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12 of the most useful Italian words you need to know

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12 of the most useful Italian words you need to know
Thankfully, beginner-level Italian is not all about memorising verb conjugations. File photo: Pexels
14:08 CEST+02:00
Once you’ve got a few basic Italian phrases under your belt, what’s next?
When searching for the most useful Italian words to learn, you might come across lists of nouns like gatto (cat), cane (dog), casa (house), and so on. These are fine if you’re a total beginner, or a preschooler. But are they really the most useful words of all?

Like all good Italian students, I studied my endless lists of nouns and verb conjugations carefully. But in the end, the words that I found most helpful when I first moved to Italy were of a different sort. I heard the same few words being used over and over again in all kinds of contexts.

And during that first year I clung to those little words for dear life. I peppered my speech with them. I used them to buy thinking time, or as stock responses when I had very little idea what was going on – which was often.

So here are just a dozen of the common Italian words that will help anyone trying to better understand - and even join in with - everyday Italian conversation.

Allora

Right then, where should we start? It would have to be with this constantly-used and beautiful-sounding little word. You might have heard it in just about every other sentence uttered by Italians.

What is this word they turn to so often? It must mean something really important, right? Well, at the risk of disappointing you, allora means, quite simply, 'then'.

But of course, no word is quite as simple as it seems. Think about all the multitude of meanings 'then' can have in English: allora works the same way.

And if you want to be sassy (and who doesn't want to learn how to be sassy in Italian?) it can also mean "and so what?"

Quindi

Don't be fooled: this word has nothing to do with the number 15 (quindici) and everything to do with helping your speech flow.

This little word has two main meanings. The first is so, or more formally, therefore.

  • Sta per piovere, quindi portati un ombrello.
  • It's about to rain, so take an umbrella.

And the second is then, next or afterwards.

  • Ho cenato, quindi sono uscita.
  • I had dinner, then I went out.

READ ALSO: The strange history behind five everyday Italian words

Va bene

This is one of the most important phrases you'll need to know before coming to Italy. It means ‘ok' or ‘alright', and you're going to hear it every five seconds.

Va bene literally translates as 'goes well' and, if things are going well, you'd use it in response to the question come va? (how's it going?)

But much like ‘alright’, you can use it in lots of other ways.

And sometimes it means nothing much at all.

You’ll hear it bunched together with allora and quindi to fill in gaps in conversation: “allora… quindi… va bene.”

Tanto

There are lots of ways to say 'lots of' in Italian and this is one word you'll really need to master. It’s not as simple as it might look at first, but when you first get the hang of this bit of grammar your Italian will take a leap forward.

Here’s how to do it - and why it doesn’t mean quite the same thing as molto. Except for when it does.

Ecco

Here we go - another one of those words that don’t really translate into English.

You’ll hear ecco all the time. It roughly means “here” or “there”. Just as in English we fill our speech with little phrases like “here you are”, “there we go” and so on.

- Eccoci, finalmente siamo arrivati

- Here we are, we've finally arrived!

But of course, it's not that simple. Find out more about this common and versatile word here.

Comunque

Comunque is one of those words that make more sense when you hear them in context – and that's handy, since in Italy you'll hear it a lot.

It's used in a few different ways. One of the most common is to mean 'anyway' or 'in any case'.

  • Non sai dov'è? Grazie comunque.
  • You don't know where it is? Thanks anyway.

See the other meanings here.

Immagino

You know when someone starts telling you a long story about something that happened to them, and you don't really have anything to add?

That gets super awkward in a foreign language.

But instead of uncomfortable silence, or manic smiling, here's a useful word that shows you're listening, and keeps the ‘conversation' going: Immagino.

While you can translate it as “I imagine,” it's used to mean something like “I can imagine!” or “I bet!” and expresses sympathy with whatever the speaker is talking (or more likely, complaining) about.

  • Non posso credere che abbiano chiuso la strada. Che traffico! (I can't believe they've closed the road. The traffic was terrible!)
  • Immagino!

Invece

Even if you've only just started learning Italian, chances are you will have encountered the word ma ('but') by now. 

But (!) there's more than one way to contradict yourself or others, especially in Italian. This word is a commonly used alternative: invece (pronounced 'in-vetch-eh').

In its simplest sense, it too means 'but'. It can also mean “instead” and “however”.

  • Pensavo che fosse partita, invece era ancora lì.
  • I thought she had gone, but she was still there.

Aspetta

You might have noticed that Italians say aspetta all the time. I’d never heard of this word before I arrived in Italy, but the meaning was perfectly clear: wait!

- Hold on, I think we’ve forgotten something 

- Aspetta, il semaforo e rosso

- Wait, the light’s red

Now it’s one of the Italian words I use daily.

READ ALSO: From dildo to quarantine, ten words you never realized we stole from Italian

Magari

This common expression derives from a Greek word meaning blessed or happy, which is a clue to its first meaning: 'I hope so!' You can use magari to talk about things that are desired, wished or hoped for.

Magari andrà tutto bene.

  • Hopefully everything will be fine.

You even can use it to stress just how much you want something, usually if someone's offering it to you: it's like answering their question with 'you bet!'

– Ti piacerebbe andare in Italia?
– Magari!
 
– Would you like to go to Italy?
– I certainly would!

See all the other ways you can use it here.

Cavolo

What a load of cabbage! Who would’ve thought this would be such a useful word? But once I learned it, I felt like I immediately understood about ten percent more Italian.

It usually serves as a milder substitute for cazzo ('shit' or 'dick'), much the same way 'sugar' and 'fudge' can stand in for stronger terms in English. But more than just a placeholder, we think cavolo has a certain charm all of its own.

  • Che cavolo vuoi?
  • What the heck do you want? (literally: What the cabbage do you want?)

Cavolo has many uses. For example as a noun, to mean 'nothing' or 'not at all'...

  • Non m'importa un cavolo!
  • -I don't give a damn!

... or you can yell it out on its own to express your surprise or frustration.

– Ho vinto la lotteria!
– Cavolo!

– I won the lottery!
– Wow! (or literally: Cabbage!)

Boh

Is this a word, or is it just a noise? Either way, you need to know what it means.

It’s 'I don't know', but in its most informal form – like when we shorten the phrase to 'dunno'.

– Di dov'è?
– Boh, forse Puglia... ma che ne so?

– Where's she from?
– Dunno, maybe Puglia... but what do I know?

Of course, there are dozens more extremely useful words that we think every Italian student should learn ASAP. Check out our words of the day for more.

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