Is Italian a hard language to learn?

Yes.

No.

It depends.

Hard for who?

Sitting at the reception desk of our Italian language school, I’ll quite often have conversations with Spanish university students, who’ve just arrived in Bologna and need to learn Italian.

Student (speaking Spanish):      Hi, I’d like some information about Italian courses.

Me (speaking Italian):                  Have you studied Italian before?

Student (speaking Spanish):      No, never. Don’t know a word.

Me (speaking Italian):                 Funny.  I don’t know any Spanish, but here we are having a conversation!

Next time you meet someone who tells you they speak French, Spanish, Italian, and hey, a little Portuguese, don’t be too impressed. It may not be that they are some incredible polyglot with superhuman abilities.

The similarities between Latin-based languages are strong. Knowing French or Spanish gives you a huge advantage in learning Italian, and vice versa. It’s not so much a question of starting from scratch, as of converting what you already know.

Conclusion? If you did French or Spanish at school, Italian should be a walk in the park for you.

Hard compared to what?

I once spent a fascinating year teaching English to Japanese high school students. One thing that struck me was that, get this, the teenagers I was teaching were STILL LEARNING TO READ THEIR OWN LANGUAGE. At high school!

Spoken Japanese is not so hard. Different, yes. But pretty regular, with a reasonable pronunciation system.

Written Japanese, well that would be another matter. I imagine you’d have to dedicate a good part of your life just to get to the point where you could understand the newspaper.

So, compared to Japanese with its ideograms, or even Russian and Arabic which simply have different alphabets, Italian looks like a piece of cake, doesn’t it?

Climbing Mount Italia

Let’s assume you’re an English speaker who doesn’t already have a good command of another Latin language.

Will you find Italian hard to learn?

At the beginning, yes.

Later no.

If learning Italian is like climbing a mountain, you’ve got the sheer, icy bit with the lethal showers of falling boulders right there at the bottom where you have to being your ascent.

The fearsome cliff of “grammar”. Not a place for the timid or unprepared alpinist.

To say anything in Latin languages like Italian, you need to be able to conjugate your verbs.

I do, you do, he does, she does, it does, we do, you do, they do

Except it’s a lot more complicated in Italian:

faccio, fai, fa, facciamo, fate, fanno

Then of course there are nouns with gender (the glass is male but the bottle is female), and plurals which vary according to that gender.

A confusing variety of articles complicate things further.

Prepositions are a mess, too.

I could go on.

BUT, survive the treacherous conditions on that initial vertical pitch, and what will you see?

Grassy meadows, gently sloping away up to the distant summit.

Wildflowers, frollicking cowgirls, sunbeams, you get the idea.

Getting up the rest of the mountain will be child’s play.

So, is Italian a hard language to learn then?

If you’re an English speaker who’s never successfully learnt another foreign language, well the answer has to be ‘Yes’.

Sorry.

But if you’ve already summitted other similar peaks, this one is not going to give you much trouble.

And remember, whatever you level of mountaineering experience, once you get past the technical lower cliffs, you’ve got the cowgirls and wildflowers to look forward to!

This article is completely wrong and makes me very angry!

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P.S. Winter Offer 2014: the countdown has started! Just one week left to save 20% on your 2014 group Italian course at our language school in Bologna. Details here.

Comments

  1. Debra Shimada says:

    Very upfront and insightful. Look forward to studying at your school for a couple of weeks next year. P.s. I learnt French at school and university then learnt Japanese after I married my JP husband. Your comments sound spot on!

    • Hi Debra,
      Thanks for taking the time to comment.
      So, you’re on your third foreign language with Italian? That’s good going!
      We look forward to meeting you in 2014.
      Best wishes,
      Daniel

  2. Ciao! Sono messicana, ho cominciato a studiare l’inglese più di venti anni fa e da un anno studio e imparo l’italiano. Devo dire che amo profondamente questa lingua. Scherzo di solito quando dico che sono metà italiana e metà messicana, perchè davvero mi piace molto, è una mia passione e continuerò a impararlo, perchè sebbene a volte la mia mente è uno scioglilingua (jajajajjajajajaja), mi rendo conto che passo a passo sono migliore ogni giorno e questo è la mia motivazione per continuare.

    I was finished writing but I though that maybe not everyone will understand the post I’ve written in Italian!!
    Hi! I’m mexican, I began learning english more than 20 years ago and 1 year ago I’m learning italian. I love deeply this languaje. I joke sometimes when I say that I’m half italian and half mexican, because I really love it, I has became in my new passion and I will continue studying it, even though my mind sometimes is like a tonguetwister jajajaja, I can see step by step I’m better everyday and that’s my reason to continue.

    Grazie mille, il tuo articolo è stato interessantissimo!

    • Thanks for commenting, Jessica. You write really well in Italian!

      You didn’t say WHY you were learning… I’m curious.

