The best online Italian courses and software

What's the best way to learn Italian on your own?

There are hundreds of online Italian courses and software tools out there, all claiming to be the best way to learn Italian. In this review, we'll give you our top picks, as well as some also-rans that you might like to try.

Best value: Rocket Italian

When it comes to comprehensiveness and value for money, it's hard to go past Rocket Italian by Rocket Languages. It's a huge course that packs in a lot of different teaching methods and tools, so that it's suitable for a wide variety of learning styles and goals.

Rocket Italian lessons
Rocket Italian Level 1. The course goes up to Level 3 (intermediate or B1-B2 CEFR)

There are three main components to the course: 

  • "Interactive Audio" lessons: Podcast-style audio lessons that use Italian dialogues to teach useful language for everyday situations.

  • "Language and Culture" lessons: Pretty traditional textbook-style written grammar lessons that explain the various parts of the Italian language. These come with a lot of audio examples to play with along the way.
  • Reinforcement and pronunciation tools: These are built into each lesson to reinforce what you've learned during that particular lesson.

(Read my Rocket Italian review for a detailed discussion of these features.)

There's a recommended learning path that uses all these tools, but the course doesn't force you to follow that path: You're free to hop around as you please. This versatility makes it good for different types of Italian learners. (If you need a quick crash course: Focus on the Interactive Audio lessons. If you need depth and detail, dig into the Language and Culture lessons.)

The interactive tools do a good job of working your knowledge from all the angles: reading, listening, speaking, writing, and pronunciation.

Rocket Italian is a one-time purchase (not a subscription) so the initial price is a little higher. For that reason, it's better for people who want to go all the way.

Good things: 

You get a lot of "bang for your buck". Hugely comprehensive. Comes with an audio course, grammar course, and interactive tools, so you can see which method works best for you. Offers a good mix of practical language you can start using immediately, as well as detailed grammatical explanations to deepen your knowledge. One-time only purchase with free updates for life. Free trial (no credit card required) which actually has a lot of content.

Downsides:

Language and Culture lessons can be a bit dry. Interactive tools are not as flash as some competitors. Initial purchase price might seem steep.

Visit Rocket Italian website or Read my full Rocket Italian review »

Best for grammar: Ouino Italian

If you're interested in learning and understanding the building blocks of Italian, but you "zone out" with those long-winded textbook-style explanations... Ouino Italian might be just what you need.

It's another course (like Rocket Italian) that actually explains how Italian works from a grammatical perspective, but it doesn't overwhelm you with detail. Ouino prefers to show the language in action through interactive examples and activities, while keeping the explanation to a minimum.

Ouino Italian app screenshot
Ouino Italian: Each lesson focuses on a small number of words, so it's easy to understand and master. Lessons have clear audio in both "fast" and "slow" speeds.

What sets Ouino Italian apart is how empowering it is — even for people who might be nervous about learning grammar. Each larger topic is broken into tiny modules, often covering just a small handful of words each. It's very easy to digest and remember the language this way, and the small modules make it a doddle to complete a couple of lessons over your morning coffee.

Ouino has several sections:

  • Building blocks: A grammar section, renamed to sound less hard and boring. All the important bits that make up the Italian language are here, but it's presented in an approachable, bite-sized way.
  • Verbs and conjugation: A few different tools to help you wrap your head around how verbs change depending on the situation. It's helpful to have these separated out into their own section.
  • Vocabulary: A huge library of vocabulary, with everything from animals to toys to anatomy and interjections. Worth noting is the "most common words" vocabulary list, and a huge section on words and verbs that are similar in Italian and English. This is a quick way to "learn" a bunch of new Italian words.
  • Conversations: Learn Italian through dialogues. A good way to expose yourself to common spoken Italian.
  • Pronunciation: A section that teaches Italian pronunciation, sound by sound — focusing on the difference between Italian and English. There's also the ability to record your own pronunciation and compare it to the voice model.

All sections come with a range of interactive activities for each lesson. Often these will feel easy and repetitive, but they're quite effective for locking the material into your memory.

Ouino works on all devices, and can be bought either as a subscription, or as a one-off purchase. The one-off purchase price is extremely reasonable, and comes with free updates for life.

Good things

The most digestible grammar course I've tried. Highly interactive — most of your learning will happen through activities. Bite-sized lessons make it easy to see progress. Focuses on the most important and commonly used language. Extremely reasonably priced. This huge, detailed guide shows you how to get the most out of the course.

Downsides

The non-linear approach means some slightly-more-complicated concepts appear alongside easier concepts. (These are marked with little warning signs.) Computer/desktop version is a hefty download, with a few steps to register the software (this feels a bit antiquated these days, when most language tools are website apps).

Visit Ouino Italian website »

Other good options for grammar: 
  • Rocket Italian: The 'Language and Culture' lessons are essentially a comprehensive grammar course. The explanations are deeper and more detailed than Ouino, if you don't mind the more textbooky style.

