Monday, 27 January 2014

Italian lessons - 9 Steps to Perfect Pronunciation

Today, for the third Italian lesson on the blog, we're going to look at Nine Steps to Perfect Your Italian Pronunciation (to get you talking like a pro!)

So far, we've already gone through the alphabet and the signs of the Zodiac so now we'll take what we learnt in lesson one a step further and talk about the nitty gritty of Italian pronunciation. It makes sense to do this in one of the first lessons, so that we don't end of with an enormous vocabulary but no idea how to actually say the words that we've learnt!

                                                                              image source
Italian pronunciation is actually relatively easy,  especially when you compare it to English. In Italian, there are set pronunciation rules that, once learnt, are simply a matter of practising and remembering, whereas for someone learning English as a second language, the irregularity of the phonology must be mind-boggling. Just think of all the different ways that the combination of letters 'ough' is articulated in the following words: dough, through, plough, enough, cough and hiccough. And there are countless other words that a foreigner would assume that rhyme in English - like shoes, does and goes or singer, linger and ginger or mover, cover and clover - which simply don't. No logical reason why they don't. They just don't. In fact, English pronunciation is so haphazard that George Bernard Shaw once said that if you took the 'f' sound from 'enough', the 'i' sound in 'women' and the 'sh' sound in words ending in 'tion', the letters GHOTI could be used to represent the word 'fish'!

Luckily for learners of Italian, the language is what is known as a phonetic language, meaning that the sounds are (almost) always written using the same combination of letters each time.

Here are the 9 Steps to get you pronouncing, to perfection, the lyrical lingua italiana:

1. You need to roll your Rs. If you don't, the first problem you will probably encounter will be confusing your carne (meat) with your cane (dog), like once when I was preparing meatloaf (one of the first times I cooked for my partner) and he came into the kitchen and said "Che buon odore! Che stai cucinando?" - 'What a great smell! What are you cooking?" to which I replied, smiling broadly and completely oblivious to my failure to roll out my R sufficiently, "Polpettone di cane", meaning;

2. In Italian words, the stress is (almost always) placed on the second last syllable of a word:




If a word has only two syllables, the stress is therefore placed on the first syllable:

Casa (house)

Rosso (red)

Gatto (cat)

When the stress is not on the second last syllable, this is indicated by an accent on the final vowel, which looks like this: à, è, ì, ò, ù.

You need to be careful to articulate these accents, so as not to inadvertently say a completely different word. When you pronounce an accented vowel, your voice should go up. An unaccented vowel, in comparison, is flat.

Naturally, I learnt this the hard way. When I was an exchange student in northern Italy as the age of fifteen, I was sitting down to dinner one night with my host family and half a dozen of their extended family, when the phone rang. I was expecting a call from my family, so I got up to answer it. It was my dad and we spoke from a short while (international calls were still quite expensive in those days!) and when I got off the phone, I went back to the dinner table and announced "Scusatemi, stavo parlando con il papa". I thought I was very clever and that I had just said, perfectly, "Sorry, I was just talking to dad", but no, as it turns out, I actually said ...

Note to self: papa = Pope and  papà = dad

3. Learn when to make a Ch sound and when not to.

 * In Italian, the letters 'C' and 'H' together do not make a 'ch' sound as they do in English.

Chiesa (church) is pronounced 'key-air-zah'

La chiesa è bellissima - the church is very beautiful

Che (what) is pronounced 'ke' ('k' as in 'kitchen' and 'e' as in 'elephant')

Che ore sono? - What time is it?

* The following combinations of letters, do make a 'ch' sound though:

ce and ci

cena (dinner) is pronounced 'chen-nah'

Cosa mangiamo per cena stasera? - What shall we eat for dinner tonight?

cinema (cinema), although spelt the same, is pronounced 'chin-em-ah'

Hai visto il film Cinema Paradiso? - Have you seen the film Cinema Paradiso?

                        Cinema 1
                                                           image source

4. Be careful when you see an 'S' in front of a the letters ce and ci, because the 'S' changes their pronunciation.

* 'schi' and 'sche' make a sk sound

* 'sci' and 'sce' make a shh sound

schifoso (disgusting) is pronounced 'ski-fo-so' as you would assume from the 'chi' example above,

but sciare (to ski) to pronounced 'she-ar-air'. 'Sci' makes a shh sound.

scheletro (skeleton) is pronounced 'skel-et-ro) as you would expect from the 'che' example above,

but scena (scene) is pronounced 'shair-nah; the 'sce' also making a shh sound.

Al teatro, ho visto una scena proprio schifosa - At the theatre, I saw a really disgusting scene.

5. Gs need some attention too ...

* When placed before the letters a, o and u, the Italian G sounds like soft the English G in 'goat':

gabbia (cage)

goloso (greedy)

gufo (owl)

Nella gabbia, c'è un gufo goloso - in the cage, there is a greedy owl.

* When placed before the letters e and i, the Italian G sounds like the hard English G in 'gel':

gelato (ice-cream)

giardino (garden)

Abbiamo mangiato un gelato nel giardino - we ate an ice-cream in the garden.

