Italian Phrase of the Week: Lei parla inglese? (Do you speak English?)

If you’ve only just arrived in Italy and your vocabulary hasn’t progressed far beyond ciao and grazie, there is a survival phrase you should definitely make an effort to learn: Do you speak English?

Italian has both formal and informal registers, so if you’re addressing a stranger on the street or in a shop, the safest bet is to use the formal version when asking this particular question:

(Lei) parla inglese?

Do you speak English?

The informal version can be used once you’ve developed a certain level of familiarity with the person you’re addressing or if you are talking to someone younger than yourself such as a child.

(Tu) parli inglese?

Do you speak English?

You may have noticed that I’ve put the personal pronouns Lei (formal you) and tu (informal you) into brackets. This is because in Italian, it isn’t always necessary to identify the subject if it is obvious from the context. The conjugation of the verb is usually enough to tell you who the subject is. If you are speaking to the person for the first time however, including the personal pronoun will sound more polite.

If you’re addressing a group of people, you can use the second person plural voi instead.

(Voi) parlate inglese?

Do you (all) speak English?

You may want to rephrase this question by asking whether the other person knows how to or is able to speak English. In this case, you would use the verb sapere which means to know.

Sa parlare inglese? (formal you)

Sai parlare inglese? (informal you)

Sapete parlare inglese? (plural you)

Do you know how to / Are you able to speak English?

A few other variations on the question are as follows:

  • Parliamo in inglese? = Shall we speak in English?
  • Possiamo parlare in inglese? = Can we speak in English?
  • Lei / Ti / Vi dispiace se parliamo in inglese? = Do you mind if we speak in English?
  • Per Lei / te / voi va bene se parliamo in inglese? = Is it okay for you if we speak in English?

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