What were your thoughts when you first tied to understand Italian conversations? Did the conversation match your expectations? How did you feel when you heard your first words?
When you teach yourself Italian, sooner or later you’re faced with this question:
How is [any Italian word] pronounced?
This is when you go to online dictionaries and automatic translators to check how to pronounce that word.
You listen to it a few times, you try to repeat it, and then you’re all good. You got it.
Then you listen to a podcast, watch a movie or a TV show and… nothing seems to sound like Italian.
Words run after each other so fast that it’s impossible to catch them. Sounds are so different from what you expected, and it’s almost like you’re listening to a language you barely know.
But you know Italian. You’ve been studying for months, repeating verbs, writing down words, doing fill-in-the-blank exercises and multiple choice activities.
How come you cannot understand conversations in Italian then?
Soon you start to wonder what else you can do to “be better”. Thinking that you did something wrong or you that didn’t do enough. So your mind starts to wonder to find out what else you should do. Because, apparently, “you should work harder”.
Let me tell you something.
You don’t have to work harder or do more in order to understand a conversation. You just need to take a break (and a few deep breaths) and allow yourself to relax, change your mindset, and be open to doing things differently.
You see, knowing words and how to pronounce them doesn’t guarantee that you will understand a conversation.
Sure, it helps. But there’s another element that plays an important role in the process of understanding:
Knowing intonation can give you an extra oomph when you’re in the middle of an italian conversation and you want (and need) to understand what people are talking about.
Sure, you can ask to repeat when you don’t understand, and I highly encourage that. But it can be disheartening, after a while, when you have to ask that question every two seconds. Believe me, I’ve been there. This is why it is so important to become familiar with the Italian intonation if you want to understand conversations in Italian.
Intonation is the soul of speech and it’s the distinctive trait of a language.
Through intonation people identify themselves and each other as speakers of a certain language.
Have you ever listened to someone and thought “(s)he’s from [fill in with any country]!”? Well, you were able to identify that person’s origins thanks to the musicality of their speech. Thanks to the way their words fluctuated. Thanks to their intonation.
You can master Italian pronunciation like a boss, but knowing its intonation will allow you not only to recognize Italian speakers, but also to connect with them and to engage with them when you speak to them.
So, let’s see how Italian intonation works and what you can do to learn it.
How Italian intonation works
To start with, we need to distinguish between affirmative and interrogative sentences. In other words, between statements and questions.
When you hear or voice a statement, the intonation will go from the top to the bottom. Like in this example.
As you heard in this first audio track, in the sentence Domani andiamo al cinema, the voice went progressively from the top to the bottom. If you didn’t catch this nuance, you can listen again while you look at the picture below. Take a little break to pay attention to it and follow the voice as it slowly falls down.
When you hear or voice a question, on the other hand, the situation is exactly the opposite: the intonation goes from the bottom to the top. Listen to this example, where we have the same words as before, the same word order, but a different intonation.
As you heard, this time the voice went progressively up. From the bottom to the top. Again, if you need to become more familiar with it, you can always listen to this sentence while you observe the picture below. Take some time to get familiar with it.
Becoming familiar with the Italian intonation
If you want to begin to understand the Italian intonation and slowly make it yours, here are a few steps that you can follow.
Choose the right track
Take an audio track that is challenging enough for you. Neither too fast, nor too slow. Remember that you want to feel challenged and motivated. Not overwhelmed or bored to death. So, pay attention to the speed of the audio track and to the words it contains. Make sure you understand more or less 70% of it.
The transcript, my dear! The transcript!
Make sure you pick something that comes with a transcript. Yes, no one speaks with subtitles, but right now you’re preparing yourself, and you’re more than allowed to use a transcription. Having a written correspondence of what you’re hearing allows you to mentally match sounds and written words and recognize those same words the next time that you hear them. This, in turn, gives you the confidence that you need when you want to follow new conversations in Italian. Because you will be aware of what you know and what you can actually do.
Focus on the musicality
Close your eyes and focus on the musicality of what you hear. You might be tempted to focus on the single words. When this happens, kindly shift your attention back to the intonation. See how words flow and simply live this experience. Keep your eyes closed so that you can activate your hearing at its highest potential. You don’t need your sight or any other sense right now. Bring your attention only to the sounds and peacefully absorb them as you hear them.
Draw the intonation
There are two ways in which you can do this. You can take a piece of paper and draw a line representing the movement of the words going up and down and chasing each other. Or you can take your transcript and draw the intonation above the words. Mark where the words go up and where they go down. Where you hear pauses or stresses. Where the volume increases or decreases. If you want, you can mark a change in the mood when you hear it. It will be useful in the future when you try to detect it and replicate it.
Read the transcript out loud
Take your transcript again and read it out loud as you follow your marks. It’s important to read out loud because your mouth needs to get used to saying these sounds, and your ears need to get used to you saying these new sounds. Don’t forget that when you can make a sound, you’re more likely to understand it when you hear it. Because it’s already familiar. It’s internalized.
Do a bit of acting
You might notice that “speaking differently” might feel scary at first. You might feel like you’re someone else. Like you’re not being you. Like you’re leaving your personality behind. This is because, when you learn a new language, you also learn a new way of seeing the world and describing it. You learn a new way of thinking, and yes, you embrace a new personality. But it’s not something that is totally disconnected from you. It’s a hidden and unexplored part of yourself. And it feels scary. This is why acting and impersonating someone else can be helpful to reduce this fear. Because you practice your new intonation while not being your original you. And slowly you will see that this updated version of you will feel more and more familiar and less scary.
Over to you
Have you ever thought about the role and importance of intonation?
How do you feel about trying these new ideas?
Do you find it scary to embrace this new perspective in order to understand Italian conversations?
Feel free to share your thoughts.