If you are travelling around Italy, but speak very little to no Italian, a phrase you will probably have to use at some point is «Non parlo italiano» which means “I don’t speak Italian“.
Non parlo italiano.
I don’t speak Italian.
Non is an adverb whose purpose is to express negation. It is one of the most common negative words in the Italian language, and corresponds to the English “not“.
Parlo is the first person present tense of the regular -are verb parlare (to speak/talk). Let’s take a quick look at the complete conjugation in the present tense of this verb:
- (io) parlo = I speak
- (tu) parli = you speak (sing, informal)
- (lui) parla = he speaks
- (lei) parla = she speaks
- (Lei) parla = you speak (sing, formal)
- (noi) parliamo = we speak
- (voi) parlate = you speak (plural)
- (loro) parlano = they speak
Finally, italiano – as you’ve probably surmised by now – means “Italian“, as in the Italian language. However italiano can also mean “Italian man“, or “Italian woman” if you change the ending from -o to -a. Note that in Italian, the word italiano is never capitalised as it is in English.
Here are a few expressions you can add to this phrase to spice it up a little:
- Non parlo italiano molto bene = I don’t speak Italian very well
- Non parlo italiano da tanto tempo = I haven’t spoken Italian for a long time
- Purtroppo non parlo italiano = Unfortunately I don’t speak Italian
- Mi scusi, non parlo italiano = I’m sorry, I don’t speak Italian
‘Non parlo italiano’ vs ‘Non parlo l’italiano’
The use of the definite article l’ (the) is correct, and both forms of the phrase exist. This is valid for the positive versions as well: Parlo italiano and Parlo l’italiano.
Is there a difference between the two? Yes, there are a few actually, but in most cases they are subtle and not worth troubling yourself over, because you’ll be understood either way. But if you’re still reading, here they are!
The versions without the article (Parlo italiano / Non parlo italiano) are considered more colloquial, and they are very common today.
The versions with the article Parlo l’italiano / Non parlo l’italiano are a bit more formal.
The definite article can also add precision regarding the knowledge of the language. If you say Parlo l’italiano, you are not only saying that you know how to speak basic Italian, but also that you’ve mastered the language to a high level. Without the article (Parlo italiano), the actual level of the person speaking is more vague.
Finally, if you say Parlo italiano, you are probably talking about the language you speak in any given moment or as a routine, whereas Parlo l’italiano refers strictly to your ability to speak the language.
This last difference makes more sense if we use an example:
Parlo italiano con mio figlio.
I speak Italian with my son.
In this first example, the person is referring to the routine of speaking Italian he has with his son, not to his own linguistic abilities.
Luca parla l’italiano, il giapponese, il francese e il gallese!
Luca speaks Italian, Japanese, French and Welsh!
In this second example, we’re talking about Luca’s knowledge of the four languages, and his mastery of all four of them.
Again, these differences are subtle and, in any case, you’ll be understood whether you say (non) parlo italiano or (non) parlo l’italiano.
Be careful however: with other verbs, the article must be used. For example:
- Conosco l’italiano (not
- Sto imparando l’italiano (not
sto imparando italiano).
If you’re curious to find more about this, watch the video below from Fly High in Italian.