Italian is in many ways one of the most beautiful and flowing languages when we hear it spoken, but it is also not one of the easier ones to learn in my experience.
Learning vocabulary, verbs and pronouns on paper is one thing and has it’s own challenges, but spoken Italian is a bigger challenge still. There are lots of rules, and exceptions to these rules as well, that have to be learnt.
Here is a summary of some of the hardest things about learning Italian:
- Different Conjugations For Pronouns (I/he/she etc.)
- Different Word Endings For Tenses
- Lots of Exceptions to Rules
- Spoken Italian Moves Very Fast
- Different Accents & Dialects
All of these factors means that there is a lot about the Italian language that cannot just be learned from applying set rules, but instead has to just be learned on an individual basis, as there are many irregular words and exceptions to rules.
Therefore the cliche that the best way to learn a language is to fully immerse yourself in it, is especially true for Italian, more so than many other languages. Good memorization and attention to detail are also skills that will make Italian easier to learn, as words have to be very precisely formed according to the tense, pronoun, and sometimes gender, in order for you to be properly understood.
Let’s look at each of these difficulties in more detail together with suggestions and examples to make things a little easier.
Different Word Endings For Pronouns
This is another the first challenging aspect of learning how to construct sentences in Italian – there are different endings to words, depending both on the tense (past/present/future) and the pronouns (I/you/he/she/it/they).
There are some general rules for this that do follow, but also some exceptions and irregular verbs, where the endings just have to be learnt one by one.
Let’s demonstrate this with the two foundational verbs in Italian – avere (to have), and essere (to be). See the tables below to see how the word endings for these two verbs change depending on the tense and the pronoun.
Avere – To have
|Tenses → |
|Present (have)||Perfect Past (had)||Imperfect Past (used to have)||Future (will have)|
|I||Io Ho (I have)||Io Ho Avuto (I had)||Io Avevo||Io Avrò|
|You (singular)||Tu Hai (You have)||Tu Hai Avuto (You had)||Tu Avevi||Tu Avrai|
|He/She/It||Lui/Lei Ha||Lui/Lei Ha Avuto||Lui/Lei Aveva||Lui/Lei avrà|
|We||Noi abbiamo||Noi Abbiamo Avuto||Noi Avevamo||Noi Avremo|
|You (plural)||Voi avete||Voi Avete Avuto||Voi Avevate||Voi Avrete|
|They||Loro hanno||Loro Hanno Avuto||Loro Avevano||Loro Avranno|
*For stating your age, use the “to have” rather than to be (eg. Ho 22 anni – I’m 22 – I have 22 years)
*The avere verb is usually used to refer to physically possessing something in the moment.
Essere – To be
|Present (to be)||Perfect Past (was/Have been)||Imperfect Past (was/were/used to be)||Future (will be)|
|I||Io sono (I am)||Io sono stato||Io ero||Io sarò|
|You (singular)||Tu sei (You are)||Tu sei stato/a*||Tu eri||Tu sarai
|He/She/It||Lui/Lei è||Lui/Lei è stato/a*||Lui/lei era||Lui/lei sarà|
|We||Noi siamo||Noi siamo stati/e*||Noi eravanno||Noi saremo|
|You (group)||Voi siete||Voi siete stati||Voi eravante||Voi sarete|
|They||Loro sono||Loro sono stati/e||Loro erano||Loro saranno|
*Use the “stay” verb (stare) and not essere to ask how someone is (eg. come stai? – how are you – how are you staying?)
*The o/a endings are for the gender of the person being referred to – use o for males and a for females.
So as you can see, there’s a lot to learn with Italian – just learning the infinitive/pure form of the verb (to …) isn’t enough, since the ending will change depending on who you are referring to, and the tense you are speaking in.
In fairness though, the avere and essere verbs are irregular, meaning they have idiosyncratic rules for word endings that just have to be learnt. Once you learn these two building block verbs, then many other verbs are at least regular, meaning they follow set rules for word endings. Apply the rule and you’ll be able to formulate words.
Different Verb Tenses
This is already partially covered in the tables above for the two irregular verbs avere and essere, but the endings of verbs also change not just according to the I/he/she etc. pronouns, but also with the tense of the word (past/present/future). The past tense is also divided into perfect and imperfect past.
