What's the best way to learn Italian?

The 4 tools you need to become fluent

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?)

** Spoiler alert **

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.

Tool #1:

Get something that builds your confidence

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:

Option 1: Michel Thomas Italian

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...

Option 2: Rocket Italian Interactive Audio Course

This is another audio course that is good at building your confidence. It has a bit more fluff and corny jokes, but it's more structured.

Rocket Italian can be accessed on a computer through the Rocket Languages website (you don't have to download any software) or through the Rocket Languages app for iOS and Android. Audio lessons can be downloaded and played offline.

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.

Option 3: Rosetta Stone

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.

Pick the sentence that matches the highlighted picture. Exercise your detective skills and use the surrounding pictures as a clue. Eventually you start to see the grammar patterns, without needing to explicitly learn them.

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:

  • It doesn't overwhelm you with tedious grammar theory‍
  • It is fun and game-like, and a little addictive to play.
  • Speaking out loud is a big component: There's voice recognition to check your pronunciation (although this is a bit unreliable)
  • It's good for learning actions (the man eats, the man runs), and simple tenses (the man ate, the man eats, the man is going to eat).
  • The material really sticks in your head, because you'll see it again and again and again.

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.

Special mention: Duolingo

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:

  • It's free. You really can't argue with that.
  • It motivates you in a different way. It's basically a language game, and it's really fun to use. It rewards you with "lingots" (little gem tokens) when you achieve certain goals. It encourages you to maintain a "streak" by hitting your daily targets. All this gamification makes it easy to stay motivated and see your progress — if you're the kind of person who is motivated by these kinds of rewards.

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.

Tool #2:

A grammar-based software or textbook

I recommend:

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. It won't feel abstract and intangible anymore. It will feel like you're "filling in the gaps" in your knowledge, rather than starting from scratch.

So now it's time to find a solid grammar course to become the center of your Italian study.

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.  

Rocket Italian comes with a full grammar course, accessible online through a computer, or through the iOS and Android app. It has lots of nice tools and audio to play with, including flashcards for each lesson.

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.

Another great option is Ouino Italian. If you struggle with the comprehensive "textbooky" style explanations in Rocket Italian, then Ouino might be a better bet for you. Ouino excels at giving you the most important information without overwhelming you with detail.

The course is extremely well structured, with everything broken down by form and function. There's a section on the "building blocks" of grammar, another section specifically for verbs and conjugations, a whole section for drilling yourself on vocabulary groups, as well as some pronunciation and conversation practice.

Ouino Italian lets you choose your own learning path. Each section has a variety of well designed tools for learning and practicing different aspects of the language.

Ouino doesn't lock you into a pre-determined study path: It allows you to pick and choose your lessons depending on your interests. But there's also a very well devised "recommended learning path" if you need it.

Like Rocket Italian, Ouino also comes in app form, so you can take it wherever you go. It's available as a subscription product, but the best option is the very reasonable lifetime one-off purchase.

Tool #3:

Real-world exposure: Listening and reading

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!

Try reading simple stories in Italian

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.

You could start with our fairy tales in Italian, or the stories on our sister site, The Fable Cottage. They come with slow audio so you can listen as you read. 

Most 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 and The Fable Cottage use more useful, modern language.

Listen to Italian TV, movies and radio

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.

LingQ does a similar thing for written text. You can use the range of pre-existing graded content on the LingQ site, or you can import your own text into the app. LingQ will provide word-by-word definitions for every word in your document, and you can save words to your own revision list.

LingQ is a good source of graded written text. Text is automatically augmented with translations / definitions, which makes it fantastic for learning new vocabulary.

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, and this may well be enough for you.

Tool #4:

Speaking practice with an Italian speaker

You could try:

One of the hardest parts of learning Italian on your own is that you don't have as much practice with speaking Italian.

You may be working with an app that has some built-in speaking practice, but it's not the same as working with a real human.

That's why my final essential tool is one-on-one lessons with a tutor or a language exchange partner.

There are a number of websites that will connect you with Italian tutors. Lessons usually happen over Skype or Zoom (or other video chat system), and you can use the built-in camera and microphone on your device — just like video chatting with your friends.

iTalki is a huge directory of online tutors. They have professional (qualified) teachers, as well as "community tutors" who usually charge a lower rate.

iTalki is the arguably 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 — they'll usually be cheaper.

If you're looking for a more boutique experience, Languatalk screens and selects their tutors (they boast about how many tutors they don't accept) so you might find it easier to find an experienced teacher there.

There are new tutoring platforms springing up all the time. Whichever platform you use, pay attention to the terms and conditions — especially around cancellations, rescheduling lessons, and refunds.

If you can't afford to spend money on a tutor, you could try to find an Italian-speaking language exchange partner instead. This is where you can team up with an Italian speaker to chat in Italian, while helping them work on their skills in your language. Platforms like Tandem and HelloTalk can help match you up.

Recap: The 4 tools you need for learning Italian

#1: Something that gives you results fast

This gives you some early success and builds your enthusiasm so that you won't just give up. Try Michel ThomasRocket Italian's interactive audio course, or Rosetta Stone if you enjoy it.

#2: A good grammar software

...Because you do actually need that grammar, and it requires frequent, short bursts of study. Remember "a little and often". Try Rocket Italian, or Ouino Italian. They're both excellent, and good value.

#3: Reading and listening material

The best place to start is with slow audio and simpler texts: Try The Fable Cottage for the whole package. Once you're feeling more confident, try graded and augmented real-world material through LingQ or FluentU. before you dive into the real real-world stuff.

#4: One-on-one tutoring or language exchange

This can give you vital practice using your spoken Italian — an absolutely essential skill that is hard to build without actual human interaction. Try iTalki or Languatalk.