Is Italian Hard to Learn? The Ultimate Answer
If you’re a native speaker of English or someone who speaks English quite well, we have good news. According to the Foreign Service Institute, the approximate time that the average English-speaking person needs to become fluent in Italian is much shorter than it is for other languages such as French or German.
If you’re not an English speaker but your mother or second tongue is one of the other Romance languages, such as Portuguese or Spanish, then we have good news too. Since all Romance languages derive from Vulgar Latin, the vernacular variety once heard in the Roman Empire, they share an arsenal of cognates, i.e., words from different languages that have the same etymological origin and that present similarities both in spelling and pronunciation.
Is Italian Vocabulary Hard to Learn?
Let’s assume, however, that you do not speak any of the Romance languages. That you are a plain English speaker. Though English and Italian belong to different language families, at least 25% of English words are of Latin origin, either because they were borrowed directly from Latin or through another Romance language like French or Italian. It’s no wonder, then, that so many Italian words have almost identical English counterparts. Consider the following examples:
Concerto – Concert
Felicità — Felicity
Generosità — Generosity
Futuro – Future
Melodia – Melody
Qualità — Quality
Università — University
You still don’t believe us, right? It seems too good to be true. Let’s forget about word lists, then. After all, they don’t give us an authentic feeling of how often these words appear in real communication. Let’s analyse the lyrics of an Italian song instead.
In the second verse of Il compromesso, La prohibida professes her love to her significant other without resorting to metaphors or euphemisms:
Ma non è amore la realtà
(But reality is not love)
Sei tu la mia necessità
(You are necessary to me)
E ci sarò con tutti quanti i miei difetti e con i tuoi
(And I’ll be there with all my defects and yours)
Anche se non è facile il compromesso è inevitabile
(Even if it is not easy, compromise is inevitable)
Vivere adesso ha senso solo insieme a te
(Living now only makes sense together if I live with you)
So, is Italian hard to learn? Well, if we look at the vocabulary of both Italian and English, it’s evident that there is at least one aspect that is actually quite easy. But what about pronunciation?
Italian Pronunciation: Easy or Hard?
When it comes to English, it’s no secret that the sound-to-spelling rules are all over the place, with [a] having at least 3 different pronunciations in words such as cat, tall, name; and [ch] going from /k/ in character, to /sh/ in chef, to /ch/ in chest, just to name a few examples. It’s a language that has 14 vowel sounds, or 15 if we include the vowel-like sound in words like shirt and nerd and only 5 symbols to represent all these sounds. Italian, on the other hand, has a very straightforward phonological system, with most letters corresponding to a single sound.
There are a few rules, however, that you will need to learn. But as you can see below, they are quite simple.
c + a, o, u, he, hi [k] capello – hat
c + ia, io, iu, e, i [ch] cina – China
ch + a, e, i, o, u [k] vecchia – old
g + a, o, u, he, hi [g] gusto – taste
g + ia, io, iu, e, i [dj] regione – region
sc + a, o, u, he, hi [sk] scuola – school
sc + ia, io, iu, e, i [sh] sciarpa – scarf
So now we’ve covered Italian vocabulary and pronunciation, but before we can answer the question “Is Italian hard to learn?” we need to talk about its grammar as well.
Italian Grammar: Not as Hard as It Seems
In English, it can be quite difficult to recognise infinitive or present verbs, as there is nothing in their form that tells you what kind of word they are. Italian verbs, on the other hand, may end in -are (like disegnare, “to draw”), -ere (like camminare, “to walk”) or -ire (like partire, “to leave”). These regularities make it pretty easy for learners to recognise when they’re dealing with an Italian verb as opposed to a different part of speech. And although it is true that past and future forms have many different conjugations, even these follow very specific rules which have very few exceptions.
So, what do you think? Is Italian hard to learn?
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