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12 ways speaking Italian will mess up your English

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12 ways speaking Italian will mess up your English
Mastering the Italian language feels great - until you start messing up in your native tongue. Photo by Siora Photography on Unsplash

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


Italian is a popular language to learn worldwide, 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.

QUIZ: Test your Italian language level on the A1 to C2 scale

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.

In fact, speaking Italian can cause quite a few problems for English speakers.

    1. Panino and espresso

You shudder every time you need to order "a panini" and have to bite your tongue to stop yourself from explaining that it really should be 'panino', singular. Then there's another involuntary shudder whenever you overhear someone asking for an 'expresso'.

Your friends say you're a language snob; you prefer to call it 'saying things properly'.

You also 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 horribly pretentious to say ‘Roma’, 'Milano' and ‘Venezia’ when speaking English, it just trips off the tongue.

Photo: Ana Petrenko/Unsplash

2. 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. Accidental rudeness

You might notice people in your home country now giving you disapproving looks for what they perceive as rudeness - this applies particularly to Brits or those from other, more reserved cultures.

Where a conflict-averse English person might describe something they really hate as 'not bad', 'interesting' or say something diplomatic like 'well, that's one way of looking at it', the majority of Italians will view this type of language as insincere: they say what they really feel, no sugar-coating necessary.

READ ALSO: 12 of the most useful Italian words you need to know

Speaking Italian involves being direct: for one thing, sentence constructions featuring 'um, excuse me, I was wondering if you could possibly, that is, if you wouldn't mind...' just don't exist.

4. Alarming enthusiasm

Similarly, you might alarm friends with your new levels of enthusiasm.

Brits and Scandinavians in particular veer firmly on the side of understatement in English, but Italians aren't afraid to label things 'bellissimo!' or 'fantastico!', even if just referring to a salad or agreeing on a time to book a dentist appointment.


English-speakers carrying this habit over into their first language are very likely to sound crazy, sarcastic, or both - but of course, you won't be able to help your newfound proclivity for using the superlative.

5. Alarming noises

You’ve forgotten the ‘ums’ and ‘ers’ that pepper English speech, and instead fill in gaps in your train of thought with ‘ehhh’, 'mah', ‘boh! and allora’, much to the bemusement of non-Italian speakers.

You’ve also startled one or two 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.

6. 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. Anglicismi

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, referring to a sweatshirt as a 'golf' or to a garage as a 'box'. They're English words, but not as we know them.

READ ALSO: 'Anglicismi': The English words borrowed into Italian - and what they mean

8. Proverbs and idioms

“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.


9. Literal translations

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 fine if you've grown accustomed to Italian (or spend a lot of time with Italians who speak English like this), but coming from native English speakers these phrases sound slightly off-kilter.

The day you find yourself coming out with "according to me" instead of "I think..." or "in my opinion..." you'll know there's really no going back.

Photo by Vincenzo PINTO / AFP

10. Swearing

In moments of frustration, Italian curse words slip out. There’s just something really 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.

11. Forgetting the English word

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. Waving your arms

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 - in any language - without the accompanying gestures.

Your friends, Italian and otherwise, are sure to notice this new habit and make fun of it at every opportunity.

See more in The Local's Italian language section.


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Anonymous 2020/11/15 00:24
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. <br /><br />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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