General verb ending rules, present tense (regular verbs):
- Infinitive form (to ….) – ending is are, ere or ire. See here for a good list.
- I ….. – ending is o (eg. io compro – I buy)
- You (single) …. ending is i (eg. tu prendi – you take)
- He/she/it ….. ending is a or e (eg. lui prende – he takes)
- We ….. – ending is iamo (eg. noi crediamo – we believe)
- You (group) ….. ending is ate, ete, or ite (eg. voi mangiate – you eat)
- They …… ending is ano or ono (eg. loro starano – they stay)
See here for an excellent overview of regular endings for some popular Italian verbs. Much of it just needs to be learnt on an individual basis, which requires time, patience and practice. Living in Italy and speaking it on a daily basis will get you there much quicker than only studying it.
Past tense has it’s own endings. Let’s just stick with the straightforward past tense though. Here are the general rules for word endings (bolded) that you can use to switch from present to past. Chop off the infinitive ending to the verb, and put on the bolded past tense suffixes for regular verbs as shown below:
General regular verb ending rules (past tense):
- Infinitive form (to ….) – ending is are, ere or ire.
- I …… ending is vo (eg. ho compravo – I bought)
- You (single) ….. ending is vi (eg. tu ha prendevi – you took)
- He/she/it ….. ending is va (eg. lei ha prendeva – she took)
- We ……. ending is vamo (eg. noi credevamo – we believed)
- You (plural) ….. ending is vate (voi trovate – you found)
- They …… ending is vano (eg. loro mangevano – they ate)
See here for a good introduction to some Italian past tense verbs.
Lots of Exceptions
We’ve sort of covered this in the above point, but it still needs mentioning. The Italian language does have some regular rules that can just be applied to formulate words and sentences without having heard them before. For example, some of the regular verb ending examples I gave above, I didn’t “know” them beforehand; I just applied the verb ending rule for the regular ones, made the word, and double checked and it was indeed correct!
Click the links to see detailed lists of Italian regular (follow set word ending rules) and irregular (have their own rules) verbs. Along with avere, essere and stare, andare (to go), dare (to give), fare (to make/do), and dire (to say) are a couple more examples of irregular verbs that you’ll probably use quite often, where the conjugations are unique.
However, there are also a lot of exceptions, both in the form of irregular verbs like avere and essere, where the different conjugations don’t follow set rules and just have to be learnt, but also just in turns of phrases and ways of saying certain things in Italian that don’t follow the rules you would expect, but just have to be learnt as you go along.
One example right away is the “how are you” phrases – come stai? It literally translates as “how are you staying” and not “how are you” – the verb used is not to be but to stay in order to ask how someone is right in the moment. We also mentioned the age example – you form the sentence using the have verb, not the to be/am verb – you say it as “I have … years).
To say you are hungry is another example – again you use the to have verb not the being verb – you form the sentence as “I have hunger” (ho fame) and not as you are hungry.
These exceptions you learn very early on, but there are many more words, phrases and expressions that do not follow the normal rules that you’ll have to learn as you go along.
Again, there is no way round this other than to learn the exceptions, and living in Italy and being immersed in the language and culture (TV, films etc) is the best way to do this. Even then, it can take some people a couple of years to be truly fluent in speaking and conversing in Italian. It is not one of the easier languages to become truly competent in, but is one of the most satisfying when you get get there.
Spoken Italian Moves Very Fast
This is another aspect I find especially hard when trying to understand spoken Italian from others. Learning how to create your own sentences in Italian when you have more time is one thing, and has it’s own complications such as verb tenses and conjugations, as we covered above.
However, trying to understand spoken Italian from others is something I find very, very hard, as it simply moves too fast for me to pick up what is being said in time. I often find that I can pick up a few words, but in the time it takes me to do that, the conversation has already moved on 2-3 sentences, and I’m too far behind to catch up!
I also find that as the language moves so fast, the words also often blend into one, and it’s difficult to pick them apart and differentiate each word to translate what is actually being said. This something common to the romance languages in general, which move at a very fast, flowing pace without much space between each word. I find French much the same.
Some people I have spoken to said it required something around 2-3 years of regular immersion in Italian culture (conversing in Italian, TV, films, magazines, newspapers etc) to get to a point where they could understand most or all of what is being said in Italian. Quick learners may do it in 12-18 months, but everyone is different.
