As languages go, I would classify Italian as one of the easiest to learn for English speakers, at least in terms of pronunciation. One of the biggest advantages is that unlike English and French for example, it is a phonetic language, so what you see written on paper is exactly how it is spoken.
Another plus is that there are only seven vowel sounds (a, i, u, e, ɛ, o and ɔ), two semi-consonants and twenty one consonants, the majority of which are also found in English.
Where Italian pronunciation can become tricky for English speakers is when:
- there are unfamiliar consonants or consonant clusters within the word such as /ts/ (grazie), the rolled /r/ (rompere) and /ʎ/ (maglia)
- there are familiar consonants that appear in unfamiliar places such as the word initial /ɲ/ (gnomo) and /zg/ (sgarbo)
- there is a double consonant such as /tt/ (fatto).
In this article, I’ve listed ten Italian words that my tongue still gets tangled around, even after more than ten years of speaking the language. (And yes, that’s me in the audio files, so please be kind if you’re a native Italian speaker!) Let me know in the comments below if you’re able to say them without garbling the pronunciation! 😉
The word vorrei may be short but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to pronounce! Not only does the infamous rolled /r/ make an appearance but to add insult to injury, there are two of them side by side!
Unfortunately for us, this word is used a lot in Italian because it means “I would like…” When my tongue isn’t feeling very flexible, I personally use the slightly less polite Posso avere… (Can I have…) instead! 😉
The word ridarella means giggle and you may well provoke a few giggles from your Italian friends when you try to pronounce this word properly! In addition to having two rolled Rs, it also has the double consonant /ll/ whose pronunciation requires short pause between each /l/.
Did I mention that double Rs are the bane of my existence? The word gnorri, which always appears in the set phrase fare gli gnorri (to play dumb), serves up both the double /r/ and the word initial /ɲ/. That’s a lot of difficult consonants for such a short word!
Now we’re getting into some of the longer words with difficult pronunciation. In the case of arrotolare, which means to roll up, there is something quite challenging about pronouncing the /o/ straight after the double /r/. Wouldn’t you agree?
If you make a mistake or two when trying to pronounce sbagliare, don’t worry, because that’s exactly what this verb means! The reason this word can be difficult for English people to say is because it starts with the unfamiliar word-initial consonant cluster /zb/ and contains the phoneme /ʎ/.
Scoraggiare – which means to discourage – is difficult enough due to the rolled /r/ and double /gg/ but to make matters worse, it also sounds very similar to another word with quite a different meaning: scoreggiare (to fart)! I still mix them up to this day!
Tagliuzzare (to snip) isn’t a word that often surfaces in conversation, and good thing too given that it’s quite the tongue twister, especially after a couple of glasses of red wine! The unfamiliar phonemes /ʎ/, /dz/ and /r/ all make an appearance.
Is your Italian getting a bit rusty? Then try saying the verb arrugginire (to rust) ten time fast! I can guarantee that the three Rs and the double /gg/ will keep you on your toes.
Atterrare (to land), with its three Rs and double /tt/, is an excellent verb to practise your pronunciation, especially if you take on some of the conjugated forms such as atterreremmo (we would land) or atterreranno (they will land). Just don’t expect to “land” on your feet the first time you say it!
Our final word gli, which means to him/her, is deceptively short but incredibly difficult to pronounce for English speakers due to the word initial ʎ. This is especially true when it is followed by pronouns such as ne (gliene) or li (glieli). I tried to say it quickly the other day, only to have my tongue stubbornly stick to the roof of my mouth!
Which words do you find difficult to pronounce in Italian? Let us know in the comments below!