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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

The 12 ways speaking Italian will mess up your English

Multilingualism might come with plenty of benefits, but it also causes its fair share of confusion - especially when you realize your native language no longer comes as naturally to you as it used to.

The 12 ways speaking Italian will mess up your English
It's not always easy being bilingual. Photo: Caio Jhonny/Flickr

More and more of us are learning Italian, for a whole host of reasons ranging from career development to practicalities to love.

But it’s only right to give you fair warning: la bella lingua will mess with your English.

It can be disconcerting when you start doubting your spelling in your native tongue, or when people assume you’re not a native speaker at all. But rest assured that you’re not the only one.

Here are the 12 problems speaking Italian causes for English speakers.

1. You shudder every time you order a panini and have to bite your tongue to stop yourself from explaining that it really should be ‘panino‘. Then there’s the involuntary shudder whenever someone asks for an ‘expresso’.

Your friends say you’re a language snob; you prefer to call it ‘saying things properly’, and go into full Italian mode when reading the menu at your local pizzeria, whether or not the staff there speak a word of the language. This also goes for place names, and while you know it’s pretentious to say ‘Roma’ ‘Milano‘ and ‘Venezia’ when speaking English, it just trips off the tongue.


Rome, or Roma. Photo: masterlu/Depositphotos

2. Two words: double consonants. Perhaps you had a sound grasp of English spelling before the fateful day you picked up your first Italian phrase book, but you can no longer write words like ‘communication’ without doubting yourself – is it one ‘m’ or two?

3. People sometimes give you a disapproving look for what they perceive as rudeness – this applies particularly to Brits or those from other, more reserved cultures. Where a conflict-fearing English person might describe something they really hate as ‘not bad’, ‘interesting’ or say something like ‘well, that’s one way of looking at it’, the majority of Italians will say what they really feel, no sugar-coating necessary. And phrases such as ‘um, excuse me, I was wondering if you could possibly, that is, if you wouldn’t mind’ just don’t exist in Italian. 

READ ALSO: Ten language mistakes you should avoid if you want to fit in in Italy

4. In a similar vein, you might alarm friends with your enthusiasm. Many English-speakers and Scandinavians, for example, veer on the side of understatement, but Italians aren’t afraid to label things ‘bellissimo!‘ or ‘fantastico!’, even if you’re just referring to a salad or agreeing on a time to book a dentist appointment. It’s hard to do the same in English without sounding either crazy or sarcastic.

5. You’ve forgotten the ‘ums’ and ‘ers’ that pepper English speech, and instead fill in gaps in your train of thought with ‘boh!’ ‘ehhh’ and ‘allora’. You’ve also startled one or two of your acquaintances by responding to an anecdote with ‘dai!’ The Italian exclamation of disbelief is pronounced ‘die’, so it sounds somewhat more sinister to Anglophone ears.


Photo: dmitrimaruta/Depositphotos

6. You muddle up false friends. Maybe you’re a vegetarian who makes the mistake of ordering a pepperoni pizza – ‘peperoni‘ are bell peppers in Italian (those pesky double consonants are causing problems again). Or you might refer to all your relatives as ‘parents’ (in Italian, ‘genitori’ means parents, and ‘parenti’ means relatives) and leave English-speaking friends puzzling over what seems to them like a very complicated family tree.

7. Another kind of ‘false friend’ is the group of English words which Italians took a fancy to and adopted into their own language – but with a different meaning. A few examples of these are using ‘snob’ as a verb, as in ‘the Queen snobbed me by not inviting me to her garden party’, referring to a sweatshirt as a ‘golf’ or to a garage as a ‘box’. 

8. “I had to dress like an onion today!” you announce to bewildered colleagues. Or your friend might accuse you of insulting his physique when you jokingly comment on his short arms. Proverbs and idioms are among the most unique aspects of any language, and are often untranslatable, so sometimes you forget the more natural-sounding English version. On the plus side, this sometimes makes you sound very poetic. For clarification: ‘dressing like an onion’ (vestirsi a cipolla) is how Italians refer to wearing layers, and having short arms (avere le braccia corte) is a way of saying someone is tight with money.

READ MORE: Ten colourful Italian idioms and the strange meanings behind them


Photo: ehaurylik/Depositphotos

9. Even aside from troublesome idioms, there are plenty of small linguistic differences that can trip you up when switching between languages. ‘See you after!’ ‘Let’s go to home’ and ‘I’ll make a photo’ might sound natural if you’ve grown accustomed to Italian, but in English they sound just slightly off-kilter.

