It’s always wise to learn a little bit of the language of the country you are going to visit. It will help you to interact with shopkeepers and taxi-drivers, to order the right dish from the menu, and to find a bathroom when needed…
Italians are generally a warm and friendly people and English language is becoming more widespread in Italy, especially in tourists areas. Don’t be afraid to ask if you need. Young people will most likely be able to understand English, and if you know a little bit of Italian, it will be easier to understand each other. Sadly many Italians speak poor English, but even with some effort, they won’t give up to help you if they can.
Italians will appreciate if you try to speak their language. You don’t need to speak in full sentences: key words, here and there will generally get you what you need. And don’t be afraid to use hands: Italian hand gestures are a very common way to communicate. If you can’t understand your Italian interlocutor in any other way, try with mimes: for example, if you want to know the time, just point your wrist with your index… But, expect gestures as an answer!
A good trick is to use Italian written words to your advantage: it is easier to understand what people are saying when they write it down. Keep pen and paper always with you: could be handy, especially if you need to ask for indications. Also keep an index card with important information written: name and address of your hotel and particular health conditions or allergies, both in English and Italian. In this way you will be able, for example, to communicate to the waiter that you are allergic to peanuts (in Italian: Sono allergico alle arachidi), and you’ll be sure to be understood. Also a little dictionary and/or phrase book can be very useful: you can just point at the phrase you need and the deal is done!
If you want to memorize the essentials, here’s a useful list:
1 – Le basi – Basics. Some very common words:
Sì – Yes;
No – No;
Non lo so – I don’t know.
2 – Saluti – Greetings.
Buon giorno (bwohn-jor-noh) for Good morning.
Buona sera (bwoh-nah-say-ra) for Good evening.
Arrivederci (ah-ree-vay-dehr-chee) for Goodbye.
You are probably familiar with one of the most common Italian greetings: Ciao. A very informal greeting, used both as hello and goodbye. Normally used among friends, nobody will be offended, especially in Rome, if you say goodbye with a “Ciao” instead of the more formal “Arrivederci”.
3 – Essere educati – Pleasantries.
Per favore (pehr fah-voh-ray) is please.
Grazie (graht-zee-ay) is thank you.
Prego (pray-goh) is you’re welcome.
Saying hello, thank you, and other pleasantries in the native tongue will demonstrate respect for the culture and its language, even if you cannot speak or understand any other word.
4 – Prego (Pray-goh).
This is one of those words that has a few different meanings. It’s used as answer to Grazie (thank you), meaning “You’re welcome”, but it also means “Please, go ahead” or “Come in, make yourself comfortable”. When you walk into a restaurant, for example, a host will often say Prego as a way to say “Please, sit down,” and similarly, a shop owner will say Prego to mean “Help yourself, make yourself comfortable in my shop.”
5 – Quanto costa? (Ku-anto Cost-ah) – How much does it cost?
In Italy not always every item is labeled with price. You can use this phrase to ask the price of a photo with the Gladiators outside the Colosseum, or to buy a souvenir near Saint Peter’s Square. It can be handy in stands and sometimes even in coffee bars, restaurants and shops.
6 – Dov’è (Doveh)… ? – Where is… ?
L’uscita, la fermata dell’autobus, la metropolitana – the exit, the bus stop, the subway. Are you looking for something? Be sure to understand the indications you’ll get as an answer: andare dritto (go straight), gira/girare (turn), destra (right), sinistra (left), lontano (far), vicino (near), prima (first), seconda (second), terza (third).
Dov’è il bagno? (Doveh eel bah-nyoh) – Where is the bathroom? This is really useful, when needed… You can add “per favore” at the end of the phrase, to be polite: dov’è il bagno, per favore? La porta a destra, in fondo al corridoio: the door on the right, at the end of the hallway.
7 – Scusi/Mi scusi (mee skoo-zee) – Excuse me, in a formal way.
To apologize for something (for example if you hit somebody in the crowd), or to attract someone’s attention, like to call the waiter at a restaurant or the owner of the shop to ask a question (Scusi, quanto costa? Scusi, dov’è il bagno?)
8 – Parla inglese? (Pahr-lah eeng-glay-say?) – Do you speak English?
If you are looking for someone that speaks English you can ask: Parla inglese? Usually important places like hospitals, museums and hotels will have someone who speaks English and can help you out.
9 – Basta (Bahs-tah).
It means stop, enough. You can use this word when you’ve had enough of something or are too tired to keep going: Basta camminare – I had enough of walking, I can’t go any further. You can also use Basta as a way to tell others to stop or that you’re done with a specific activity. For example at the restaurant, you are full and the waiters are still bringing out more food, or the waiter is pouring wine in your glass and that quantity it’s just fine: Basta, grazie – Stop like that, I don’t want any more of it, thank you. More importantly, as a traveler, make sure you understand this phrase: when you are paying for something, this simple word can be the signal that you are giving the right amount of money.
10 – Il conto, per favore (Eel kohn-toh, pehr fah-voh-ray) – The check, please.
At the restaurant, when you’ve finished your delicious Italian meal, you can ask for the bill with this phrase. Service charge (servizio) and cover charge (coperto) is included in the conto, and extra tipping isn’t necessary. If the service warrants it, you can leave your waiter a little extra.
Some other common and useful phrases you will certainly hear in Italy:
Buon appetito (Enjoy your meal);
Andiamo (Let’s go);
Un caffè per favore (An expresso, please);
Piacere di conoscerla (Pleased to meet you);
Non capisco (I don’t understand);
Non parlo italiano/inglese (I don’t speak Italian/English);
Mi può aiutare? (Can you help me?);
Un tavolo per due/quattro persone, per favore (A table for two/four, please);
vino della casa (un-bottled wine in restaurants);
acqua (water); birra (beer); ghiaccio (ice); biglietto (ticket); farmacia (pharmacy); Polizia/Carabinieri (police); medico (doctor); stazione (train station).
- Very important: if you need an ATM, remember that you have to look (and ask) for a Bancomat. Asking for an ATM in Italy may result in puzzled looks and no answers: they don’t understand what it is.
- At the restaurant: in Italy, dishes are usually served on separate plates in a specific order. In order of appearance on a typical menu, you’ll find:
Antipasti (appetizers – hot and cold, like cold cuts, sea food, bruschetta – bread with olive oil and fresh tomatoes);
Primi (first course – typically pasta and rice, sometimes soups);
Secondi (second course – different types of meat and fish);
Contorni (side dish – vegetables. Cooked, like eggplants, spinach, French fries; or raw, like mixed salad);
Dolci (desserts – like ice-cream, pies, tiramisù, often home-made “nostra produzione”).
If you are a little bit confused and you think you’ll never be able to memorize nothing more than Ciao, or you are afraid to find yourself lost in Italian streets, you can simply put yourself into our guides capable hands: they speak a really fluent English, they will be able to answer all your questions and they will assist you for transfers, visiting museums and ordering at restaurants.