* Ghi and Ghe are pronounced like the soft English G in 'goat':

laghi  (lakes)

alghe (algae)

Che schifo! Tutti i laghi sono pieni di alghe - How gross! All the lakes are full of algae.

* Gli can be a difficult sound for English speakers to pronounce. It makes a sound similar to the double L sound in 'million':

figlio (son)

aglio (garlic)

Mio figlio puzza perché mangia troppo aglio - my son smells because he eats too much garlic

Here's a video I found on YouTube featuring a beautiful Italian girl and her deliciously cute nephew explaining how to make this 'gli' sound ...


* Gn in Italian makes a sound like the Spanish ñ and like the English ny sound in 'canyon'.

cognata (sister-in-law)

campagna (country, as in countryside)

lasagne (lasagna)

Ho cucinato lasagne in campagna con mia cognata - I cooked lasagna in the country with my sister-in-law.

6. As we discussed when we talked about the Italian alphabet, the letters 'i' and 'e' are pronounced quite differently in Italian.

The Italian 'E' is soft and is pronounced 'eh'. An easy way to remember this is to think about the pronunciation of Alfa Romeo: 'Alfa Rom-eh-o'.

                                                                      image source

The Italian 'I' makes an 'ee' sound, as in the English words 'key' and 'bee'.

The word io, meaning 'I' is therefore pronounced 'ee-oh'.

Io sono Australiana - I am Australian

anch'io - me too - pronounced 'anc-ee-oh', abbreviation of anche (also) and io (I)

7. The letter H in Italian is always silent, even when it appears at the beginning of a word.

Ho (I have) is pronounced 'oh'

Ho due figlii (I have two children)

Hanno (they have) is pronounced 'an-noh'

Hanno un cane brutto - they have an ugly dog

8. Italians say the letter Z as if there is an invisible T in front of it

The easiest way to remember this is to think about how you say the word 'pizza'.

In fact, Italians actually have great difficulty in making a Z sound the way we do in English. As a result, when I lived in Italy, I very quickly got used to being called Litzzy or Litz. I even have a postcard from a girl I met in Italy when I was a teenager that she sent to me when I got back to Australia addressed: "Ciao Litz!"

9. And finally, make a concerted effort to sound out those double consonants

This was definitely the most challenging aspect of Italian pronunciation for me when I was learning the language. Many Italian words contain double consonants and these are articulated more forcefully that single consonants. If you don't pay attention to this, you can very easily blurt out an entirely different word altogether!

* When the following letters are doubled, they make a staccato sound; a distinct start-stop between the doubled consonant: B, C, D, G, P and T

bistecca (steak) bis-tec-ca

matto (crazy) maht-to

* When these letters appear twice together, the doubled consonant is prolonged and distinctly drawn out: F, L, M, N, R, S and V

sorella (sister) so-relllllll-ah

mamma (mum) mah-mmmmaah

You need to be on your guard so you don't confuse your polo with your pollo (because if you said Il Principe William gioca a pollo, you'd be saying: 'Prince William plays chicken', instead of his usual polo) and you need to make sure that when you want to assert yourself and say 'I'm a grown woman!' that you say: 'Sono una donna fatta!' because if you exclaimed that you were a donna fata you are likely to get a reaction opposite to the one you were seeking (una donna fata is a fairy woman :)

I'm going to conclude this lesson with a little story ...

The importance of learning how to sound out these double consonants correctly really hit home for me one day when my partner Giuseppe (who had only been my boyfriend at that point for a short time) and my son, Ben (who was five), went out for a coffee one day. Ben and I had been in Sicily for about six weeks at the time and Ben was just starting to form sentences and had learnt how to say quanti anni hai? - how old are you?

Being of a social nature and always eager to make new friends (as well as being a little bit cheeky!), he was running around to all the other outdoor tables at the café, asking all the other customers how old they were. Quanti anni hai? Quanti anni hai? he kept asking young and old. At that point, his vocab was still very limited, so I'm not even sure if he understood their answers, but that definitely didn't dull his enthusiasm.

Giuseppe asked me if I could hear what he was asking them and I said "Si, sta dicendo 'quanti anni hai'"?  - "Yes, he's saying 'how old are you?'" At that, Giuseppe burst into a fit of laughter. "What's so funny?', I asked him. "Let's just say it's lucky it's Ben running around asking everyone that question and not you. Your son has better Italian pronunciation than you have!"

"And why is that?" I asked, moderately offended.

"Because the way you say it, it sounds like quanti ani hai!"

"And what does ani mean?" I asked naively.

He turned rather pink in the face and attempted to explain the meaning of ani, using words that I might understand:

"Significa il buco del culo" he said sotto voce - "It means the hole in your bum".

Oh what an enlightening day that was, when I realised that every time up until that point when I had asked an Italian how old they were, even though they'd been too polite or embarrassed to point it out to me, what I'd really been saying  was "How many anuses you do have?"!!

Have you ever pronounced something wrong in another language? Did it leave you red faced??

I hope you'll join us next Monday for lesson four. We'll be talking about coffee. BYO cup and come join in the conversation!