“From the dome of St. Peter’s one can see every notable object in Rome… He can see a panorama that is varied, extensive, beautiful to the eye, and more illustrious in history than any other in Europe.”
The city of Rome attracts millions with its glorious culture, heritage, and beautiful sceneries. How I wish I can roll my rs like a native and speak the language of love and art while riding through the Grand Canal in Venice, you may think. Learning the beautiful and intricate Italian language is the key to truly connecting with this ancient yet modern land. But is Italian hard to learn? What are the difficult parts to expect on your Italian learning journey? How much time should you spare for learning Italian? Don’t worry, read on to get all the answers!
Measuring the Difficulty of a Language
When it comes to learning a new language, the level of difficulty varies depending on your mother tongue. For example, for native speakers of Romance languages (such as Spanish or Portuguese), learning Italian is very easy, since these languages evolved from vulgar Latin and share a similar vocabulary and grammar. With this in mind, this article is for those who want to know how easy or difficult the Italian language is, and what to expect if they decide to learn it.
According to the Foreign Service Institute, Italian belongs to the “Category 1” group of languages. Languages in this category are closely related to English, and native English speakers on average take the least amount of time to learn one of them. For example, according to the FSI, it takes 24 weeks of study time to reach a professional proficiency in Italian, compared to 36 weeks for German, a Category 2 language. However, there are several aspects of Italian that can make your learning experience easier or harder, depending on your affinities.
Easy aspects of learning Italian – It’s really not hard!
One of the best things about Italian is its pronunciation. Italian is a “phonetic language”, which means that the pronunciation rules don’t change. Unlike English, if you know the rules of Italian pronunciation (which are relatively easy), you know how to pronounce even unknown words, which is a huge benefit when learning a new language.
Italian is also widely known as a “melodic” language that sounds beautiful to the ear whether it is spoken or sung. There are a couple of reasons for the melodicity of Italian.
In English, vowel length influences the meaning (e.g., “ship” and “sheep”). But in Italian, there are short and long consonants, changing the meaning of the word and adding a sense of melody to the language. For example, nono in Italian means “ninth”, while nonno means “grandpa”. This change between short and long consonants gives Italian a unique rhythm and musicality.
All Italian words except loan words end with a vowel, which enables the flow of words one after the other, similar to notes in a musical piece. Italian language also avoids consonant groups that are difficult to pronounce, and simplifies them to a double consonant. For example, “Stockholm” in Italian is Stoccolma, while “beefstake” is bistecca.
All of these traits makes Italian a melodic and beautiful language to the ear. Listen to it and you’ll see!
Loan words and cognates
The best news for English learners of Italian is that English loanwords are by far the most common in the Italian language, which is a trend that is only becoming more pronounced in recent years. Currently, there are around 6200 English loanwords in Italian, but on top of that, there are many Italian words used in English that you already know, primarily related to music, art, or food.
Apart from loanwords between Italian and English, there is a huge group of words in these two languages which share a common origin, so-called cognates. The most important link between English and Italian are words of Latin origin. Throughout the centuries, English was heavily influenced by Latin – around 28% of English words are of Latin origin. Since Italian evolved from colloquial spoken Latin, there is a large group of English and Italian words in with a shared origin (e.g., “animal” – animale, “situation” – situazione, public – “pubblico”).
Difficult aspects of learning Italian – be prepared!
One of the most common obstacles for native English speakers when it comes to learning Italian is the “rolled R”. This sound is made by vibrating the tongue against the roof of your mouth, and it’s used in many European languages aside from Italian. Native English speakers often have difficulties with producing this sound, since it doesn’t exist in English and learning it is not very intuitive. The good news is that there are many tutorials that can help you master the rolled R in no time, it just takes patience and a little practice!
All nouns in the Italian language have a “grammatical gender”, which means they are either masculine or feminine, including inanimate objects. For example, “chair” is feminine (sedia), while “table” is masculine (tavolo). Usually, the ending of the noun lets us determine the gender, o for masculine nouns and a for feminine ones. Nouns ending in e can be both masculine or feminine.
