Language Hacking Italian: 10 Smarter Ways to Learn Italian
Mamma mia, it’s finally hee-a!
From 27th September, my new book Language Hacking Italian is available in bookstores all around the world.
What’s so special about this new Italian course?
Language hacking is all about looking for the faster, smarter ways to learn languages. I’ve been sharing and developing my ideas on language hacking ever since I launched Fluent in 3 Months in 2009.
Now, for the first time, I’ve developed Language Hacking into a series of beginner courses for language learners, published with Teach Yourself.
To put it simply, Language Hacking: Italian is for beginners who want to have actual conversations in Italian. With this course, you’ll be speaking Italian right from day one.
That’s how Language Hacking Italian came about.
Rather than go in-depth on how language hacking works (you can read more about that here), I thought I’d give you a sneak peek inside the new course, so you can try out some of the Italian hacks for yourself.
I’ve included that page numbers so when you get your own copy of the course (order here) you can look them up for yourself.
Here are my top Italian language hacks:
1. Get a Head-start with Italian Words you Already Know (page 10)
How do you say “Italy” in Italian? Italia, of course! This is easy to remember. But did you know that many words that end in -y in English end in -ia or -io in Italian, and are otherwise identical? Here are some other examples:
- Biologia (biology)
- Storia (story/history)
- Matrimonio (matrimony)
- Anomalia (anomaly)
But it doesn’t stop there. Both English and Italian have thousands of words in common, since both languages are heavily influenced by Latin. Try to guess the meanings of the following Italian words:
After a short time studying Italian, you’ll really start to get a feel for which words are likely to be similar to English. Then you can just guess at the Italian pronunciation, and there’s a good chance you’ll be right.
2. Learn Italian Vocab Faster with Mnemonics (page 28)
Do you remember the phrase “My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas” for remembering the order of the planets at school? I’m guessing it’s different these days now that Pluto is no longer a planet!
Anyway, that’s a memory hook, also known as a mnemonic.
You’re never too old to use memory hooks to help you learn new things. For learning Italian, mnemonics are very useful for remembering vocabulary. All you have to do is think of a way an Italian word can be linked to an English word, and then make up an image or a story to cement the link in your memory.
For example, the Italian word for “light” is “la luce”. Luce sounds somewhat similar to “Lucy”, so think of the Beatles song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, and how much light shines through the diamonds.
The Italian word for “the store” or “the shop” is “il negozio”. This sounds like “negotiate” in English. So picture yourself strolling down a street in an old Italian marketplace and hearing all the shoppers negotiating at every stall.
3. Power-learn Italian Genders with this Word-endings Trick (page 62)
I’ve heard some language learners argue in the past that the “best” way to learn noun genders in Italian is to just memorize the gender of each word as you learn it. Learn the genders by “brute force”, they say.
I strongly disagree. No one would ever suggest you learn to pronounce Italian words by memorizing each pronunciation as you go. You just learn a few pronunciation rules, then pronounce almost any new word you see. So why should you waste time learning the genders of Italian words the “brute force” way? Just learn a few rules, based on word endings, and you can instantly guess the gender of any new noun you hear, and have a pretty good chance of being right.
If the word has one of the following endings, you can be fairly certain it’s a feminine word:
- -ione (tradizione, televisione, etc)
- -a or -à (unless it ends in -ma) (la cultura, la differenza)
- -tudine (l’altitudine, etc)
If it has one of the following endings, it’s probably a masculine word:
- -o (il mondo, il pollo, etc)
- -ma (il programma, etc)
- -tore/-ore (l’autore, il cursore, etc)
- loan words from other languages not ending in -a (il film, il software, etc)
4. Say More in Italian with These Four Booster Verbs (page 82)
Present tense verb conjugation in Italian is a bit tougher than it is in English. In English, most verbs have only two different present tense conjugations: the third person singular (e.g. “she reads”, and everything else (“I read”, “you read”, “we read”, “they read”). But Italian has a different conjugation for each of these.
This can feel overwhelming.
So, I recommended using four simple “booster verbs” to avoid those messy conjugations for now. These booster verbs can be used with other verbs in their dictionary form, so you can say what you want to right now instead of waiting until you’ve learned all of the different verb forms.
Me piace (I like)
For interests and hobbies, there’s no need to try to remember the “io” verb form of every activity you do. For example, instead of saying “I go out every weekend” or “I collect stamps”, say “I like to go out every weekend” (“Mi piace uscire ogni weekend”) or “I like to collect stamps” (“Mi piace collezionare francobolli”).
Voglio (I want/intend)
This is a great verb to use when talking about the future, and about general wants and desires.
You can talk about the future in Italian using the present tense (e.g. “I’m seeing the movie tomorrow”), but if you don’t know how to conjugate a verb like vedere (“to see”), then rephrase your sentence to “I want to see the movie tomorrow” (“Voglio vedere il film domani”). Now “vedere” is in its dictionary form.
Devo (I should, I must)
Here’s another handy verb to make certain sentences easier to say. If you’re not sure how to conjugate “to go” but you want to say, “I’m going out now”, then change it to “Devo uscire ora” (“I have to go out now”) instead. Or change a phrase like “I’m working tomorrow” to “Devo lavorare domani” (“I have to work tomorrow”) to avoid conjugating “to work”.
Posso (I can)
Use this verb to clarify that you ‘can’ or ‘are able to’ do something. For instance, if you don’t remember how to say ‘I tell’ (dico), you could say ‘I can tell’: “Ti posso dire la password, se vuoi?” (“I can tell you the password if you want?”)
5. Use Context to Work Out What’s Being Said (page 96)
Sometimes, even in your native language, you find yourself in a situation where you didn’t catch every word of a sentence. Maybe you’re on the phone and the connection is bad, or possibly you weren’t paying attention to what someone was saying to you. And yet, you can often figure out what the person said without having to ask them to repeat it.
