So you want to learn Italian? Great! But what's the best way?
Should you go out and buy a textbook? Or is a piece of software or an app more effective? How about immersion... does it really force you to learn naturally, like a child does?
(And do you really need to learn all that grammar?)
There isn't ONE single tool that will teach you everything you need to be proficient in Italian, all in one tidy package.
In reality, you're probably going to end up using a collection of tools to cover all the angles: From learning the grammar, perfecting your pronunciation, to building your vocabulary.
In my experience there are four kinds of tool you need to successfully get your Italian learning off the ground.
The biggest risk when you're learning anything new isn't that you'll pick the wrong course, or you'll learn the wrong things — it's that you'll give up. You'll give up because it's hard, or because it's boring, or because you feel like you're not getting anywhere.
And this risk is biggest when you're just starting out. Once you've had a few successes, you're much less likely to give up.
So if you're brand new to learning Italian, look for a course or solution that will teach you a lot of usable language, fast. Don't dive head-first into a detailed grammar course. It will kill your enthusiasm before you even get out the gate.
This is an audio course. You follow along as Michel Thomas instructs a couple of Italian learners. You start with some simple phrases, and quickly build on top of these until you've got a good working "toolbox" of language.
Along the way Michel Thomas explains a few interesting grammar points, but it's not a huge focus of the course.
I like this course because it doesn't bog you down with too much theory right at the start. In fact you're told not to write anything down, and don't even try to memorise anything. (Of course you'll need to learn the grammar later, but by then you'll have learned enough that you'll see the point.)
You'll feel like you're learning a lot, quickly. You'll feel like this Italian thing is pretty fun and easy. By the end of this course you might even be able to hold very basic conversations with Italian-speakers, and understand some of what Italian-speakers are saying.
Don't go into this expecting to be totally fluent by the end. You won't be. But you'll feel like it's totally do-able. And that's the key: It gives you the confidence to keep going.
As much as I like Michel Thomas, he's not everybody's cup of tea. He is not a native Italian speaker (nor is he a native English speaker), so his pronunciation is sometimes a bit hard to understand. The latest version of the course is also only available on CD, which seems a little old-fashioned.
If that bothers you, there are alternatives...
This is another audio course that does roughly the same thing as Michel Thomas. It has a bit more fluff and corny jokes, but it's more structured. There's a native Italian-speaking presenter, and no annoying "students" getting everything wrong all the time.
It's also available for digital download, so you don't have to wait for shipping, and you can listen to it on any device.
I feel like I didn't learn quite as much with this course as I did with Michel Thomas, but it's still very enjoyable and encouraging. It also comes free with the full Rocket Italian course which I'll be recommending later for the grammar component.
If you end up buying Rocket Italian, there's not really any need to buy Michel Thomas too. The Rocket Italian audio course will do just fine, and you'll save a bit of money.
I'm going to cover one-on-one tutoring (over Skype or similar) in the next step, but just to mention: If you end up doing that, and you end up going with Fluent City, you can possibly skip the audio course step.
I only recommend this if you go with Fluent City because I know they have a very strong focus on getting quick results and building enthusiasm right at the start. Their tutors are all trained in this strategy, so you'll get a consistent experience no matter who you get.
To be honest, I don't normally recommend Rosetta Stone. It's expensive and gimmicky, and the whole concept of "learning like a child" by matching pictures with words (with no explanation at all) is seriously flawed.
However, it does make you feel like you're doing well, and it will probably get you excited about learning more Italian. It will give you some very, very basic vocabulary. So long as you don't expect much, you'll probably be quite pleased.
If you have a copy of this already, go ahead and use it at this stage. But if you're looking to spend money on something, you're better off with any of the other options I've mentioned above.
Once you've got that enthusiasm and confidence built up, and you're less likely to just give up, the next step is to start learning from an actual Italian-speaker through one-on-one video lessons.
If that sounds too high-tech for you, it's really not. If you've got a smartphone, then you're already equipped to do this. Most laptop computers also come with microphones and cameras built in. The actual lessons usually happen over Skype, or web-based services that don't even need you to install any software.
If it sounds too expensive for you... most professional tutors charge between $20 - $50/hour, and I recommend you get one hour of tutoring a week. Yes, it will add up over time. But it's worth it for a few reasons...
iTalki is the biggest one-on-one tutoring service out there, and you can find tutors of varying quality for practically any language under the sun.
But for learning Italian I recommend Fluent City's online tutoring. The lessons are a touch more expensive than the tutors you'll find on iTalki, because the tutors are all professional Italian teachers with experience teaching online. (Not just everyday folks who speak Italian.)
With Fluent City you'll be assigned a teacher who best suits your needs, rather than having to audition a bunch of them yourself. The teachers are trained to get you confident in using your Italian as quickly as possible, so even though it seems a little pricey, it's actually good value for money.
I know I've complained about textbooks and software and all that boring grammar stuff, but you do need it if you want to speak Italian well. (I just don't recommend overloading yourself with it right at the beginning, when you're just getting started.)
This stuff requires memorization and repetition.
A tutor can help give you the big picture, or help you with things you don't understand, but I recommend using another tool to drill it into your memory, because it's best done "a little and often" — i.e., when you have a spare ten minutes here and there.
Your tutor can probably give you some resources for this, or you could get by with a good textbook and a set of flash cards. But I quite like a software solution, like the "language and culture" component of Rocket Italian.
Rocket Italian has good explanations of the grammar points, lots of nice audio examples, and a range of tools to test yourself over and over again. It can keep track of your progress, remember the things you have trouble with, and it’s a bit more fun to use than a textbook. (And you can even use it to create your own flash cards.)
If you're strapped for cash, you could try the free Duolingo app. For a free thing, it's great. I wouldn't use it as my only Italian-learning tool, but it can help at this "test yourself over and over again" stage. Just make sure you take the time to review the notes on grammar, and consider getting a back-up textbook to use as reference.
Once you've covered some of the basics, the best thing you can do is get out there and start using that knowledge in the "real world".
That doesn't mean you need to drop everything and head to Italy. It just means that you should start exposing yourself to "real" Italian language outside of textbooks and tutorials.
One of the best ways to learn new vocabulary is to try reading texts in Italian, (like the fairy tales on this site).
In the beginning you might only recognise half the words, or you might get bamboozled by a strange-looking sentence structure. But hopefully that makes you curious enough to go and look a word up, or run a phrase through a translator. (Or click the "translate" button on our stories!)
You're more likely to remember that word or phrase or structure next time. Much more likely than if you just passively absorbed it from a textbook.
Children's stories can be wonderful for the relatively simple language, but beware of traditional fairy tales which might use antiquated language. The stories on our site use more useful, modern language.
Don't expect to understand everything when you start listening to Italian radio and stories. If you're a beginner you might only recognize the odd word here and there. Don't be discouraged! Understanding everything is not the goal.
The goal here is to become familiar with Italian the sound and rhythm of real-world spoken Italian. Even if you just have it playing quietly in the background while you do something else.
If you're a complete beginner, it might be less intimidating to listen to slow Italian: News in Slow Italian presents a weekly news discussion in slow Italian. It's a subscription service, but you can listen to the introductions to each episode for free.
One really effective trick to help with your pronunciation is to listen to a piece of audio in Italian, and try to repeat back exactly what you've heard — even if you don't understand it. Our children's stories in Italian are wonderful for this because the audio is nice and slow.