10. In moments of frustration, Italian curse words slip out. There’s just something so satisfying about exclaiming “che cazzo!” You might earn some quizzical glances, but it’s good news for your language learning – if Italian words come out naturally in times when emotions are running high, you’re definitely on your way to fluency.

READ ALSO: The best and most creative insults in the Italian language


“Che cazzo!” Photo: tmcphotos/Depositphotos

11. Too-literal translations. If you’ve been using a word frequently in Italian, you might end up re-translating it into English, rather than recalling the actual English equivalent. For example, calling a light switch an ‘interruptor’ (interruttore) or referring to the news as the ‘notices’ (notizie) or even a ‘TV journal’ (telegiornale) might make sense to polyglots, but to everyone else, not so much.

12. Finally, speaking Italian should come with a health warning, since you keep accidentally hitting people in the face with your flamboyant gesturing. It’s true what they say: learning Italian involves the hands just as much as it does the mouth, and you feel like you can no longer convey what you want to say without the appropriate gesture.

A version of this article was first published in November 2016.

Member comments

  1. The local is invaluable to Brits in Italy. From the language to advice on Corona, it gives the info that we need. I did also get some extra invaluable help while on my latest visit to Florence arriving as the new compulsory Covid tests came into force. Thanks for all the help.

    I’d advise any Brit getting a test in Florence To go straight to the English Doctor Kerr who was extremely helpful. It seems the state do a free test but to get the results one has to insert a tax code? Or maybe an NHS equivalent something we don’t have unless resident. If you don’t need a paper copy of the results then that’s fine, just note that the language drop down menu doesn’t work and we are listed as United Kingdom ( but in Italian and not alphabetically listed. Look for Reigna Unis. The only place on the list not written in English!!! Thank you The Local and Clare. X

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For members

ITALIAN WORD OF THE DAY

Italian expression of the day: ‘Qualcosa non torna’

Does this phrase add up to you?

Italian expression of the day: 'Qualcosa non torna'

Ever get the feeling that things aren’t quite right, that perhaps you’re missing something, that something fishy might be going on?

In Italian you can express that with the phrase qualcosa non torna (‘qual-KOH-zah-non-TORR-na’).

Qualcosa you’ll probably recognise as meaning ‘something’, and non of course here means ‘doesn’t’, so the slight wild card for anglophones is the verb torna.

That’s because tornare means ‘to return’ in most contexts – but it can also mean to balance, to add up.

Ho calcolato le spese, il conto torna.
I added up the costs, the bill checks out.

I conti dell’azienda tornano.
The company’s accounts add up.

The Math Seems To Check Out! GIF - The House Will Ferrell The Math Seems To Check Out GIFs

The word can also refer more nebulously to something sounding or feeling right – or not.

Secondo me c’è qualche parte del mio discorso che ancora non torna.
I think there are parts of my speech that still aren’t quite right.

And when something doesn’t torna – that’s when you know things are off. It’s the kind of expression you’re likely to hear in detective shows or true crime podcasts. 

Qualcosa non torna nel loro racconto.
Something about their story’s off.

C’è solo una cosa che non torna.
There’s just one thing that doesn’t add up.

It’s similar to how we can talk in English about someone’s account of an event not ‘squaring’ with the facts, and in fact you can also use that metaphor in Italian – qualcosa non quadra (‘qual-KOH-zah-non-QUAHD-ra’) – to mean the same thing as qualcosa non torna.

Trash Italiano Simona Ventura GIF - Trash Italiano Simona Ventura Qualcosa Non Quadra GIFs

You can adjust either phrase slightly to say ‘things don’t add up’, in the plural: this time you’ll want le cose instead of qualcosa, and to conjugate the tornare or the quadrare in their plural forms.

Ci sono molte cose che non tornano in quest’affare.
There are a lot of things about this affair that don’t add up.

Le loro storie non quadrano.
Their stories don’t square.

You can also add pronouns into the phrase to talk about something seeming off ‘to you’ or anyone else.

La sua storia ti torna?
Does his story add up to you?

C’è qualcosa in tutto questo che non mi torna.
There’s something about all this that doesn’t seem right to me.

alfonso qualcosa non mi torna GIF by Isola dei Famosi

The next time something strange is afoot, you’ll know just how to talk about it in Italian. Montalbano, move aside…

Do you have an Italian word you’d like us to feature? If so, please email us with your suggestion.

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