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 4 kinds of tool you need to successfully get your Italian learning off the ground.
My #1 tip: Don't start with a grammar course, right at the start. (You'll have time for that later.)
Seriously, the biggest danger when you're learning Italian is that you'll give up.
You'll give up because it's hard, or because you feel like you're not getting anywhere, or you'll just lose interest and stop putting in the effort.
And when you're slogging your way through verb endings and tenses, your dream of speaking and understanding Italian can seem very, very far away.
So forget about that for now.
The first tool you should look for is something that will quickly give you the confidence to start speaking and understanding a bit of Italian. You don't have to be perfect. You just need to get started, and have some fun.
Here are some resources you could use:
If you can get your hands on this course, it is really useful when you're trying to build that confidence.
The entire course is largely just audio recordings of Michel Thomas instructing a couple of Italian learners.
You start with simple phrases, and quickly build on top of these until you can say some reasonably complicated sentences. But it's not just about memorising phrases: Along the way, Michel Thomas explains important language features, and shows you how to use the things you've learned in different situations.
You're encouraged to NOT write anything down, and to NOT try to memorise anything.
By the end of the course you won't be completely fluent in Italian, but you'll feel like this Italian thing is pretty fun and easy. You will probably be able to hold very basic conversations with Italian-speakers, and understand some of what Italian-speakers are saying.
The course isn't perfect. Some people complain that the "don't write anything down, don't memorise anything" philosophy is more of a marketing gimmick than good learning strategy. Maybe that's true. But I think it also helps you relax and enjoy the lessons, and that's really important at this early stage.
And pretty much everybody complains that the apps available for iOS and Android are extremely buggy and frustrating. My own experience backs that up. This is an incredible shame, because the material is so useful, and the app would be the easiest and most reasonably priced way to get the lessons.
If you can get your hands on a boxed set of CDs (through Amazon or similar), this would be the safest way to go. You can also purchase the lessons through Audible and iTunes store, but it is more expensive.
If this seems like too much trouble, 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 online through the Rocket Languages website, and through their app for iOS and Android. Unlike the Michel Thomas app, this one works well, and customer support is excellent if you do run into trouble.
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 no need to buy Michel Thomas too. The Rocket Italian audio course will do just fine, and you'll save a bit of money.
In the past I haven't been a huge fan of Rosetta Stone. It was always so very expensive, and the whole concept of match the pictures to the words with no explanation whatsoever just screamed "GIMMICK" to me.
But I've changed my tune a little.
If Rosetta Stone is all you're using to learn Italian, you probably won't get very far.
But the price of Rosetta Stone has come down with their new subscription plans, and the Rosetta Stone method does actually do quite a few things very well:
But most importantly, Rosetta Stone is good at showing you the progress you're making. It will give you some very basic vocabulary, and a lot of confidence and enthusiasm to keep going.
And again, that's the goal of this step.
I'm putting Duolingo here because it's a bit of a special case.
I would call Duolingo a grammar course — and I don't recommend starting with a grammar course. It starts with basic vocabulary, and shows you how to build sentences. You'll learn phrases which are not useful, but which demonstrate the grammar points.
It isn't focused on giving you language you can just leave the house and start using today. So (according to my rules) it shouldn't be your first stop on your language-learning journey.
But, here's the thing:
So if you find that Duolingo helps you get into the habit of working on your Italian... go ahead and use it. If you find that it's a boring slog, and you don't care about little gem rewards... try one of my other options 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. Here's why:
It's also not as difficult or expensive as you might think.
There are a number of websites that will connect you with Italian tutors. Lessons usually happen over Skype (or other video chat system), and you can use the built-in camera and microphone on your smartphone or tablet. (Or laptop, but you might need extra gear.)
iTalki is the biggest one-on-one tutoring service out there, and you can find tutors of varying quality (and price) for practically any language under the sun. Some iTalki tutors are professional teachers who have demonstrated their skills and experience, while others are "community tutors" without those official qualifications. Most tutors will offer a trial lesson at a reduced cost.
For learning Italian, Lingoci has excellent reviews. Company founder Alex Redfern stresses how much effort they put into recruiting and screening quality tutors. You can pick your own tutor, or they can help match you up with someone depending on your skills and goals.
Verbling also comes highly recommended. Both Lingoci and Verbling offer free trials, so you can meet your tutor before you commit.
Be aware that new one-on-one language tutoring services are popping up all the time. Some of them screen and select experienced tutors, which means you'll get a good experience no matter who your tutor is. Others will accept anyone, and you'll need to do more research to find a suitable tutor.
Look for platforms with independent reviews, and pay attention to the terms and conditions — especially around payment terms.
By this point you should be pretty committed to learning Italian, and there's much less chance that you'll give up. So now is a great time to start diving a little deeper...
Remember earlier when I told you to stay away from any grammar-oriented courses?
Well, now it's safe for you to look at them again.
By now you'll have learned enough Italian that some of the material in a grammar lesson will begin to look familiar. They'll give you ah-hah! moments. Like, "Ohhh, so THAT'S why this is different..."
The thing with studying grammar is that there's a little bit of explanation, but it's mostly a whole lot of memorization. You have a whole bunch of patterns that you need to stick in your brain.
The most effective way to get this information into your brain is a little, and often. Say 'no' to two-hour cram sessions. Say 'yes' to ten minutes here and there.
This is where the language course apps are really useful.
My favorite is the "language and culture" component of Rocket Italian. The lessons go into all the depth you'd expect from a textbook, but it also comes with a bunch of audio examples, and testing tools to help you stick that material in your memory.
You can easily pull out your phone (or your laptop... it's available online) and flick through a few exercises while you drink a coffee in the morning.
An alternative is the free Duolingo app. It's a bit harder to go back and test yourself on things you need to work on, but it's good for a bit of regular practice. Just make sure you take the time to review the notes on grammar, and consider getting a back-up textbook to use as reference.
Here comes the fun part.
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".
Even if you don't have any Italian speakers to chat with, you can still get a dose of real-world language through books, podcasts, radio, music, and more. All of these things will expose you to new vocabulary, grammar, patterns, and expressions.
Don't be disheartened if you don't understand everything. That's not the goal! You WANT to be running into words and language you don't know. That's how you learn!
Children's stories can be a great place to start trying to read in Italian. Stories designed for children and young adults are likely to use simpler language and more straightforward ideas than texts designed for adults.
Some stories on The Fable Cottage also come with video, which can make it a lot easier to understand what is happening in the story.
Children's stories can be wonderful for the relatively simple language, but beware of the original versions of traditional fairy tales which might use antiquated language. The stories on our site use more useful, modern language.
A really great resource for dipping your toes into real-world Italian media is FluentU.
It gives you a curated collection of (mostly) real-world videos to watch in Italian. The material is organized by your skill level, and all videos come with subtitles with translations, among other things. It's a good way to transition into real-world material without completely overwhelming yourself.
It's a subscription service starting at around $20/month. At the time of writing this, you can get 14 days to try it for free. It does require a credit card, and it will automatically bill you at the end of 14 days if you don't cancel.
And then, of course, there's always YouTube and streaming Italian radio stations.
If you're not fully confident yet, 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.