Italian Pronunciation Guide For Beginners and Intermediate Learners
Why it’s Important To Practice Your Italian Pronunciation From Day 1
In over ten years of teaching Italian as a foreign language, I’ve noticed a number of patterns that are next to impossible to get rid of (or that take a great deal of time and work to unlearn). A poor pronunciation is one of these patterns. For example, I’ve noticed that advanced Italian speakers who never practiced their pronunciation when they first started out are more likely to retain that problem over time. A bad pronunciation habit picked up as a beginner will eventually turn into an automated error. And only God knows how difficult it is to unlearn mechanical mistakes.
That’s why I always encourage my clients to spend time on pronunciation drills from day one.A clear articulation of the Italian sounds will help a native speaker to understand you, even as a beginner. Poor pronunciation, on the other hand, may make it difficult to understand an intermediate or advanced Italian speaker.
How To Work On Your Italian Pronunciation
#1 Learn the Italian pronunciation rules and apply them.
#2 Read easy graded readers in Italian, like short stories or other simplified content from your textbooks. Use only content that is accompanied by slow audio recordings, if possibile.
#3 Listen to audio sources that are accompanied by scripts. Read and listen simultaneously. Then read it aloud and use your phone to record yourself.
#4 Get this book
#5 Buy this book
Accent vs. Pronunciation
The Italian Pronunciation
Italian is a phonetic language, and this is good news for any complete beginner. It means that you read just what is written in the vast majority cases, unlike in English.
That makes it easier to read and speak Italian as a beginner, as you won’t have to spend a lot of time on pronunciation rules.
Most of the Italian consonants are pronounced just like in English. However, there are a few differences in the way we pronouns the vowels (a, e, i, o, u ) in Italian than in English.
The Italian Vowels (A, E, I, O, U)
The vowels in Italian correspond to one and only sound, unlike English. There are 5 vowels in Italian.
A is like “a” like in father.
- Amore, amico
E is pronounced “e”, like in get or end
- Erba, emozione
I is pronounced “ee” like in cheese, beach
- isola, fine, iniziare
O is pronounced “o” not
- orso, vino, gelato
U is pronounced “oo”, like in boot or school
- uva, uomo, scuola
The Italian Alphabet
Before anything else, it’s a good idea to learn the Italian alphabet. There are 5 vowels, 16 Italian consonants, and 5 foreign consonants (k, j, y, w, x) in the Italian alphabet. Only foreign words use the five foreign consonants.
The Pronunciation Rules
Despite most Italian consonants being pronounced just like in English, there are a few letter combinations with different pronunciations. Let’s call them “exceptions.” If you master these, you will be golden.
The sound “GLI”
This is a sound you will hear in the word “famiglia“.
Romance language speakers have a similar sound, which is ll in Spanish (like in the word paella), ll in French (like in the word fille), and lh in Portuguese (like in the word filho). These sounds are not exactly the same as the Italian gli. Gli, on the other hand, is more exaggerated.
Words to practice the sound “gli”
- famiglia (family)
- bottiglia (bottle)
- coniglio (rabbit)
The sound “GN”
The “gn” is similar to the sound in the word “onion.” Or, for those who are familiar with Spanish, with the sound “,” like in España.
Words to practice the sound “GN”
- bagno (bathroom)
- ragno (spider)
- castagne (chestnuts)
The sound “C”
The “c” can have a hard sound or a soft sound. Let’s see what it means.
The hard C sound is pronounced as in the names Karen or Karl.
The hard sound of the “c” occurs when the “c” is followed by the vowels “a”, “o”, or “u”, or appears in combination with the “h” in the clusters c+h+i (chi) or c+h+e (che).
In Spanish, French, and Portuguese, this sound corresponds to “qu”
Words to practice the “hard c”
- Cane (dog)
- Chiesa (church)
- Architetto (Architect)
- Camera (room)
- Cuore (heart)
- Cuoco (cook)
- Cavallo (horse)
The soft C sound is similar to the names Charles and Charlotte.
When the “c” is followed by an “i” or “e”, it is pronounced like in Charles.
Words to practice the “soft c”
- Ciao (hi)
- Circo (circus)
- Cioccolato (chocolate)
- Cellulare (mobile phone)
- Amici (friends)
- Centro (center)
- Pace (peace)
The sound “G”
Just like the letter “c”, “g” can have a hard sound and a soft sound.
The “g” followed by an “a”, “o”, and “u” or when it’s followed by “H” in the clusters g+h+i (ghi) or g+h+e (ghe) has a hard sound like in Guy.
In Spanish, French and Portuguese corresponds to the sound “gu”
Words for practice
- Gatto (cat)
- Gola (throat)
- Gusto (taste)
- Ghiaccio (ice)
When the “g” is followed by an “i” or “e”, it has a soft sound, like in George.
