Extreme shortcuts to Italian?
July 25, 2014 10:28 AM   Subscribe

Are there any shortcuts for an English speaker to speak and understand Italian on the spot?

I'm going to Italy next week for a few days. I don't know Italian. Are there any easy shortcuts that will help me communicate and understand people and signs?

(since I don't have time, I'm not looking for resources, which is why this and this won't help).

I was hoping that since English and Italian don't seem that far apart, that maybe I could use English in a way Italians could understand and vice versa (like changing the order of a sentence and adding prefixes). That and mnemonics for important things like numbers. Do any such shortcuts exist?
posted by mirileh to Writing & Language (14 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
If you have a smartphone you could use Word Lens to help interpret signs. In general though I don't believe there are shortcuts to learning a language in days.
posted by 2bucksplus at 10:36 AM on July 25, 2014

This is what phrasebooks are for. I got by on a phrasebook when I went to Italy and was just fine; they focus only on what you'd need to know as a tourist.

Also, just about everyone I met in Italy knew enough English themselves for us to limp through any conversation, and Large Gestures also help - I once asked someone the name of the street I was on by pointing wildly and asking "Que via?" and one of my best memories is of a shopkeeper who spoke no English successfully telling me that "hot cocoa was a seasonal offering in her shop and that therefore they did not have it in spring", entirely through charades.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:36 AM on July 25, 2014 [10 favorites]

In some sense, there probably are in that Italian and English both have Latin roots. I find that helpful when trying to read languages like French, Spanish and Italian, not so much when trying to follow spoken language. (Just based on knowing a lot of Latin root words for English, I was able to read about half of the first few pages of my ex-husband's beginning reader in Latin.)

Since you have a week, I would start with trying to review, briefly, the 1000 most common Italian words.

It is actually fairly common for other peoples to speak English. So you may find it feasible to muddle through in spite of not knowing Italian.
posted by Michele in California at 10:37 AM on July 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

Yes, you can speak Italian in English order and even throw in a few of our words like of/and/in/the and if you get the nouns right, people will sort of understand you -- but you'll never be able to understand them if they reply in Italian -- but they'll reply in English.
posted by michaelh at 10:42 AM on July 25, 2014

Do you speak any other Romance languages? My husband's Spanish an my French got us through okay.
posted by tchemgrrl at 10:49 AM on July 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

I take high school Latin students to Italy (and Greece). They do not know Italian. They are always all fine. People who deal with tourists speak (enough) English. Get a phrase book, learn a few things (I have the kids learn at a minimum in Italian: ciao, grazie, dov'è (il bagno), per favore, scusa), you'll be fine.

I really like this phrase book series: Harper Collins Language Survival Guide: Italy. Phrases + useful travel information + lots of pictures. And not particularly heavy! Easier to use than any apps I've tried.

There aren't really shortcuts to speaking a language.
posted by lysimache at 11:06 AM on July 25, 2014 [4 favorites]

In my experience after a few days you'll pick up the basics (street signs, basic menu items, greetings, etc.) even if you go in cold. Get an app for your phone with a basic dictionary and that will go a long way.

That said, I've been to a place where 95% of the population spoke Arabic and French only without a lick of English, and I was still able to get by on hand signs and smiles. You'll be okay.
posted by something something at 11:09 AM on July 25, 2014

I was hoping that since English and Italian don't seem that far apart, that maybe I could use English in a way Italians could understand and vice versa

Just as Euclid apocryphally advised Ptolemy that there is no royal road to geometry, there is no royal road to learn a language.

While English and Italian are both Indo-European languages and share a decent amount of cognates (mostly from Italic words), there is no way to shuffle English or Italian word order to make the languages mutually intelligible. That is not how languages work. If you think of how well you can communicate with a Spanish speaker in English, that will give you a pretty good idea of how you would get on with an Italian speaker in English (and they with you in Italian). (West Frisian is a more closely related language to English than Italian, but you probably can't understand "De Feriene Steaten binne ryk oan grûnstoffen")

Since there are no shortcuts, get yourself a good phrasebook, either in print or as a smartphone app. I like the Rough Guide series of phrasebooks, although people seem to think the Lonely Planet series dropped from heaven. If you are in popular tourist spots, you should be able to get on decently enough with English.
posted by Tanizaki at 11:15 AM on July 25, 2014 [6 favorites]

I was hoping that since English and Italian don't seem that far apart


That said, high-school Spanish might help you get understood by the locals, but just a little bit.

That and mnemonics for important things like numbers.

Remember the thing about high-school Spanish?

Spanish: uno, dos, tres, cuatro, cinco, seis, siete, ocho, nueve, diez, cien, mil.
Italian: uno, due, tre, quattro, cinque, sei, sette, otto, nove, dieci, cento, mille.

And then it fails starting at 11 because "once" (ES) does not look like "undici" (IT) at all.
posted by sukeban at 11:42 AM on July 25, 2014

Well...some people hate this guy, but have you thought about the Michel Thomas method? He's totally focused on cognates and words that transfer easily. You build up a bunch of words and simple sentences quickly. I've used it for several languages on trips where I needed Spanish and Portuguese. It's not perfect but got me through travel level communications.

This isn't the Michel Thomas one I used. Mine was all audio, but this one is the intro to Italian. Start-Italian-Michel-Thomas-Method
posted by 26.2 at 11:47 AM on July 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

You can download languages in the Google Translate app so that you can use them without a data connection. I highly recommend doing this, it's a really good backup to have (I'm assuming you won't be paying for Italian cell service while you're there).
posted by brainmouse at 12:16 PM on July 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

If you use a phrase book here are a couple of generalities about pronunciation:

- Most Italian words put the stress on the 2nd to last syllable. E.g., pizzeria = peets-eh-REE-a.

- Similar to Spanish, most Italian words are pronounced phonetically; each letter is pronounced, including an E on the end of a word.

- A C or G followed by an e or i is pronounced as a soft C or G, e.g., citta is pronounced "chee-TAH." Cs and Gs followed by an a, o, or u are pronounced as hard Cs and Gs.

- If the C or G is followed by an H, it is pronounced as a hard C or G.
posted by primate moon at 12:41 PM on July 25, 2014

It's not brushetta, it's brusketta.
posted by emelenjr at 1:24 PM on July 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

Are there any easy shortcuts that will help me communicate and understand people and signs?

Speak slowly and clearly when speaking in English, and try not to get anxious when listening to Italian.
posted by jaguar at 1:38 PM on July 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

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