Travel frequently involves twisting your tongue around something new — whether an exotic local dish or a foreign language. Learning a new language can be very rewarding, but can also create moments of embarrassment.
All things Italian fill me with delight — food, wine, art, design, the men (I’m married but I can still look) and the beautiful language. My visits to Italy have been enriched by my study of Italian –locals always appreciate it when you make an effort to communicate in their native tongue.
I study Italian via Skype with my teacher Lorella in Panzano, a charming quaint town equidistant between Florence and Siena. Lorella and other Italians have rescued me from embarrassment many times.
Below are a few of the common mistakes Americans make when beginning to speak Italian. Review this list before your next visit to Italy.
To this day I don’t know why I struggle with the words Facile, which means ‘easy’ and Felice, the word for ‘happy’. Facile has an accent on the first syllable and felice on the second. For an entire month, I smilingly told Lorella that I enjoyed our lessons because she was so ‘facile’. Finally one day, she stopped me in mid-sentence, saying “Mark, you need to know that I’m not ‘easy’.” (So glad I found a teacher with a sense of humor!)
A single letter can make a huge difference. Penne is Italian tube-shaped pasta, right? Yes, but with a single ’N’ it refers to the penis. The pronunciation is quite different. In Italian, a double consonant ‘penne’ is articulated with more stress and is prolonged. With consonants as with so many other things, there’s a huge difference between short and elongated! If you order penne with tomato sauce an Italian restaurant, use the right consonant sound to compliment the dish. Stress and elongate the double consonant or you will be telling your waiter how much you enjoyed his pene . (If you actually have enjoyed his pene, probably best to save that compliment for somewhere other than his workplace!)
Birds, Preservatives, and Gas
Ucello literally means ‘bird’ in Italian. However, the word is more commonly used to refer to a mans ‘cock’. I learned this the hard way when I told my teacher there was a ‘ucello’ on my windowsill. She actually thought I had a peeping Tom outside my office window. How to avoid this? Don’t use the word ‘ucello’ but rather uccellino.
Preservativi: I know what it looks like – preservativi looks like preservatives right? Wrong. It actually means ‘condom.’ Don’t tell the person working at the market that you want to purchase food with preservativi — unless perhaps you are a cast member of ‘My Strange Addictions’. Conservanti is the correct word for preservatives.
Scoraggiare means ‘don’t give up,’ and that’s a nice sentiment to share with someone. Scoreggiare is the verb ‘to fart.’ You don’t want to tell someone to pass gas when you’re trying to offer encouragement.
Non-verbal communication differs between cultures as well. Some common American hand gestures have different connotations in other parts of the world. The American thumb plus first finger “OK” sign can signal an insult many parts of Europe. Just use the thumbs up sign to indicate you’re OK.
Remember that when you attempt to communicate in another language, it is a way to honor the culture. Don’t let self-consciousness about mistakes prevent you from talking with people. Your mistakes might lead to shared laughter with a newfound friend.