Words for practice
- Gelato (ice cream)
- Giusto (correct)
- Giraffa (giraffe)
When the “C” and “G” are followed by an “H+I” or an “H+E,” the resulting sound is “hard,” like in Karl or Guy.
The sound “QU”
The “qu” sound is pronounced like in the English word “queen.”
Words for practice
- Questo (this)
- Quello (that)
- Acqua (water)
The Italian “H”
The “h” is silent in Italian, and this means that it is just written but never pronounced. So, if you had to read the words “hotel” or “hobby” in Italian, you would start from the “o” and say “otel” or “obby”
Words for practice
- ho, hai, hanno (I have, you have, they have)
The sound “SC”
The correct pronunciation of “sc” is linked with the correct pronunciation of the letter “c”.
In fact, this constant cluster can be pronounced with a soft sound or a hard sound.
Sca, sco, scu, sche, schi are pronounced just like in the word “skeleton”
Words for practice (hard sound)
- Scherzo (joke)
- Bagnoschiuma (shower gel)
- Scarpa (shoe)
- Oroscopo (horoscope)
Sci, sce, scia,scio, sciu are pronounced just like in the word “skeleton”
Words for practice (soft sound)
- Ascensore (elevator)
- Sciare (to ski)
- Sciroppo (syrup)
- Scimmia (monkey)
Notice that when the cluster SC is followed by an i or e, it is pronounced with a soft sound, like in scimmia or scemo. However, if the cluster SC is followed by he and hi, it is pronounced with a hard sound, like in bruschetta or schiena..
The “R” sound
The Italian “r“ sound is rolled on the tongue. To roll your R, place the tip of your tongue on the roof of your mouth, just behind your two front teeth.
To practice the “rolled r,” you can use the English word “butter,” which already has a built-in rolled r.
Words for practice
- Azzurro (blu)
- Arrivare (to arrive)
- Errore (mistake)
- Rumore (noise)
It’s perfectly acceptable if you can’t roll the r perfectly.
Rolling the “r” is not a big deal in Italian. In southern Italian, the r is less rolled (and exaggerated) than in other Italian regions. I, myself, don’t have a heavily rolled R, and my accent is very standard.
Double consonants are sounded double
- Palla and NOT pala
- Mamma and NOT mama
The difference between double consonants and single consonants is enormous.
PaLLa is a ball, while paLa is a shovel.
CaRo is expensive, caRRo is a wagon.
One more consonant has the potential to alter the definition of a word.
It can be difficult for non-native speakers to tell when there is a double sound and when there isn’t.
The only way to learn how to pronounce and write double sounds correctly is to read a lot so that you can naturally associate a sound with the way it’s spelled.
How to pronounce words like papà, città, università
In Italian, when the accent falls on the final vowel, it is accented, which means you will have to emphasize the last letter, which is always a vowel.
Words for practice
The Italian Intonation
Other than pronouncing the sounds correctly, what’s going to make your Italian sound super natural is placing the stress on the right syllable. Unlike English, Italian intonation is entirely predictable, as, in the vast majority of words, the stress is placed on the second syllable.
- man- gia– re (to eat)
- gio-ca-re (to play)
- di-va-no (couch)
- ne-go-zio (store)
This trend does not hold up to all the Italian words, though, and there are some exceptions.
Some words place the accent on the last syllable. For example, the words that end with a graphic accent mark (and that’s the only case in which you can see a graphic accent in Italian).
Many connectors place the stress at the back of the word, like
Some words place the accent on the third syllable. Like,
Spelling in Italian
Italian is a phonetic language, which means that, unlike in English, you read what is written the majority of the time. Because we can recognize the orthography of a word just by listening to it, it’s rare for a native Italian speaker to ask to spell something (including a complicated last name). Italians don’t spell; in fact, we don’t even have a verb for “to spell,” so we say “fare lo spelling,” which literally means “to do the spelling.”
Disclaimer: as you can imagine, it’s impossible to keep track of all the varieties and intonations. For now, learn these general rules and combine them with listening and shadowing exercises.
This is a guide for beginners and intermediate Italian learners that don’t need to dive into the nitty-gritty of Italian pronunciation. For this reason, I didn’t cover the difference between long and short vowels in this post. Italian is spoken with an immense variety of accents. In some regions, or even cities, certain vowels are pronounced short and closed, while in others they are pronounced long and open (and that’s what generally lays a line between Southern, Central, and Northern Italian accents)—together with the pronunciation of the “s” and “z.” As a beginner or intermediate Italian learner, you don’t need to cover these aspects of the Italian language.