I was just reflecting back on my journey to learn this beautiful language, and it occurred to me that a lot of the common, everyday phrases or words I use here in Rome, I learned here in Rome. There’s only so much a classroom course in the U.S. can cover, and of course what you’re learning is strict, “textbook” Italian. Nothing wrong with that—it’s a necessary foundation. But the thing is, if no one prepares you for some of the more common ways people say things, you’re probably going to stumble around the first time you hear it, and have to ask a bunch of times, “Cosa?” At least that’s what I say when I don’t understand something.
Now, I’m certainly not claiming to be some kind of authority on the Italian language and I am admittedly far from perfect. I sometimes make little spelling or grammar mistakes when I use Italian words in my posts, and I know this because there’s never a time that it slips by unnoticed in the comments section. So if you’re an Italian expert, I ask you to be gentle with me. By all means, if you disagree with anything I have to say here, or find a mistake, please correct it. Just keep in mind that I’m not a native Italian speaker and I put a lot of sweat and tears into learning the language.
I’m going to pick my brain for some of the phrases that tripped me up when I first moved here, in an attempt to give those of you learning the language a sort of cheat sheet in case you ever decide to have an extended stay here.
1) Hai una penna? vs. Ce l’hai una penna?
This was something one of my roommates asked me on my first day of Italian lessons. “Do you have a pen?” The only thing is, since she said “Ce l’hai” instead of my textbook-studied “Hai,” it took me a couple tries to figure out what she was saying.
2) Come ti trovi qui?
When you’re new to Italian, your ear is furiously trying to decipher conjugated verbs, convert them back to the infinitive to get the meaning, and then conjugate them back, in order to understand what they mean. The first time someone asked me this, my reasoning went like this: “trovi = trovare = to find = you find = WHAT?” I hadn’t learned “trovarsi” as a way of asking how you’re liking something new, like a new job or a new home, how you’re settling in. So “come ti trovi qui” literally means “how do you find yourself here” but in practice means “How do you like it here?” I’ve been asked this question millions of times since, and to this day it’s a common question I’m asked when Italians meet me for the first time. I’ve found it to be much more common than “Come ti piace Roma?” (How do you like Rome?).
3) Non ce la faccio! or Non ce la faccio più!
I never learned this in any of my Italian classes, but I heard it a lot once I moved here, especially from some of my English language students. “I can’t do it!” or “I can’t take it anymore!” (They lurrrrved those English lessons, can’t you tell? I was a tyrant! MUUUHAHAHAHA! Kidding, kidding, folks!) Another way people say this is “Non ne posso più!”
4) Sono dovuta andare — not ho dovuto andare.
I’m not going to look up the rule on this, but I learned that when you use verbs of movement like andare, partire, uscire, venire, scendere, salire, etc. in the past tense together with the verb ‘dovere,’ you have to use the verb “essere” and make sure the end of the conjugated dovere agrees with your gender. So women have to say “dovuta” instead of “dovuto” which is how a man would say it. I don’t know why this never came up in any class.
5) Be careful with putting a conditional after “se”
Without getting too technical with what is probably the toughest grammar concept in Italian (periodo ipotetico del terzo tipo), a good general rule of thumb is to never put a conditional verb after “se.” There are cases where you can do it, but I’ll never forget one of my teachers here saying “MAI MAI MAI MAI MAI” (never never never….) use a conditional after se. It’ll generally keep you out of trouble, until you know the rule well enough to use it correctly.
6) Roman “dialect” pointers
Rome doesn’t really have an actual dialect; it’s more like a heavy accent. However, if you’re new to the Italian language, you’ll hear Romans doing some things to Italian that you won’t have learned in class. For example:
Dropping the verb endings. Instead of “Dove vuoi andare?” you’ll hear “Dove vuoi andà?” or “Dove vuoi annà?” The stress is always on the last syllable before the dropped ending.
