Is English Difficult for Italians? Posted by on May 2, 2019 in Italian Language

“Italian is sooo complicated!” you say? So does that mean that English is easy for Italians? ASSOLUTAMENTE NO!

Let’s find out why …

The Italian language is very phonetic, and we learn from an early age how these simple rules of spelling work. Once you’ve learned them you have a pretty good idea how to pronounce any word, although accents may vary. English rules of pronunciation, on the other hand, are very abstract for us, and we pretty much have to learn the language word by word!!!

Take the word ‘awkward‘, for example. This is a word that didn’t make any sense to me when I first read it. I remember encountering it in a novel and asking Geoff: “What does owquard mean?”
A puzzled Geoff took a look at the word and pronounced it for me: “awkward”.
In order to pronounce ‘awkward‘ correctly following Italian spelling rules it should be written something like ‘ouqud‘, although there isn’t an exact equivalent for that initial ‘aw‘.

But nothing can beat that horrible group of words containing ‘-ough‘. Can someone please explain why ‘tough‘ is pronounced ‘tuf‘, and ‘though‘ is pronounced ‘tho‘ when there’s only one letter difference between the two words? How can the sound change completely? Ed ecco un’altra di quelle maledette parole: ‘plough‘. Geoff fondly remembers the day he took me out for an autumn drive. As we passed through the countryside I pointed at a field and said: “Look, that field has been pluffed“. Of course, I’d read the word ‘ploughed‘ and interpreted it as ‘pluffed‘, as in ‘enough‘ or ‘rough‘. Geoff loved the image of a huge pair of hands reaching down and pluffing up the field as one might do to a pillow!

Then there are all those words which are spelt exactly the same as each other but pronounced differently (homographs), such as tear (lacrima), which sounds like ‘tia‘, and tear (strappare) which sounds like ‘tair‘, or wind (vento) and wind (serpeggiare, avvolgere). If you asked me to write ‘wind‘ (as in wind up a clock) following Italian rules, I’d spell it ‘uaind‘.

And just to make things really complicated for our poor Italian brains there are those words which are written differently, but pronounced the same (homophones), e.g. ‘brake‘ (frenare) and ‘break‘ (rompere), or ‘bare‘ (nudo) and ‘bear‘ (orso).

This brings us to our next big problem: Pronunciation

In English there are several sounds which don’t exist in Italian and our tongue refuses to get around them. The English sound most hated by us Italians has to be ‘th‘. It just doesn’t want to come out. What we tend to do is make all kinds of contorted lip/tooth configurations, ending up with a mishmash of something between a ‘t‘ and an ‘f‘. Personally, the word I hate most is ‘throat‘ (gola). The combination of ‘th‘ followed by the letter ‘r‘ is horrendous, and for some reason I usually end up with something resembling ‘troath‘. Oddio!

Another confusion is the letter ‘h‘. In Italian l’acca è muta (the h is silent), which is why you often hear Italians saying ‘ome‘ instead of ‘home‘, or ‘oliday‘ instead of ‘holiday‘, and so on.

Italian vowel sounds have less variation than English vowel sounds, and if we combine them with the Italian silent ‘h’ then things get really complicated. How does one distinguish ‘angry‘ from ‘hungry‘? This is a big riddle for Italians, and they often seem to tell you that they’re ‘very angry‘ when in fact they’re just ‘very hungry‘ (quite normal for us … now, where’s the nearest pizzeria?).
And what is the difference between ‘warm‘ (caldo) and ‘worm‘ (verme)? In Italian, we pronounce ‘o‘ as in ‘octet‘, so ‘worm‘ should really be ‘warm‘ …  or is the worm warm? … aiuto!!!

Due to the lack of differentiation between long and short vowels, we can easily end up in deep ‘sheet‘. That double ‘e‘ can seem like an ‘i‘ (as in Italy) to us. So if, for example, we’re at an ‘otel‘ and we find that our bed has a dirty ‘sheet‘ on it … well, this video explains all: WARNING: don’t watch if you’re offended by parolacce (swear words)

Another big problem concerns all those letters which you are NOT meant to pronounce, something which is unthinkable for us Italians as we pronounce everything! An Italian friend of mine struggled to find ‘Lester‘ Square on the London Underground map. The nearest she could find, she told me, was ‘Leicester‘ Square, which to her Italian brain was obviously some place called ‘Laychester‘ Square.

Last but not least: the abundance of words ending in consonants! The majority of Italian words, as you know, end with a vowel, hence the famous ‘musicality’ of ‘la bella lingua‘. Italian words simply flow one into another. English words seem too brief and punctuated for us, and it’s so hard to suddenly end on a consonant. That’s why the stereotypical Italian accent “soundsa sometinga lika theesa” … we just don’t feel that words are complete without a little ‘e‘ or ‘a‘ at the end, especially those that have become part of our vocabulary, such as ‘il filme‘ (the film), ‘il busse‘ (the bus), ‘il weekenda‘ (the weekend) and so on. There’s even a satirical Italian version of facebook called ‘facciabuco‘ (face hole).

So, the next time you feel sorry for yourself because “Italian is sooo complicated!” remember: l’inglese non è esattamente facile per noi Italiani.

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  1. L'altra Donna:

    Quel cartone mi ha fatto urlare dal ridere nel mio ufficio tranquillo

  2. BW:

    The video may not work for some people. I get an error that says it’s “restricted”. Here’s another link that might work:

  3. Julie:

    Molto divertente ma anche vero!! . Grazie!

  4. Jane:

    Grazie per questo video divertente.

