5 tips to begin to understand what Italians say

I just cannot understand what Italians say. What is wrong with me? Why is this so hard?” How many times have you said that after listening to someone speaking Italian?


You’re wondering why this is even happening. You’ve spent your last months studying Italian. You know how a conversation is supposed to play out. You know how to spell Italian words and what they mean.


Still, when you try and listen to someone, it’s almost like if they were speaking a different language. Words mix up and it becomes virtually impossible to understand them.


What can you do to understand the Italians and have a conversation with them?


Understanding your neighbors at your holiday home, the waiters at the restaurant, the cashier at the supermarket, and the barista at your favorite café in piazza is vital if you want to stop feeling like an outcast and start being a part of the small città where eveyone seems to know each other.


At the beginning, everything that your vicini italiani (Italian neighbors) say can sound like a bunch of unclear, unfamiliar, unidentified sounds.


Going to the local shop is just saying buongiorno, buying the things that you need, saying grazie, then arrivederci and smile, wanting to continue but not knowing how. Having a brief chitchat with the shop owner? Not a chance.


Meeting your vicini di casa (neighbors) is always the same old story:

– “Bungiorno, come sta?”

– “Bene, grazie. E Lei?”

– “Bene grazie.”

Going further than that? Asking about their family and their day? Inviting them for a coffee? Would love to, but how? What if they say something that you don’t understand?


These are just two situations, but the list could go on and on.


So, how can you understand what Italians say?


Getting to know your vicini, talking with shop owners, feeling like you belong to that small città that stole your heart is something you need to tackle now. You want to stop feeling like an outcast, you want to be a part of that lovely town which, for some reason, feels more like home than your hometown.


To do so, you need to turn those unfamiliar sounds into understandable, recongizable, and familiar words. 


As impossible as it may seem, there are a few small actions that you can take to get rid of the isolating feeling which is drawing an invisible line between you and your vicini.


So, here you can find 5 tips to help you better understand what Italians say and stop feeling like a fish out of water any time someone speaks to you in Italian.


1) Be present

Stay in the moment. Instead of thinking “I will never catch that” and getting lost into an overwhelming spyral, remind yourself to stay present.  What really matters is what is happening here and now. And right now your’re listening to someone.


Every time you catch yourself going into this stream of thoughts, remind yourself to come back to the present moment and leave your thoughs behind.


When someone speaks to you or when you’re listening to someone talking, remember that your primary task is to be there with your body and mind.


It’s not an easy thing to do. Our brains are programmed to travel and think of any possible, most likely negative, scenario. But by training yourself to be present, you will get rid of unnecessary stress and you will set the basis for a good quality listening.



2) Pay attention

You might think that listening is something that you can do with very little attention. You play music in the background, listen to podcasts in the background, listen to other Italians chatting in the background…


The problem with that is, by leaving these chitchats in the background, you deprive yourself of a good opportunity to understand your vicini. And, if your ultimate goal is to engange in a conversation with them, you need to truly pay attention to what they’re saying.


So, next time that you hear someone talking in Italian, make the conscious decision to focus attentively on what that person is saying. You will realize that, after a while, you will be able to pick up some words that you knew existed but couldn’t recognize before.


3) Focus on the big picture

Struggling over understanding every single word is counterproductive at the beginning. Choosing to focus on the overall meaning at first, opens a door to connect with the Italians around you.


Picking up every word right from day one is unrealistic. And if you try and do that, you will end up feeling frustrated and wanting to give up.


So, when you hear a conversation between two people in the piazza, at the café or at the local shop, pay attention to the topic at first. Are they complaining about public transportation, politics or the weather? Are they talking about their famiglia, their work or the last item they bought on sales? Find out what your vicini like to talk about.


4) Write down what you hear

You can do that discretely. Take out your smartphone and note down what you hear. What did the newsvendor, the lady at the stand or that passer-by say?


Take notes, and when you have time, check the spelling with a dictionary.


When you see and hear a word at the same time, you will more likely become familiar with it and recognize it the next time that you hear it.


5) Be patient

Samuel Johnson said “Great works are performed not by strength but by perseverance.” Accept that you might need time before you see some results.


No success happens overnight. You might need to hear a word five or ten times before you can recognize it. And it might take you a few takes before you can follow a conversation.


Don’t force yourself, take the breaks that you need and, most importantly, be ok with needing your sweet time.



I’m curious to know, now: do you still thinking that understanding the Italians is impossible? How many of these tips are you going to try?


Feel free to share your thoughts.

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