Photo: Colin Gordon
You probably thought you were doing well, ordering the simplest and most Italian of coffees rather than the cream- and syrup-filled concoctions you usually get at Starbucks. But asking for an 'expresso' in your local cafe will set the barista's teeth on edge, and confirm to everyone in earshot that you're far from fluent in Italian.
Italian pronunciation is fairly straightforward, excepting a few tricky consonant combinations (we're looking at you, 'gl' and 'gn') which most learners will still be able to grasp after a big of practice. But you should be on your guard in order to stop non-Italian pronunciations slipping in.
For example, French speakers should remember that 'qu' is pronounced /qw/ and not /k/, Spanish speakers should make sure not to mix up Italian 'il' with Spanish 'el', and most of us will have to spend some time learning when to pronounce Italian 'c's and 'g's hard or soft. Use the word ‘cappuccino’ as your guide: followed by ‘a’ ‘o’ and ‘e’, it’s a hard ‘c’ but followed by ‘i’ or ‘e’ it’s soft (like the way 'ch' is pronounced in English).
Photo: Andy Ciordia
In English-speaking countries, you'll see cafes advertising 'paninis' - but in Italian, that final 'i' means it's already a plural, so if you just want one, make sure you say 'un panino'. Requesting 'un panini' just means the waiter won't be certain if you want one or several. You know you're approaching native level when you find yourself ordering a panino even when you're back home.
Forgetting to pronounce the 'e' at the end of 'grazie', and instead saying 'gratt-see' is a direct route to confirming your foreign status, if your sub-standard knowledge of the many kinds of pasta hasn't done the trick already. In Italian, almost every letter is pronounced
We've all been there: You're not sure of the Italian word for something, so you add an 'o' to the end of the English term, throw in a hand gesture or two and hope for the best. Sure, you'll get away with it some of the time, but when overdone, you risk sounding like a caricature of an Italian. In this case, the correct expression is “nessun problema” - 'problema' belongs to a small group of masculine nouns which end in 'a' but take the masculine plural 'i'. Also in this category are 'il dilemma', 'il tema' and 'il sistema'.
“Io sono...” is a phrase which can give away your non-native status before you’ve even finished using it to introduce yourself. Using the personal pronoun (that's 'I, me, you' etc, or 'io, tu, lui/lei' in Italian) is rarely actually wrong, but just unnecessary most of the time, because Italy has distinct verb conjugations for each person, so it's almost always clear who you're talking about. In Italian, the personal pronouns are reserved for special emphasis, so be sparing with them if you want to fit in.
A double consonant produces a short vowel sound in Italian; a subtle-yet-important difference which can pass beginners by. Asking to borrow a 'penna' (pen) can elicit some strange looks if you end up saying 'pena', meaning 'pain'. If you're not sure what we mean by long and short vowels, think of the difference between English 'pen' and 'pain' - the 'e' in the Italian translations mimics those same sounds. Depending on the region, the double consonants aren't always pronounced, but it might be best to linger on them anyway in cases where confusion could be embarrassing - such as the difference between 'penne' (a type of pasta) and 'pene' (penis).
Spanish-speakers and Italian-speakers can often be seen carrying out a perfectly intelligible conversation, each speaking their own native tongue. But if you're an English-speaker who knows some Spanish, try to avoid over-reliance on the similarities between the two - it could frustrate Italians if interpreted as an assumption that all Romance languages are the same. Slipping in the occasional 'por favor' (please) or 'gracias' (thank you) is an instant giveaway that you’re still not fully confident in Italian.
Photo: Tine Steiss
While many Italian words may be similar to those in other European languages, you need to be careful of false friends - words which mean something different in different languages, despite looking exactly the same. So think carefully before you ask to borrow someone's 'camera' (room) or ask for directions to the 'casino' ('chaos' or 'brothel'). Another common confusion is the word 'caldo', which means 'hot' rather than 'cold', which you might think would be more natural.
Words in the wrong gender
Photo: Thomas Rousing
Grammatical gender is the bane of native English speakers’ lives, and while in Italian it's generally quite straightforward (spare a thought for German learners, tackling three different genders and few clear cut ways of figuring out which words might belong to each), that just makes the exceptions and irregulars all the more puzzling. As well as 'problema', mentioned above, words which are actually abbreviations take the gender of the full word, meaning the masculine-looking 'foto' (photo) and 'moto' (motorbike) are both feminine, for example. Then there are those words - often names for body parts - which switch gender depending on whether they're singular or plural.
A version of this article was first published in November 2015.