“Noi” verb conjugations and reflexive verbs. “Noi” verb conjugations can lose the “iamo” and become “mmo” — for example, “andiamo” becomes “annammo” — double and triple consonant sounds are a hallmark of Roman slang. Reflexive verbs change from “si” to “se”
Other random examples: Dove becomes “‘N dò”; the all-purpose “hey” is “ahò!”
7) Avoid the embarrassing mistakes
Here are some of the red-faced mistakes I’ve made or friends of mine have made:
Scopare. Be careful with this verb that means both “to sweep” (as in sweep the floor) and “to have sex” (but more colloquial and borderline vulgar). Besides the double meaning of this verb that can trip you up, there’s a card game called “Scopa” (sweep), and a friend of mine was once teased by some Italian guys who laughingly asked her “Ah, ti piace scopa?” and she innocently thought they were referring to the card game. So pleased was she that with her fledgling Italian she understood the question, she eagerly responded, “Oh, sì, sì, mi piace molto scopa!” Poverina.
ScorrAggiarsi vs. scorrEggiare. How many times I made this mistake, I don’t know, but it’s the difference between discourage and fart. I once told the director of an Italian language school that I didn’t want my U.S. university students to be farting in class, when what I thought I was saying to him was that I didn’t want them to be discouraged. Sigh. Luckily in that case I was far enough along in my Italian to where I immediately caught myself and corrected the error, and we had a couple ha-has… but there were a lot more ha-has at my expense prior to arriving at the distinction!
Cesso vs. bagno. Maybe this is only in Rome, but when I came here I heard “Vado al cesso” a lot more than I heard “Vado al bagno” when saying “I’m going to the bathroom.” (All the fault of my now-husband and his gang of uncouth friends…don’t want you thinking that civilized people say ‘cesso’. :-)) That led to my all-time grand slam faux pas, when Alessandro brought me to meet his mom for the first time after I had only been in Italy for three weeks. Everyone kept saying what a big deal it was that he was introducing me to his mom, and after only three weeks of knowing each other, wow, I must be something special…and I better make a really good impression. So, when nature called and I needed to ask her where the bathroom was, I wanted to use my best, most polite Italian. I thought it all out and carefully said, “Mi scusi signora, ma dov’è il cesso?” which roughly translates to: “Excuse me ma’am, but where’s the shitter?” Ah, thank God for my laid-back mother in law, she simply told me “second door on the left” and then swatted Alessandro after I had left the room with a nice “deficente!” I didn’t find out about this until at least six months later when I moved to Italy.
Preservativi vs. conservanti. When you’re first learning the language, some of your conversations are really banal, because you don’t have a big vocab, so people try to be nice and ask you simple, contextual questions. For example, once at lunch, there was some grated parmesan on the table, and a friend of Ale’s said, “So, Shelley, do you guys have parmesan in the States?” I was so excited to have understood the question, I answered immediately: “Sì, abbiamo parmigiano, ma non è così fresco come qui…è pieno di preservativi.” What I meant to say was, “Yes, we do, but it’s not as fresh as here, it’s full of preservatives.” What I ended up saying was, “Yes, we do, but it’s full of condoms.” Sometimes adding an Italian-sounding end to an English word will work. Trust me that in this case, it won’t. Conservanti, people, conservanti.
Well, I can say that as I approach my six-year anniversary here, I am still learning constantly, and there is always a lot I don’t know. When you get to a certain point in your fluency people stop correcting you, but to this day I still make mistakes with plural/singular, masculine/feminine, and all the horrific exceptions, especially when it comes to body parts (argh) and words ending in “a” that are actually masculine. Whew. It’s not easy! But definitely never boring.
So to all you brave and fearless students of the Italian language, I salute you with an encouraging in bocca al lupo! (Good luck!)
And, if you’re fluent in Italian but aren’t a native speaker, how about offering up some of your own tips for new learners as to the pitfalls and traps they might encounter, or useful phrases and words that they won’t learn in class? Just keep in mind that this is a G-rated blog. Grazie!