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Languages for Expats in Italy

Author: Jim Newham
Submitted: October 2014

The predominant language throughout Italy is Italian; it is official in all of the country’s 20 regions and understood by the vast majority of the population. However, this is not by any means the whole linguistic picture.

Firstly, three borderland regions, languages that are co-official with Italian: French in Valle d’Aosta, German in Alto Adige and Slovene in Friuli-Venezia-Giulia. Secondly, several other languages, such Greek, Albanian and Catalan are spoken by minorities in small, scattered areas of the country, mainly in the south. Thirdly, Italian is a long way away from being the monolithic single language some might assume it to be. Indeed, the many dialects of Italian diverge very widely and considered separate languages by many linguists. Some of these languages, for example Sardinian and Friulian, are given some degree of recognition by the state, whereas others, such as Sicilian, are just deemed to be regional dialects, even though other Italian speakers, especially from the north, would not be able to understand it.

Hence, for example, if you happen to be a French-speaker moving to Valle d’Aosta, you might not need to learn Italian. Normally though, it is only in the main cities that Italians speak second languages, and even then, not everyone will do so. You may be able to get by with basic Italian for a while, but the longer you stay, the more likely it is you will need to be fluent. This could be a situation where you are trying to deal with the formidable Italian bureaucracy, or when you have a leaky boiler and the plumber only speaks Italian. Above all though, if you don’t learn Italian, you will be missing out on one of the greatest everyday pleasures of Italian life – talking!

With all these varieties of Italian, which one to learn might become up for question. The overwhelming majority of learning materials is for Standard Italian, so it is far more sensible to learn this first. This will give you access to speakers in the whole country, and it is also the prestige dialect. You may like to pick up a little of the local dialect/language once you have mastered the basics of the national language. Standard Italian is based on the Tuscan dialect, so if you are moving there, little adjustment will need to be made.

Is Italian easy to learn? Insofar as these things can be compared, it certainly is. There are only seven vowel sounds and 23 consonant sounds. The sound-spelling system is very simple; there is only the odd word such as ghiaccio (‘ice’, pronounced ‘gyat-cho’) which might catch out the unwary. Additionally, compared to the other Romance languages, Italian sounds quite clear and distinct. This means that listening comprehension should not be too much of a problem.

If you speak another Romance language, particularly Spanish or Portuguese, learning Italian is even more straightforward; in fact these languages are mutually comprehensible to some extent. English speakers will find a lot of familiar vocabulary, although most of this is beyond the beginner stage. It is true that the finer points of Italian grammar (verb conjugation, for example) are more demanding, but they are no barrier to gaining fluency.

Italian language courses are widely available via the internet as distance learning projects and can enable individuals to gain the necessary standard. The BBC website (https://www.bbc.co.uk/languages/italian) offers free Italian language courses and provides information about the language. Meanwhile, Open Culture (https://www.openculture.com/freelanguagelessons) lists a number of websites that offer Italian language tuition.

Once an individual has gained a basic knowledge of the language, one way to improve on this is to participate in language exchange sessions. Language exchange can be carried out in meetings, or over the internet. It usually involves between two and four people speaking in their mother tongue for half of the session and during the other half using the language they are learning. Some expat websites offer opportunities for language exchange, as does the Language Exchange webiste. Language Exchange offers free membership and provides opportunities for exchanges in Italian and 114 other languages.




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