Why can’t I understand spoken Italian?

(Thanks to Lynn, who asked me about this recently.)

If you’ve been studying Italian for any length of time, you’ve probably wondered what you’re doing wrong when it comes to listening comprehension.

You’ve got some of the grammar under your belt.

And you know a pile of Italian words.

So why can’t you understand Italians when they’re speaking to each other?

And why are films and TV in Italian still so out of reach?


Let’s step back a bit.

How long have you been speaking your mother tongue?

In my case, that’s English.

I’m 48 years old so I’ve been practising listening to English of all types for nearly half a century.

I’m therefore pretty confident that I have a detailed understanding of spoken English. Even when the topic is unfamiliar.

Remember though, that’s the outcome of more than four decades of intensive practise.

So what about my Italian?

I started learning the language in a fairly casual way in 1997, moved to Italy with my Italian wife in 1998, and my eldest child was born here in 1999.

But I speak English at home and at work.

And, as I’ve been busy earning a living, I’ve never done much formal studying…

As you’d expect, after hearing the language around me for eighteen years, I’m quite used to it.

But I certainly don’t feel that I understand everything I hear, as I do with English.

In fact, when my kids speak Italian to each other at the dinner table, it can be an effort to work out what’s going on.

And it’s always easier for me to watch a film or TV show in English than it is in Italian.

So does not understanding everything stress me out?

Sometimes, but I’m quite used to it so mostly it doesn’t bother me.


For most people, it’s unrealistic to compare what you can understand in your native language with what you can understand in Italian.

But that need not matter.

Who says you have to aim for ‘perfect’?

It’s quite possible to achieve a reasonable level of understanding, enough for most situations, most of the time.

And it doesn’t have to take decades, or even years as it did for me.

If you’re a student or retired, four or five months of a standard Italian course should be enough to reach a reasonable communicative level.

While in six or seven months, you could start as a beginner and expect to finish the whole syllabus and prepare for a top-level exam to certify your impressive knowledge of Italian!

With that sort of investment of time and money, would you then understand everything you heard?

Of course not.

But you’d be much better at extracting meaning from complex speech.

And much more comfortable interacting with Italian native-speakers, watching films, and so on.

And with the whole of the rest of your life still to practise in!



‘Understanding everything’ is probably unrealistic, and therefore an inappropriate goal.

But reaching a high level of competence is totally achievable.

For most people, it’s just a question of having the motivation and the time.

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