So, you've finally decided to learn Italian, but you're struggling to make progress? Have you been studying for months without being able to handle basic communication? This is most likely due to common mistakes learners make when studying Italian, which can hinder progress and jeopardize your motivation.
This is especially normal when studying autonomously. Not everyone is a language expert, and without the guidance of a tutor, it's easy to resort to counterproductive practices. Sadly, many teachers give the wrong advice to their students or use the wrong approach during their classes. As a result, an increasing number of people find learning Italian isn't as easy as it should be.
In this article, we outline the most common mistakes Italian learners make and provide some tips on how to avoid them. Some are more related to the learning approach, while others pertain to the language itself. We promise you that our advice will positively affect your learning process and motivation!
Relying on Translations The first point is not unique to Italian and applies when learning any language. It is first on our list because it is the most common, and for a good reason: the temptation of translating everything into one's native language is strong, and it may seem useful at first glance. Why shouldn't I translate a word or phrase into my own language to understand it better? I can then use it in Italian next time. Well... not so fast. The processes of speaking a language and translating between languages happen in different parts of our brains and should not be confused. Professional translators spend years learning how to master this difficult process, so why would any language learner be expected to do the same? This becomes especially damaging when considering that many famous learning apps are centered around translations, leading people to believe that this is a legitimate way of studying. It is not. On the contrary, when learning Italian, you should teach yourself to think and speak directly in it. This may sound hard or even impossible at first, but consider that this is the way we all learned our mother tongue. Of course, adults don't learn like children and need the support of grammar and structures, but the process still needs to be as natural as possible. With the help of pictures, gestures, videos, and audio files, you can learn how to introduce yourself and learn the most basic verbs in Italian using Italian only. Most textbooks start with "Come ti chiami?" and "Io sono...", supported by a few pictures to understand the context. And so, in less than an hour, full beginners learn how to introduce themselves and the verb "Essere" using Italian only! The same process can be repeated over and over, building upon the acquired knowledge, and you'll be surprised to see how quickly and effectively you'll start speaking Italian.
Relying too much on Grammar The second point is similar to the first. While grammar is essential, you shouldn't make the mistake of believing that it alone is enough to learn a language. Imagine trying to learn how to ski from a book instead of on the slopes. You can memorize all the necessary movements and techniques, but as soon as you put your skis on, you're going to fall on your face. Learning a language is similar: it's a practical, almost physical process, and you need to train your mind and mouth to respond adequately according to the situation; this is achieved through practice. Of course, we aren't saying that you shouldn't study Italian grammar. Grammar is very helpful and enables adult learners to have a clear picture of the language in mind. However, it should complement practice, not substitute it. Imagine learning all the grammar for levels A1 and A2 in Italian without or with limited practice. You then go to Italy on vacation and realize that people use words and expressions that weren't in the textbook. Even if you can understand them, you haven't trained your listening skills, so you just hear confused muttering. When you try to say something, you find it hard to articulate sounds you aren't used to, and your brain struggles to keep up with the conversation. In other words, what you shouldn't do is open an Italian grammar book and try to learn all the rules, expecting significant progress. What you should do is carefully balance theory and practice, ideally learning an expression first, and then using grammar to systematize your knowledge. This is best achieved during a communicative language course, where the teacher guides the student from an input text to the fixation of new knowledge.
Overwhelming Yourself with Advanced Topics Wanting to understand everything is commendable, and it's sometimes beneficial to conduct autonomous research when you come across unfamiliar words, tenses, or expressions. However, you shouldn't jump to advanced topics without having the right foundation first if you want to avoid confusion. This concept could be reworded as "Don't try to understand everything at once." In Italian, as with any other language, there's a natural progression of topics that should be followed. We highly discourage you from attempting to understand the uses of congiuntivo if you're a beginner or diving into fully grasping the infamous "Ci" and "Ne." This advice is not just to prevent confusion, which can be discouraging on its own. Not understanding something might make you feel as if "Italian is not for you" and can hinder your motivation to continue learning. However, rest assured that Italian is definitely for you, and with time, you will understand everything. This doesn't mean, of course, that you shouldn't ask your teacher to explain something you don't understand or look something up online. It simply means that you should accept that it's okay not to understand everything, as this is a part of the learning process, and you will get there at some point.
Mispronunciation doesn't (always) matter Another misconception when learning a language is that you should aim for a native-like pronunciation right from the start. First of all, it's essential to understand that achieving a perfect native accent is highly unlikely, and that's completely okay. We all have our native accents when speaking a foreign language, and trust us when we say that they are beautiful! Accents are a part of our cultural identity, and we shouldn't be ashamed of them. Even among Italians, there isn't a single standard Italian accent, as each person has a distinguishable accent based on their region. Secondly, it's perfectly acceptable to mispronounce words in the early stages, as long as you are being understood. Your pronunciation will naturally improve over time. At the beginning, the main goal is to be able to express yourself as much as possible, so quantity over quality is essential. However, when your mispronunciation hinders understanding, it's crucial to work on it. One aspect of the Italian language that often leads to misunderstandings is the double consonants. For instance, there is a difference between "Capello" (hair) and "Cappello" (hat), and it's important to stress double consonants correctly. Try pronouncing "Anno" with a single consonant in front of an Italian, and you'll see what we mean! Another challenging aspect is the vowels, which in Italian are pronounced openly and distinctly. This is especially important for English speakers since English vowels are pronounced quite differently. Mispronouncing Italian vowels can lead to communication difficulties. To avoid this, focus on mastering the distinct sounds of "a," "e," "i," "o," and "u." Remember, language learning is a journey, and embracing your unique pronunciation while working on clarity will make your communication richer and more authentic.