Best for pronunciation: Pimsleur Italian

Pimsleur is one of the original great grandaddies of language learning, and their audio courses haven't changed a whole lot over the years.

There are two main ideas behind the Pimsleur courses:

  • Most people only use around 2000 words in every day life, so if you master these... you'll be able to get along pretty well. Each Pimsleur level teaches around 500 words over around 16 hours.

  • The practice of spaced repetition as a way of making the material stick in your head. When you learn new material you'll be asked to recall it at regular intervals, with those intervals getting longer and longer as you move through the course.
  • A (mostly) audio-only approach, where you don't look at the words you're learning. This is to prevent your first language knowledge from interfering with your pronunciation.

You don't get a whole lot of explanation in Pimsleur, although there is an English-speaking narrator who points things out now and again. If you're interested in actively studying Italian grammar you could get another book or course to go along with your Pimsleur study.

Where Pimsleur really shines is in improving your pronunciation. You spend so much time repeating words and fragments of words (while not looking at those words) that your pronunciation will be fantastic. You might not learn very many words or phrases... but you'll be able to say them very well.

There are a range of packages and levels, but the general rule is that purchasing any Pimsleur course outright is very expensive. The best option is to get their monthly subscription product.

Good things:

Lessons are in convenient 30 minute blocks, and are 100% audio so you can listen to them anywhere. Very good for improving your pronunciation (so long as you speak out loud). Also very good for improving retention due to spaced repetition. Teaches reasonably practical language from the get-go.

Downsides:

Quite dull, and with little explanation. Just repeat, repeat, repeat. The audio lessons don't teach you much about the mechanics of Italian (some people might see this as a good thing), so if you want to study the grammar you will also need a textbook or another course.

Visit Pimsleur Method website »

Other good options for pronunciation: 
  • Rocket Italian: Comes with built-in pronunciation checking tools, which turn every audio example in the course into pronunciation practice. See my review for a discussion of this technology (i.e., does it work?)
  • Ouino Italian: Ouino has a whole section describing how to pronounce Italian sounds — particularly when sounds differ from the English pronunciation. There's also a voice comparison tool similar to Rocket Italian, but no speech recognition. (They say it doesn't really help.)

Best audio course: ItalianPod101

ItalianPod101 is quite probably the largest collection of learn-Italian podcasts and audio lessons that you'll find online. You'll find hundreds of hours of audio lessons on a wide range of different language features and topics, perfect for plugging in on that long drive or commute.

All ItalianPod101 lessons are graded, from absolute beginner to advanced (A1 - C1 CEFR). There are curated pathways for each level that will take you through the most important language in a logical order. For some levels, these pathways can be 70 - 100 lessons long!

Most lessons follow a familiar format of introducing new language through conversations. You'll learn a new conversation in each lesson, and in the process the hosts will discuss the language features that appear in the conversation — normally focusing on one feature in particular.

ItalianPod101 screenshot of lessons
Just a few of the lesson categories in ItalianPod101 Level 1 (absolute beginner). The Level 1 curated pathway has almost 15 hours of audio content over 78 lessons.

Venturing off the main learning path, you'll also find a variety of other lessons — like lessons entirely filled with vocabulary, or discussing common sentence structures. Or series of lessons on topics like superstitions, or holidays. There's a reasonable amount of variety here to keep things interesting, and the nice thing is you'll always be operating within your grade level, so the language should always be manageable for you.

The collection of video lessons isn't as large as the collection of audio lessons, so I probably wouldn't sign up to a higher price membership just to get access to those. But a higher priced membership would also give you access to other features, like interactive activities, flash cards and line-by-line audio practice. If you plan to use ItalianPod101 as your "core" Italian course, these would be worth getting.

If you're looking for a big library of Italian audio lessons or podcasts, ItalianPod101 should be your first stop. The "Basic" membership gives you access to all the audio, and costs between $4 - $8 per month depending on how long you sign up for. "Premium" memberships (or higher) give you access to the video lessons and other tools, and is good value if you'll use those tools. Both memberships will give you enough material to work with for a long, long time.

Good things:

HUGE library of Italian audio lessons. Curated learning path if you need it. Most lessons teach through conversations, which is more engaging and gives you additional language. Additional interactive tools (with higher paid plans) can turn the audio lessons into a powerful learning tool. You can create a free membership (no credit card required) to try all the content free for 7 days.

Downsides:

Content can be a mixed bag. Some of the lessons feel overly scripted and wooden (i.e., the lessons with the generic American male voice artist), while others seem more natural and enjoyable.

Visit ItalianPod101 website »

Other good audio courses: 
  • Language Transfer: Purely audio course that notably focuses on the similarities between Italian and English, and uses those as a springboard for learning. Style is a teacher/student interaction similar to Michel Thomas courses (but more pleasant).
  • Coffee Break Italian: Free podcast-style Italian course. Season 1 of the podcasts is a "crash course" in practical Italian, good for if you're heading on vacation. Season 2 focuses more on explaining Italian grammar. The lessons move quite slowly — good for beginners, but might get frustrating for more advanced students.
  • Rocket Italian: Rocket Italian comes with a full "Interactive Audio course" (where "interactive" means that they pause to let you speak). These lessons are structured around conversations / dialogues rather than grammatical topics, and teach a good amount of practical language (good if you're going on vacation).

