Italian Language Blog

Tongue-Tied? – Keep It Simple! Posted by on Aug 3, 2018 in Uncategorized

What student of Italian doesn’t dream of being able to pour forth impressive grammatically correct sentences, or hold fluent, colloquial discourses with the ‘natives’? But running before you can walk is quite likely to reduce you to a bumbling troglodyte!

Oh, the amazing conversations that I had in my head when I was learning Italian. I had it all planned out, I’d rehearse those perfect phrases, then go into a shop and hold forth: “Ah … ho … erm … bisogno … ci sono … erm … how do you say …!?!
Oh sod it! I’d think, and begin gesticulating and pointing at items which I wanted. To add insult to injury, these situations often ended with the discovery that the shopkeeper spoke decent English.

Hence my advice: Keep it simple!

After all, your average Italian, on going into the bakery, doesn’t begin to recite Dante! They’re far more likely to come out with “dammi quella pagnotta per favore” (give me that loaf please).
Let’s look at some simple colloquial shopping phrases that will help you get started on your road fluency:

Expressions to use in any situation:

the verb volere (to want), conjugated in the conditional form, vorrei (I’d like – literally: ‘I would want’), is no doubt the simplest construction to use as it can apply to all situations:
vorrei delle carote = I’d like some carrots
vorrei un po’ di focaccia = I’d like a bit of focaccia
vorrei dei chiodi piccoli = I’d like some small nails
vorrei provare quei sandali = I’d like to try those sandals

the imperfect tense of the verb volere is also commonly used. In this situation volevo, which literally means “I wanted”, is used to mean “I’d like”. In fact, it’s interchangeable with vorrei:
volevo delle carote = I’d like some carrots
volevo un po’ di focaccia = I’d like a bit of focaccia
volevo dei chiodi piccoli = I’d like some small nails
volevo provare quei sandali = I’d like to try those sandals

Expressions to use in specific situations:

Mi serve:
mi serve (plural: mi servono) is a common way of saying ‘I need’ when you need something for a specific purpose.
mi serve un chilo di patate per fare gli gnocchi = I need a kilo of potatoes to make gnocchi
mi servono dei chiodi piccoli per appendere alcuni quadri sui muri = I need some small nails to hang some pictures on the walls
quanta pittura mi serve per una stanza di dodici metri quadri? = how much paint do I need for a room that’s twelve metres square?
However, unlike vorrei or volevo it can’t be followed by a verb. Hence you can say mi servono dei sandali (I need some sandals), but you can’t use it with provare quei sandali = try those sandals

Mi serve un po’ d’ombra! Photo by Geoff

Ho bisogno di:
ho bisogno di is another way of saying ‘I need’, but as with mi serve/mi servono it tends to be used more specifically than vorrei or volevo:
ho bisogno di una mano per portare la spesa a casa = I need a hand to carry the shopping home
ho bisogno di un barattolo di pittura bianca per il salotto = I need a tub of white paint for the living room
N.B. It’s important to remember that ho bisogno is always followed by the preposition di (of)

Bottom line: if you’re shopping for something, and getting tongue-tied, stick with vorrei or volevo. Choose one or the other, or alternate them for practice. When you’re feeling more confident, and need something specific try mi serve (mi servono if you need more than one), or ho bisogno di (which is more difficult to pronounce!).

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  1. Jan:

    Just what we all needed for those ‘rabbit in headlights’ moments….Perfetto! Grazie mille 😍

    • Geoff:

      @Jan “‘rabbit in headlights’ moments” … that’s a very good way of putting it Jan! 🙂

  2. Sharon Oldham:

    so very helpful! Grazie mille!

  3. Chippy:

    Ottimo! Grazie di nuovo!

  4. Dmitry:

    What about “occorrere”? How is that different in meaning and usage?

  5. Gianna Shaw:

    Yes good point – suppose one could say ‘mi occorre’ …. I have need.
    Really useful blog for my students.

    • Geoff:

      @Gianna Shaw Ciao Gianna, in everyday conversation occorrere isn’t used as much as the other examples that we’ve given, and certainly not in a shop! As I wrote: Keep It Simple! 🙂

  6. Nini Rukmini:

    excellent Geoff.

  7. Ss:

    Been so rusty with Italian that this has been really helpful without overwhelming me with too much ..just the First person congugation .please keep these coming the same way.

    • Geoff:

      @Ss Thanks for the feedback. We’ll definitely be publishing more of the same!

      A presto, Geoff 🙂

  8. Giovanni:

    Molto bene, grazie

  9. Gianna:

    Ciao Geoff

    Quando fa la spesa la mia zia sempre usa la frase ‘mi occorre’ nei negozi allora ho imparato da lei – la mia zia abita a Milano. Forse ogni paese sarà diverso.

    • Geoff:

      @Gianna “Forse ogni paese sarà diverso”
      Può darsi, ma dipende anche dell’età della persona.
      Ormai ci sono tante frasi che vengono usate soltanto da chi ha una certa età! Ad esempio, recentemente un anziana che abbiamo conosciuto mentre facevamo una passeggiata in un posto un po’ sperduto ci ha dato del loro. Cosa molto insolita oggigiorno.

  10. Gianna Shaw:

    Si hai ragione che forse dipende dell’eta.
    Grazie 😊

  11. Rosalind:

    “che abbiamo conosciuto mentre facevamo una passeggiata in un posto un po’ sperduto ci ha dato del loro. ”

    Does this mean that she was adressing 2 or more people in the formal way as opposed to using “voi” ? Would you, for instance, have expected her to use “Lei” for 1 person but “voi” for several.?

    Also you refer to the age of the person, when did things change.? I was recently reading an Agatha Christie book translated into Italian in the 1930s and the 2nd person plural was definitely used when politely addressing one person only (as in French or Corsican).

    I would love an article on “tu” “Lei” “voi”, present day usage and the history of usage.

    • Serena:

      @Rosalind Salve Rosalind, scusa per il ritardo!
      Yes, the norm is to use ‘lei’ for 1 person and ‘voi’ for 2 or more people. ‘Loro’ is extremely rare and only used in posh hotels and restaurants where they might use expressions such as ‘i signori possono accomodarsi a quel tavolo’.

      During the Fascism (1922-1943) Mussolini imposed the ‘voi’ fascista instead of the ‘lei’.

      Grazie per il suggerimento, presto scriverò un articolo su tu, lei e voi.
      Saluti da Serena

  12. Jane:

    I was also puzzled by ‘ci ha data del loro’. I think I understand now, but what were the lady’s actual words to you?

    • Geoff:

      @Jane Ciao Jane, I can’t remember her exact words, but an examples would be:
      “Se loro vogliono lasciare la macchina in paese c’è un parcheggio dietro l’angolo” (If they want to leave the car in the village there’s a car park round the corner)
      As I’m not used to be addressed in this very formal manner, I kept asking myself who ‘they’ were. Then the penny dropped, she was referring to me and Serena!

      A presto, Geoff 🙂

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