, so now’s a good time to mark it in your calendar. You can also join our newsletter to get notified via email.
K: We’d love to see you there. To find out more, click the link in the description for this episode.
M – See you next time.
K – Or as we say in Italian.
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