Overlooking Articles and Gender Agreement If your mother tongue has a small number of articles (like English) or none at all (like Slavic languages), then Italian articles can be a hard nut to crack. There are 11 articles in Italian, divided into determinatives and indeterminatives, and figuring out when and how to use them correctly can be a headache. Articles need to agree with the gender of nouns, which can also be a difficult topic, especially for English speakers who aren't accustomed to gender in their native language. Adding to this complexity, a large number of exceptions and the fact that nouns ending in -e can be both masculine and feminine make gender agreement a challenge for any learner of Italian. We understand that for the sake of communication, these aspects can be partially overlooked in the early stages; it's better to speak making mistakes than not to speak at all. However, you shouldn't wait too long before taking them seriously, as you might end up speaking fluent Italian while still getting articles and genders wrong. This is not just a matter of elegance. A wrong article can hinder communication. For example, consider the phrases "Ieri ho visto la mia ragazza" (Yesterday I saw my girlfriend) and "Ieri ho visto una mia ragazza" (Yesterday I saw a girlfriend of mine). The difference could create quite a spicy misunderstanding. The same goes for gender. For example, you might think that the word "Turista" is feminine due to its ending, but it can actually be masculine as well. If you identify as male and say "Io sono una turista," people will assume your gender wrong. Our tip is to always learn your vocabulary together with its respective articles. Whenever you learn a new word, write it in your notebook with the article and always repeat it with the article. Articles are very helpful in identifying the gender of nouns, as even if a word is difficult to decipher, the article will almost always tell you all about it. Try to always use articles, even if you mix them up at first. With repetition and feedback, you will use them correctly, and thanks to them, it will be easier to remember the correct genders. For example, if instead of learning the word "Turista" by itself, you learn "Il turista," you are sure to remember that this noun can also be masculine.
Neglecting Regional Variations and Colloquialisms This is especially important if you are learning Italian in your home country, far from where Italian is actively used for day-to-day communication. All students learn Standard Italian, which is the language deemed correct by textbooks and grammar books and used for written communication. However, you won't always hear people speaking Standard Italian in Italy, and it's essential to keep this in mind while learning; otherwise, you may feel as if you've been learning the wrong language, leading to confusion and demotivation. First of all, Italians often use colloquialisms that aren't always found in textbooks but are still an important part of daily communication. They may say that something is "Fico" (cool) or exclaim "Che schifo!" (How disgusting!) when something is unpleasant. They might shout "Cavolo" (Cabbage) when something goes wrong, and "Boh" if there's something they don't know. They might even make grammar mistakes that you were taught to avoid. For example, you can hear "Penso che Firenze è una bellissima città" (I think Florence is a beautiful city). The mistake lies in using "è" instead of "sia" after "Penso" since the correct form should be "Penso che Firenze sia una bellissima città." Secondly, Italian history and geography have led to a unique situation where hundreds of dialects are spoken almost anywhere from North to South. These are often full-fledged languages separate from Italian and not entirely mutually intelligible. This doesn't mean that Italians will speak to you in a dialect; all Italians speak Italian as well and will use it while speaking to a foreigner. However, you will almost always encounter what is called "Regional Italian." Regional Italian is a variety of Italian spoken in a specific region, with its own words, expressions, grammar, and accent. In the southern half of Italy, you will often hear "Mo" instead of "Adesso" (now). In the South, you might hear the passato remoto tense used more frequently, while the same tense is almost never used in the North. In Milan, it is not uncommon to put an article in front of someone's name (il Marco, la Claudia). And we could go on for a long while. We don't mean, of course, that you should learn all colloquialisms and varieties of Regional Italian, as this would be impossible. Our only advice is to be open to their existence and not to be too frustrated if you don't understand everything that your Neapolitan friend is telling you: your Milanese friend probably wouldn't understand either, and this is part of the beauty and richness of Italian culture. A pro tip is to learn some of these expressions and use them when you're speaking Italian; you will impress locals and sound like one of them!
In conclusion, embarking on the journey of learning Italian is a rewarding endeavor that opens the door to a world of culture, history, and connections. It's natural to encounter challenges along the way, but understanding and addressing common mistakes can accelerate your progress and deepen your appreciation for the language.
At Italmente, we are passionate about guiding language enthusiasts like you on this exciting linguistic adventure. Our experienced instructors are dedicated to helping you overcome the stumbling blocks and discover the joy of speaking Italian fluently, so feel free to request a free trial lesson to get started!
Embrace the immersive experience of thinking and speaking directly in Italian. Strive for clarity in your pronunciation when necessary, and remember that mispronunciations are part of the learning process. Your unique accent adds charm and authenticity to your language skills.
Balance grammar learning with practical application. Engage in real-life conversations, listen to native speakers, and read Italian materials to reinforce your understanding in context. Don't be discouraged by occasional mistakes, as they are stepping stones to improvement.
Explore the richness of Italian culture through regional variations and colloquial expressions. Embrace the diversity of the language and recognize that Italian goes beyond textbook standards.
Above all, maintain your passion and motivation for Italian. Celebrate every milestone in your language journey, and appreciate the joy of speaking Italian. Embrace the challenges as opportunities for growth and embrace the beauty of this melodious language.
Are you ready to take the next step in your Italian language adventure? Join Italmente's premium Italian classes and immerse yourself in our dynamic courses designed to empower your language skills and cultural understanding with a tailored approach. Whether you're a beginner or looking to refine your proficiency, our supportive learning environment will help you flourish in your Italian language journey.
Buona fortuna on your Italian language adventure, and we look forward to embarking on this exciting journey together!