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Italian vs English

Italian (= italiano or lingua italiana) is a Romance language spoken by about 60 million people in Italy‏‎, and by another 10 million Italian descendants in the world, particularly in Argentina‏‎, Uruguay, southern Brazil‏‎ and Venezuela where they form a very strong physical and cultural presence.

Italian is also the official language of the small state of San Marino and the Swiss cantons of Grigioni and Ticino. It is also the primary language of the Vatican City.

Italian uses the Latin alphabet. This consists of 21 letters of which 5 (j, w, x, y and k) are used only with foreign words.

History of Italian

Italian derives from Latin. It retains Latin’s contrast between short and long consonants‏‎ and the distinctive word function of stress. Italian is also very close to Latin in terms of vocabulary‏‎.

Standard Italian was adopted by the Italian state after the unification of Italy in 1861. At the time, only 2.5% of Italy’s population could speak standard Italian. The rest of the population spoke local dialects, almost a different one in each city, and often in each village.

After the unification of Italy a huge number of civil servants and soldiers who had moved to other parts of the country to take up work positions introduced words and idioms from their home languages. However the main dialect on which the unification of the Italian language was based is Tuscan (in particular the dialects of the city of Florence) and the Italian poet Dante (1265 – 1321) is considered its father.

Exposure to English

In Italy all foreign language films are dubbed on the television and cinema and exposure to English, albeit passively, is minimal. Thanks to other media like the internet. American and British music is popular so students have some knowledge of English style, rhythm and idiom.

In general Italians do not tend to speak much English except in touristic areas and if they need to do business with foreign companies.


Certain English sounds do not exist in Italian.

  • ch is a hard sound in Italian pronounced /k/. It is never pronounced /tʃ/ as it sometimes is in English in words like /tʃeə/ for example.
  • h is always silent in Italian

As a TEFL teacher in Italy you should spend time on these!


Italian sentences‏‎ tend to be much longer and more complex than the subject-verb-object (or SVO) style of English. When writing English, Italians will often use what English sees as a longer more convoluted sentence structure. As a TEFL teacher you will be wise to give a few lesson on the style of shorter sentences used in modern English.

Repetition is thought to be wrong and Italians will go to great lengths to find synonyms‏‎ and phrases so as not to repeat the same word in any given context – “why use 5 words when one suffices” is not a question Italian speakers tend to ask themselves!


Noun Gender

Italian nouns, whether they refer to inanimate objects or people, are either masculine or feminine.

  • tavola (table) is feminine
  • banco (desk) is masculine
  • televisone (televison) is feminine
  • computer (computer) is masculine

This can create problems with Italians speakers who are learning English as they tend to use masculine or feminine pronouns‏‎ with objects which have no gender in English, e.g.

* My father bought a new car. She is very fast. My brother and I like her very much.

* an asterisk is used to denote an ungrammatical sentence

The error is because car in Italian – macchina – is feminine.

Verb Forms & Tenses

Italian often uses the present simple‏‎ where English would use the present continuous‏‎ form:

Hi, what do you do?
I make a cake.

Tonight we go to the cinema.

The present perfect is far more common than the past simple‏‎, particularly in Northern Italy.

* I have been to Paris last year.

* I have slept very badly last night

Countable and Non-Countable Nouns

Many Italian speakers have problems with non-countable nouns‏‎ and common errors you will hear include:

* I will wash my hairs.

* The spaghetti are ready.

False Friends

Because much of English is derived from Latin there are quite a number of false friends‏‎ in Italian. Here are just a few:

Italian English FF Italian Meaning
agenda agenda diary
annoiare annoy bore
argumento argument topic
assistere assist be present at
attendere attend wait for
attico attic penthouse
baldo bald courageous
box box garage
camera camera room
cantina canteen cellar
cartone carton cardboard
conduttore conductor driver
confetti confetti sugared almonds at weddings
conveniente convenient good value
confrontare confront compare
crudo crude uncooked
disgrazia disgrace misfortune
domandere demand ask or request
editore editor publisher
estate estate summer
fabrica fabric factory
fastidio fastidious annoyed
fine fine end
firma firm signature
genitori genitals parents
gentile gentle kind
grosso gross big
guardare guard watch
incidente incident accident
intendere intend understand/want
interrogazione interrogate oral test (at school)
libreria library book shop
lunatico lunatic moody
magazzino magazine shop/warehouse
miseria misery poverty
morbido morbid soft
occasione occassion opportunity/bargain
ostrica ostrich oyster
pace pace peace
parente parents relatives
parole parole word
patente patent license
pavimento pavement floor
preservativo preservative condom
realizzare realise carry out
riversare reverse pour
rude rude (naughty) rough & ready
rumore rumor noise
sano sane healthy
scolaro scholar pupil
sensibile sensible sensitive
simpatico sympathetic nice, pleasant
spada spade sword
stampa stamp press, print
stanza stanza room
tastare taste touch/feel
testo test text
tremendo tremendous terrible, dreadful
triviale trivial obscene, vulgar
vestire vest to dress
vile vile cowardly


There are a number of common issues with Italian students learning English. As a TEFL teacher in Italy you may well hear your students say these which are direct translations from Italian:

* I have cold.

* Do me this, please.

* Don’t open/close the light.

Forms of Address

In addressing people, Italian often uses Signor / Signora along with the first name, thus it’s common to hear Mister Alberto or Mrs Anna. As a TEFL teacher in Italy you need to explain that terms like Mr/Mrs are only used with last names in English.

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