I call that using context.
With a bit of practice, you can do this in Italian as well.
For example, if you catch just a few key words, then you can deduce the rest of the sentence.
Here are a couple of examples:
- Dove…smartphone (where…smartphone)
- Venerdì…cinema (Friday…cinema)
If you don’t understand any words, you still might be able to understand the other person’s meaning based on visual clues, including your surroundings or the gestures of the other person.
For example, if you’re talking loudly in the library and the librarian comes over and whispers something to you while frowning, they probably didn’t say, “Psst! What is the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow?”
6. Keep Yourself Talking with Conversation Connectors (page 130)
Conversation Connectors are super useful to help keep your conversations flowing, and to sound more natural in your speech.
Here are a few you can use to help your conversations sound more smooth:
- francamente (frankly speaking)
- secondo me (in my opinion)
- se ho capito bene (if I understand correctly)
- a proposito (by the way)
- è perché (that’s because)
You’ll find plenty more conversational connectors inside Language Hacking Italian.
7. Time Travel – Talk About the Past and Future Using the Present Tense (page 156)
A lot of people tell stories in the present tense, even in their mother tongue. It’s just a natural way to share anecdotes – and it makes them more vivid.
You can do exactly the same thing with your stories in Italian too – which means you can tell stories before you’ve learned the past tense. Just set up the scene (“So the other day, there I am, minding my own business…”) and then tell your story as if it’s happening in the present.
Along the same lines, you can talk about your future plans using the present form, if you add a time indicator to the sentence. For example:
- “Fra un mese, parlo molto italiano!” (In a month, I will speak a lot of Italian!)
- “Chiamo i miei genitori fra due ore.” (I’m calling my parents in two hours.)
When in doubt, embrace your inner Tarzan! If you can’t remember how to conjugate the verb you need to talk about the past or future, you can use the dictionary form. It won’t sound all that elegant, but it will get you by in a pinch!
8. The Rephrasing Technique for Talking your Way Through Complicated Sentences (page 180)
As a beginner in Italian you won’t be able to express yourself like a native speaker right away. Don’t let this discourage you. You’re learning Italian to communicate with Italian speakers, not to write the sequel to Il nome della rosa.
When you’re starting out, focus on saying what you want/need to say, and when you get more advanced, then you can worry about how eloquent and nuanced you sound.
For example, if you’d like to approach someone to ask if they’ll speak some Italian with you, don’t worry about saying something complex like “Excuse me…I’m sorry…I just overheard you speaking Italian…I’ve actually been studying it for a while…do you mind if I practise a few phrases with you?…I hope I’m not bothering you…”.
The main idea is simply: “You speak Italian? Me too! Let’s talk.” So say that instead.
You can do this in all kinds of situations. “Would you like to dance with me?” could become “Balla con me!” (“Dance with me!”). “I should avoid eating fish as much as possible because of a medical condition” could become “No pesce” (“No fish”).
With a little practice, you’ll be able to do this without a second thought.
9. Use Hidden Minutes to Get Italian Immersion for the Long-term (page 203)
Rather than thinking about how many months or years it may take to learn Italian, a more effective learning strategy is to focus instead on the minutes that it takes.
For most of the languages I’ve learned – including Italian – I had to schedule my study time around a full-time job. If I had kept delaying my study sessions until I could set aside several hours in a row, I never would have learned any Italian.
Instead, I took advantage of spare minutes I had free throughout the day. No matter how busy you are, you’ll always find yourself with short periods of idle time. Waiting for the elevator, walking your dog, attending to (ahem) nature’s call…these are all perfect moments to squeeze some Italian studying in.
Break out your Anki flashcard deck (for iOS or Android) and build your Italian vocabulary while you’re riding the bus.
10. Develop a Cheat Sheet to Go Into ‘Autopilot’ During Your First Conversation (page 210)
If you used to study languages the old-fashioned way in school, then the concept of a cheat sheet might seem like, well, cheating. After all, in school, you had to memorize everything you thought you’d possibly need for your language exam, and then regurgitate it all up in the allotted time period. No cheat sheets allowed!
Language hacking couldn’t be further from this out-dated scenario. As a language hacker, you focus on real-life conversations in real-world scenarios. There’s no time limit and no right or wrong answers. There’s just you, practising words and phrases with a native Italian speaker.
A cheat sheet will help you with your Italian conversation in two ways. One, it will take some of the pressure off you so you’re not too nervous to speak in Italian. Two, it will make sure that you actually get to practise the words and phrases you’ve been preparing. How often has it happened to you that you’re planning to ask your friend a question next time you see them, and then when the time comes, you forget? A cheat sheet will ensure you don’t forget.
You can put whatever you want on your cheat sheet. I like to divide mine up into four sections:
- Essentials: “Hello”, “How are you?”, “I’m well, thank you”, “Goodbye”, as well as typical introductory questions like “Where do you work?”, “Where are you from?”, etc.
- Survival phrases: I’m sorry, I don’t understand”, “Could you please repeat that?”, “Could you type that out?” etc.
- Questions you plan to ask: “What do you do in your free time?”, “What’s your city like?”, etc.
- Any material that you want to practise saying: for example, “me-specific” phrases like your hobbies, your job, or any upcoming plans you have.
Keep the cheat sheet handy during your conversation. Refer to it as often as you need to, and Hey Presto! You’ve just had your first real-life conversation with a native Italian speaker!
Want to Speak Italian – the Faster Way?
I hope you found these Italian hacks useful.
Language Hacking Italian takes you step-by-step through learning Italian with language hacks.
From the day you pick up the course, you’ll learn how to speak Italian in real life situations.
Order your copy of Language Hacking Italian today.