Best free Italian course: Duolingo

Duolingo is everyone's favorite free Italian course. For most people, it's your first step towards learning a new language. It's interactive, full of cute animations and gamification features — points, 'lingots', streaks, and more ding-dinging sounds than a casino. What's not to like? 

Duolingo is a grammar-based course. It does teach some initial greetings right at the beginning of the course, but otherwise it is not focused on giving you practical language to begin with. (So if you're trying to gain some skills before heading on vacation, you might want to look somewhere else. Rocket Italian's audio course or Coffee Break Italian season 1 are both a good option.)

The course is quite linear: You'll go through grammatical topics (like "possession", "plurals", "present tense") and vocabulary lessons (like "animals", "food", "clothing"). In reality, all the lessons will use language that you've learned in earlier lessons, so you need to complete topics fully before you can move onto the next set. (And Duolingo forces you to do this.)

At first, the exercises are mostly "Write this in Italian", "Write this in English", or "Write what you hear" exercises, where you're given a word bank to draw from. Most of the time the answer is fairly obvious: the alternative words won't make any sense. It turns the activities into a process of elimination, and you may find that you can cruise through a level without really learning the material. (But you'll feel like you're doing great!)

Duolingo screenshot of an activity
Duolingo: You'll spend a lot of time clicking words in a word bank to begin with. Note the nonsense phrases: They're designed to be memorable.

Once you've been through a topic once, you have the option of going through it again to level up your "crown". The material will be the same, but the activities will get more difficult. You'll get more activities where you ditch the word bank and actually write your answers — this will actually test your Italian knowledge, rather than just your logic.

Duolingo doesn't really have enough depth to get you particularly fluent in Italian. (Especially not if you just use it for 5 minutes a day, as the advertising suggests.) But if you're wanting to dip your toes into the language to see if it's something you enjoy, then Duolingo can be a good place to start.

(If you end up finding Duolingo to be too tedious, try Ouino Italian instead. It has a similar "bite sized" approach, but it's much more obvious what you're learning, and you don't need to complete lessons to move onto other lessons.)

Good things

Reasonably fun to use. Lots of gamification features to keep you motivated. Very slick interface — friendly and pleasant to use on the Duolingo website, or through their app. Good, active community. Free (although you can pay for additional features).

Downsides

Can be tedious, repetitive and slow-going. You're forced to work through multiple lessons on a topic before you can move on, and sometimes it feels never-ending (but you'll learn "horses are animals" and "don't give candies to horses" really well).

Visit Duolingo website »

Other good free courses: 
  • Language Transfer: Audio course similar to Michel Thomas courses (but more pleasant). There's only an "introduction" course for Italian so it won't take you too far, but it's a nice, gentle entry into the language.
  • Coffee Break Italian: Free podcast-style Italian course. Season 1 of the podcasts is a "crash course" in practical Italian, good for if you're heading on vacation. Season 2 focuses more on explaining Italian grammar. The lessons move quite slowly — good for beginners, but might get frustrating for more advanced students.
Other online Italian courses you could try ...
  • Babbel Italian

    Similar in style to Duolingo, but much less free. Teaches through interactive activities that offer more variety than you see in Duolingo, so it's slightly less tedious. Offers a few different pathways depending on your level, plus some "interest" topics (like Italian regional language variations, Italian for "everyday life", and an 8-lesson "crash course")

  • Rosetta Stone Italian

    Pseudo-immersion course where you learn by matching words and phrases to pictures without any English explanation. Can be an encouraging introduction to Italian for people who really hate learning grammar explicitly, but is slow to teach you any volume of language.

  • Memrise

    Slick interactive flashcard-style course. Introduces you to new vocabulary, and then gets you to practice it in a variety of forms: listening comprehension, recall, reading comprehension, and writing.

What's the most effective Italian course?

In the end, the most effective Italian course is one that you actually use. It's the one that you can stick at without getting distracted or losing motivation. But in general...

  • It will show you real results from day-1 so that you stay motivated and encouraged to keep learning.
  • But doesn't make it so easy that you're not actually learning: The mechanics of some heavily interactive and gamified apps can make it easy to breeze through the material without actually learning anything. You master the game, not the language.
  • It will be able to take you to an intermediate level where you can start learning from real-world material. Different courses have different ideas of what should go at each level, so it's awkward to have to change courses halfway through.
  • It will work your knowledge from all angles: Reading, listening, writing, speaking, recall.

For my money, Rocket Italian gives you the most options, and is likely to work for the widest range of people. It's an audio course, grammar course and testing tools in one package. You can try the different tools and approaches and see which one makes it "stick" for you.

(There is a free trial that gives you a good feel for the product, and doesn't need a credit card. Give that a whirl first.)