  3. Like all of your articles Daniel, this one made me smile and made me think. I love reading your take on mastering this beautiful language.
    Thanks so much for your blogs!

  4. PS: I am finally approaching the edge of the green meadows and think I can even hear the distant tinkle of cowbells. Hahaha – but not before I got knocked on the head time and time again from falling icy boulders on the sheer side of the mountain. As a lover of writing in my English mother tongue I do appreciate a good metaphor and this set described perfectly the challenges besetting the Italian student.

    • Thanks for your feedback, Kerry. And, good for you! Keep going with Italian, you’ll get there in the end!!

  5. Nope, Italian is still hard, even though I have studied for 10 years and passed all the exams including A levels.
    I’m not very sociable, though, I tend to stay in the hotel room after a hard day’s walking around sightseeing and seldom meet locals. I always stay in a city, so local people are only too pleased to practice their excellent command of English and/or sell me things. And I can only afford one holiday per year.
    My friend Sue, however, is single, has more money, goes away more often and meets loads of people, but her pronunciation is awful. She still says “per exempio” and “un expresso”…..
    Maybe I should be like Sue, but I’m with my wife and she’s not an Italian speaker. It was her job to learn Spanish, but she didn’t manage that, either.
    I keep trying. If only I could say that in Italian.

    • As you say, Neil, “maybe you should be like Sue”.
      But it’s a famous effect: the most advanced students are always the least satisfied. The more you know, the more you realise you don’t (and maybe won’t ever) know. The trick is to focus on something other than the language. For example, instead of worrying about all the Italian I don’t know, I try to follow Italian politics by reading the newspapers and listening to parliamentary debates… The effect is to improve my Italian buy without me having to stress about it.
      You could try the same idea: develop in interest that is not Italian, but is IN Italian.
      It really works.

  6. English pedant here – “hard for whom?” surely!! Se soltanto potessi essere pedante in italiano… in un’altra vita forse! Ma, continuo di provare – l’anno prossimo ancora!

    • Hello English Pedant,
      There’s some variation in the use of “whom” between UK and US English, and between generations!
      I’m an English teacher by profession, and it’s been decades that the text books (for foreign students) don’t bother with “whom”, except in a few set phrases such as “To whom it may concern”.
      Language changes, and sometimes we have to wrestle with it. I struggle not to point out the misuse of “less” (should be “fewer” if we refer to a plural), but the modern consenus is that they are interchangeable…
      By the way, educated Italians are SO pedantic about their language, especially the “congiuntivo” (which I never use). You’d be in great company if you could get the knack of pointing out every time someone ommitted that!

      • I was being somewhat tongue in cheek (fewer vs less, being another of my favourites) – if only because I will never, ever be able to be pedantic in any other language, no matter how hard I try to master even one.

        • You’d be surprised, Gerry. Though my Italian grammar is at best 60% complete, I find myself correcting others with enthusiasm!
          I think the concept of “mastering a language” is illusory, though. Important to know that mastery is never more than partial, and temporary…

  7. Ciao!
    Per me, c’è una sola difficoltà nell’apprendimento di una lingua straniera, cioè la pronuncia. Da questo punto di vista, imparare l’italiano per me è molto piacevole e facile. Le serie fonetiche, utilizzati nelle lingue italiana e russa, sono praticamente identiche. Ugualmente pronunciamo “r”, non abbiamo il suono che viene indicato in inglese come “th”, etc. Inoltre, gli italiani pronunciano molto chiaramente tutti i suoni esattamente come essi sono scritti, questo facilita la percezione del parlato.
    Adoro imparare l’Italiano!

  8. Veronica byrne says:

    D’accordo con Lei! Is that right?

  9. Thank you for your encouraging words. I am having enormous difficulty learning Italian. My main problem is that people speak too fast. I feel that if they would only slow down, I would understand better. I have joined the local library and have withdrawn a couple of books written for Italian youngsters.- in Italian, of course. I also read the local newspaper with the help of a dictionary.. I live in a small Italian village and have not found it easy to find people to talk to. Any advice to someone who is feeling rather isolated?.

    • Hi July,
      Sorry to hear you’re feeling isolated. Rest assured that it’s a fairly normal sensation if you go to live in a foreign country, and should improve with time.
      I would suggest looking for social activities where your participation does not depend completely on language – reading is going to be limiting for you, but what about taking a course in something non-linguistic? For example, sport, music, cookery? You’d be joining in with Italians trying to learn/do new things, and would likely make new friends (and so have the chance to improve your Italian) anyway.
      Or volunteering? You might find some association or group that would love to have your help, despite or even because you are a ‘straniero’.
      Think laterally about how you could get involved in your local community. There’s no need to wait until you can understand ‘fast Italian’. People will make an effort to comunicate with you if you make it worth their while.
      If nothing else, you could offer low-cost or free English lessons, just for the benefit of interacting with people and making new contacts.
      Hope that helps!
      Daniel