Like English, Italian has definite articles (equivalent to “the” in English) and indefinite articles (equivalent to “a” or “an” in English). However, in Italian, these articles have many forms, depending on the gender, number, and the beginning sound of the word. For example, the definite article has 7 different forms (il, lo, l’, la, i, gli, le). Another obstacle related to the Italian definite article is that it merges with prepositions. For example, the preposition “in” is the same in Italian and English. But, if we want to say “in the house”, we need to join in + la casa = nella casa. This may sound a bit complicated but it’s actually pretty easy as all of the forms follow a similar pattern.
Verb tenses and conjugations
One of the most difficult aspects of learning Italian is memorizing the verb forms. (But it’s relatively easier than many other languages like German and Russian!) Verbs in Italian are conjugated by person, number, and tense. So you can see the verb often changes:
io lavoro – I work
tu lavori – you work
lui lavora – he works
What’s more, be prepared that Italian often uses the subjunctive mood, which is relatively rare in English and scares many.
How to learn Italian easily online
Depending on your preferred style of learning, there is a wealth of excellent options available for learning Italian, which allow you to leverage the improvements in technology and teaching methods and overcome the obstacles mentioned above:
Online Italian courses
Since the appearance of online teaching platforms, it has never been easier to incorporate language lessons into your busy schedule, wherever you are. For example, apps like Duolingo and LingoDeer can help you learn Italian anytime, anywhere. LingoDeer will guide you through all the way right from the beginning with structured lessons curated by professional teachers. Duolingo has a variety of vocabulary, phrases, and sentence practice that help you lay a solid foundation. Take a look at their differences here!
If you prefer a more traditional way of learning from teachers, Verbling, Preply, or italki allow you to choose a teacher that suits your specific needs. You also have the benefit of seeing the feedback from previous students on every teacher’s profile.
If you wish to know more about online Italian courses, take a look at our review of 8 popular language learning platforms and choose one that suits you!
Another great way to learn Italian quickly is to find a language exchange partner. In a language exchange, you spend half the time speaking in their native language, and half the time speaking in your native tongue. So, if you are a native English speaker, you should find an Italian speaker who wants to learn English. This particular method of language learning has several benefits:
(1) In a language exchange, you mostly practice speaking in the foreign language, which allows you to use the vocabulary and grammar you are learning in real life and solidify the knowledge.
(2) The conversation with a native speaker allows you to learn colloquial expressions, slangs, interesting things about their culture, and much more.
(3) You motivate each other to continue to improve and learn new things in each other’s language in a unique way.
The most popular website where you can find native Italian speakers to practice with is HelloTalk.
When you start learning a new language, you have to memorize an enormous number of words, phrases, and verb forms. It can be difficult to systematize this process and track how well you remember each piece of information. This is where flashcards come in handy, especially if they are incorporated into a “smart” learning tool. For example, Quizlet and Anki allow you to download and study “decks” of flashcards about a certain topic, and create your own decks. These tools are programmed so that you see less and less of the words you remembered easily, while words you had difficulties with are prioritized until you master them.
One of the easiest ways to learn Italian faster is to increase the “input” in Italian. In other words, the more Italian you listen and read in different, real-life contexts, the easier it is to understand the knowledge about the grammar and vocabulary and connect it in a meaningful way. By immersing yourself in the language you are learning, you force your brain to think in that language, which solidifies the knowledge you’ve already acquired.
Luckily, Italian culture is so uniquely rich that you won’t have a problem finding interesting and engaging content in Italian. If you are a music lover, you can listen to beautiful Italian songs perfect for training your ear for the Italian language. One of the best ways to learn Italian while having fun and getting to know another culture is to watch the masterpieces of Italian cinema with subtitles. If you want to immerse yourself even more in Italian, the podcast “News in Slow Italian” allows you to listen to the news in Italian at a slower pace.
Hopefully, you now have a better understanding of what you can expect if you decide to learn Italian. If it’s a language close to your heart, you will likely overcome the difficult aspects of Italian mentioned in this article, since the motivation you get from learning the language you love and discovering the culture by yourself pays dividends in terms of improving your Italian skills!