  5. Andrei:

    Posso immaginare come sembrerebbe il russo con tutte le coniugazioni e specialmete declinazioni!
    Saluti da Andrei

    • Serena:

      @Andrei Ciao!
      Sarebbe interssante scoprire quali sono le cose che gli italiani trovano più difficili del russo.
      Saluti da Serena

  6. Sam:

    vi seguo sempre troppo volentieri!
    La pronuncia della lingua inglese può essere insidiosa anche per molti madrelingua così come lo è l’italiano per molti italiani; senza parlare della grammatica.
    Qualche mese fa mi sono imbattuto in una poesia specificatamente pensata per testare le abilità di pronuncia dell’inglese
    ” English is tough stuff
    Dearest creature in creation,
    Study English pronunciation.
    I will teach you in my verse
    Sounds like corpse, corps, horse, and worse.
    I will keep you, Suzy, busy,
    Make your head with heat grow dizzy.
    Tear in eye, your dress will tear.
    So shall I! Oh hear my prayer.

    Just compare heart, beard, and heard,
    Dies and diet, lord and word,
    Sword and sward, retain and Britain.
    (Mind the latter, how it’s written.)
    Now I surely will not plague you
    With such words as plaque and ague.
    But be careful how you speak:
    Say break and steak, but bleak and streak;
    Cloven, oven, how and low,
    Script, receipt, show, poem, and toe.

    Hear me say, devoid of trickery,
    Daughter, laughter, and Terpsichore,
    Typhoid, measles, topsails, aisles,
    Exiles, similes, and reviles;
    Scholar, vicar, and cigar,
    Solar, mica, war and far;
    One, anemone, Balmoral,
    Kitchen, lichen, laundry, laurel;
    Gertrude, German, wind and mind,
    Scene, Melpomene, mankind.

    Billet does not rhyme with ballet,
    Bouquet, wallet, mallet, chalet.
    Blood and flood are not like food,
    Nor is mould like should and would.
    Viscous, viscount, load and broad,
    Toward, to forward, to reward.
    And your pronunciation’s OK
    When you correctly say croquet,
    Rounded, wounded, grieve and sieve,
    Friend and fiend, alive and live.

    Ivy, privy, famous; clamour
    And enamour rhyme with hammer.
    River, rival, tomb, bomb, comb,
    Doll and roll and some and home.
    Stranger does not rhyme with anger,
    Neither does devour with clangour.
    Souls but foul, haunt but aunt,
    Font, front, wont, want, grand, and grant,
    Shoes, goes, does. Now first say finger,
    And then singer, ginger, linger,
    Real, zeal, mauve, gauze, gouge and gauge,
    Marriage, foliage, mirage, and age.

    Query does not rhyme with very,
    Nor does fury sound like bury.
    Dost, lost, post and doth, cloth, loth.
    Job, nob, bosom, transom, oath.
    Though the differences seem little,
    We say actual but victual.
    Refer does not rhyme with deafer.
    Foeffer does, and zephyr, heifer.
    Mint, pint, senate and sedate;
    Dull, bull, and George ate late.
    Scenic, Arabic, Pacific,
    Science, conscience, scientific.

    Liberty, library, heave and heaven,
    Rachel, ache, moustache, eleven.
    We say hallowed, but allowed,
    People, leopard, towed, but vowed.
    Mark the differences, moreover,
    Between mover, cover, clover;
    Leeches, breeches, wise, precise,
    Chalice, but police and lice;
    Camel, constable, unstable,
    Principle, disciple, label.

    Petal, panel, and canal,
    Wait, surprise, plait, promise, pal.
    Worm and storm, chaise, chaos, chair,
    Senator, spectator, mayor.
    Tour, but our and succour, four.
    Gas, alas, and Arkansas.
    Sea, idea, Korea, area,
    Psalm, Maria, but malaria.
    Youth, south, southern, cleanse and clean.
    Doctrine, turpentine, marine.

    Compare alien with Italian,
    Dandelion and battalion.
    Sally with ally, yea, ye,
    Eye, I, ay, aye, whey, and key.
    Say aver, but ever, fever,
    Neither, leisure, skein, deceiver.
    Heron, granary, canary.
    Crevice and device and aerie.

    Face, but preface, not efface.
    Phlegm, phlegmatic, ass, glass, bass.
    Large, but target, gin, give, verging,
    Ought, out, joust and scour, scourging.
    Ear, but earn and wear and tear
    Do not rhyme with here but ere.
    Seven is right, but so is even,
    Hyphen, roughen, nephew Stephen,
    Monkey, donkey, Turk and jerk,
    Ask, grasp, wasp, and cork and work.

    Pronunciation — think of Psyche!
    Is a paling stout and spikey?
    Won’t it make you lose your wits,
    Writing groats and saying grits?
    It’s a dark abyss or tunnel:
    Strewn with stones, stowed, solace, gunwale,
    Islington and Isle of Wight,
    Housewife, verdict and indict.

    Finally, which rhymes with enough —
    Though, through, plough, or dough, or cough?
    Hiccough has the sound of cup.
    My advice is to give up!!!”

    • Serena:

      @Sam Ciao Samuele,
      molto divertente, grazie!

  7. rukmini nini:

    Yes, indeed, molto complicato .

  8. Phil:

    Paul at Langfocus tells us English spelling is an historical accident:

    • Geoff:

      @Phil Thanks for the link Phil, molto interessante! 🙂

  9. Barry:

    I see from your phonetic spelling of “awkward” (ouqud) and “tear” (tia) that Geoff must be from Boston or New York or someplace close to those, since he doesn’t seem to pronounce his r’s. We don’t all talk that way! 🙂

    • Geoff:

      @Barry Ciao Barry, you’re not even close, I’m British, and I don’t have a regional accent! 🙂
      However, Serena’s phonetic spellings are based on Italian rules of phonetics, not English. If you know those rules you’ll see that those spellings make sense.
      Do you have audio of the Italian alphabet? It’d really help you.

      A presto, Geoff.

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