Here’s a good phrase you can use if someone is speaking too fast for you to keep up:
“Parla lente, per favore”
“Speak slowly, please”
The best mental approach for this is probably scaling – to gradually seek to pick up more and more of each spoken sentence as you get better at the language, and not be too hard on yourself if you don’t understand everything to begin with.
To start off, seek to understand two or three words in every sentence in Italian. Even from this you might be sometimes able to pick up the gist of what is being said. Then seek to move up and understand 4 or 5 words in a sentence, and so on, gradually building up how much you can process. Your brain will get quicker at processing and translating words the more you practice this; it’s just a mental/cognitive muscle that needs building like anything else.
Italian films subtitled into English are good for this. I love watching Paolo Sorrentino’s films, as they are always subtitled into English and give you a good idea of the general tone and structure of informal daily Italian (complete with banter, colloquialisms, insults, cursing and joking!).
Start with subtitles, then after a while try turning them off to see how much you can understand without the subtitles. You’ll get gradually better over time.
From this, you will also see how many Italian phrases don’t really follow the rules you might think in terms of saying them, and instead are just “turns of phrase” that have to be learnt as you use the language more and more. English is exactly the same in this regard, perhaps even more so.
Different regions of Italy have different accents and dialects
Varying Dialects & Accents
Added to this is the fact that as with most countries, there are very different dialects and accents across the country that can make understanding an already fast spoken language even harder.
In fairness, it is important to differentiate between accents and dialects – accent variations can be overcome; it’s more the dialect differences in different parts of Italy that can present a problem if you haven’t lived there.
There are also certain expressions and ways of saying certain words that may be unique to certain parts of the country. Again the only way around this is to pick up these regional differences as you go if you are living in a certain part of Italy.
Also, even if you speak in a very formal tone of Italian, you will still be understood in almost all parts of Italy, and locals will be very willing to also switch to a formal style to help you out.
Here is a breakdown of some of the regional accents in Italy:
Venice – Does have it’s own dialect – see here for a breakdown of some unique Venetian words that vary from standard Italian.
Bologna – I lived in Bologna, and the accent to me feels pretty clean and neutral. One of the easier ones to pick up, but the spoken language still moves very fast.
Milan – Fairly neutral accent, but Milanese does have it’s own slang and turns of phrase that would need to be learned for someone living there.
Naples – A thick and often gruff accent. One of the more difficult ones to pick up; even native Italians not from Naples sometime struggle to understand. Sounds very different to Northern accents, and has it’s own dialect very different from other parts of Italy. Tone can also be unusual; I’ve heard native Italians refer to the Naples tone coming across as though everything they say is a joke! In fairness though, Neapolitans will often switch to standard Italian if they realize someone is not local.
Sicilian – Is technically it’s own language and not just a dialect, and has some dropped vowels and consonant changes compared to standard Italian. Sicilian accent also has a distinctive intonation.
Sardinian – Has it’s own turns of phrases and way of speaking that even other Italians joke that they can’t understand! Again, Sardinian is technically it’s own language and not just a dialect, but locals will often switch to standard Italian if necessary.
See here for an excellent guide to the different dialects in Italy.
Resources For Learning Italian
We’ll list here some different resources to help with learning Italian. Different people learn in different ways, so we’ll include some resources with different approaches. (NB Some links are affiliate links).
- If you want an up to date, app based learning platform, then try Babbels’s course in Italian, which can be run on modern devices and can have you confidently forming sentences in a few hours of learning.
- If you prefer to learn more using verbs than focusing on nouns/vocabulary, then check out the more old fashioned Michel Thomas CD course in Italian, which straight away focuses on getting you forming sentences using verbs, and less on vocabulary. I used this to get started years ago and highly recommend it. Introductory, intermediate and advanced courses available.
- See the Italian Made Easy YouTube channel for some excellent, short videos covering different aspects of the language for everyday life.
- Watching Italian films is a great way to learn the subtleties of the language, including accents, slang/informal Italian and vocabulary as well as conjugations. Amazon Video (included with Prime), has quite a few Italian films with English subtitles. Many of Paolo Sorrentino’s films are on there, as well as many others, but there is a strong mafia/crime/violence inflection to many of the films if this isn’t your thing. Nevertheless, worth trying if you find conventional tutorial learning boring.