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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 (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
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!).