Learning Italian: You said what?

Okay, I’ll admit it, or maybe I don’t want to just yet it’s a little embarrassing. I mean it has been five and a half years and all, I should know this stuff, but I don’t.

My Italian sucks!

Well, it doesn’t suck in the big sucky way, but it could be better. Where I get confused is the moment I have to open my mouth and speak Italian.

“Buongiorno.” Okay, that was easy.

“Come stai oggi?” Alright, maybe my Italian doesn’t suck as bad as I think it sucks.

Let’s pretend I’m at the local farmers market conversing with the sausage seller.

“Salve Jennifer!”

“Ciao Pablo! Come stai?” It’s so easy these one-on-one conversations.

“Sto bene. Il solito – the usual?” Pablo is cute and short, and has a super big smile each Monday morning.

“Si, il solito. Mio marito va pazzo per tuo salsiccia.” Now, it’s time to cue the laughter card because I just told the sausage vendor:

“Yes, the usual. My husband goes crazy for your sausage.”

If you don’t have a dirty mind then the above statement will blow right on over your head. I on the other hand was dying inside the moment the words left my mouth.

Pablo looks at me with a wide-eyed grin knowing what I want even before I arrive at his table.

“Senza busta vero?”

What I said:

“Si, no busta. Non mi piace ad avere la plastica a casa e poi fa male per nostro mondo.”
“Yes, no bag. I don’t like to have the plastic at home and then it’s bad for our world.”

What I wanted to say:

“Correct, no bag. I find it unnecessary to have a large collection of plastic bags at home, there is no need for it, plus plastic takes about a billion years to disintegrate thus making it bad for the earth.”

And with the same smile I’ve seen every Monday for the last five and a half years Pablo hands me the sausage without a bag and I smile graciously yet embarrassed, turn on my heel and search out the fruit and vegetable vendor.

Fig porn by Jennifer Avventura My Sardinian LifeNow let’s pretend I’m speaking with the fruit and vegetable vendor:

“Ciao ragazza!” I really hate it that he calls me ragazza – girl. I’ve bought his carrots and figs for years, he should know my name.

“Buongiorno. Mi dai per favore cattru figa. Mi piace molto la figa.”

The fruit vendor is beside himself and nearly crying with shock and laughter. The two elderly women beside me seem to be suffering from some type of cardiac arrest, shock or there’s a new disease around that leaves your mouth hanging open.

What I said:

“Good morning. Can you please give me four vagina’s. I like vagina’s a lot.” Okay so, this is something I said years ago, not recently, but it was said and still today the shock and giggle factor remains the same. I also said four in Gallurese.

So you see, learning a new language is not easy and at the best of times can be a whole lot of embarrassing.

There are still a number of things I screw up on like when to use UN, UNO or UNA – A, One, A.

Let’s try a little excercise and please feel free to correct me in the comment section below. I’ve just looked around my house for the following word list and I hope get them all correct. I’m aiming high!

Una banana – a banana
Un portacenere – an ashtray
Uno libro – one book. I wanted to say A book, would I write un libro?
Una penna – a pen
Una finestra – a window
Un divano – a sofa
Uno frigo – one fridge
Un cafe – a coffee
Una mela – an apple. And if I wanted to say One apple would it be Uno mela? I don’t think so, cue confusion.
Un asino – a donkey

I think this is all too much for 7:30 in the morning. I have system overload and need more coffee but this is the life of an expat in Italy. There are always questions, there will always be questions and I will always admit my mistakes and laugh at myself. It’s the only way to learn a new language.

What linguistic blunders have passed your lips?

About Jennifer Avventura

Canadian Freelance writer living in Sardinia, Italy. A serial expat who lived in Australia, England and Cayman Islands. She eats Nutella with a spoon and hides under the bed during lightning storms. When she's not out running 6k you will find her sitting at the computer - writing her novel and searching for worldwide waitress work.
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75 Responses to Learning Italian: You said what?

  1. LMAO. Been there, said that, too.

  2. Helen says:

    Dear Jennifer,
    the Un/uno confusion is easily resolved if you think of it in terms of “sounding right” as with a/an in English. Basically “un” gets used with male nouns BUT you use “uno” in front of certain letters or combination of letters the same way you use “lo” in place of “il” (with “zoo”, “zio”, “stupido” and similar). There is no distinction in Italian between the English-language “a/an” and “one”.
    I will have to post a blog entry with all my laughable blunders. I have one Italian friend who pulls out every mistake I’ve ever made each time she sees me and has a good laugh “alle mie spese”.
    Helen

  3. Sabrina says:

    These mistakes happen! An American friend of mine once asked for a pesce flavoured gelato instead of pesca. Re the articles they’re easier than what you wrote and your confusion is the difference between one and a – there isn’t any! Uno libro doesn’t exist. It’s always un libro…’uno’ can only be used for nouns starting with z or s + consonant (or words with gn). The only time you use ‘uno’ with nouns such as ‘libro’ is in response to a question such as, “quanti libri vuoi?” “Uno”. Hope this helps xx

    • I too struggled with pesce and pesca … for years! Finally I’ve got the pronunciation down and don’t need to worry about that one. Thank you for explaining the articles, it makes a world of sense. Thank you very much Sabrina! :)

  4. Eattravelphotograph says:

    You made me laugh! And no, am not laughing at you but at how tricky Italian can be! Am imagining the face of those old ladies LMAO… Anyway it’s un libro, un frigo and una mela even if you want to say one apple :) if you have any other doubt feel free to ask me :) :)

  5. Pecora Nera says:

    I feel your pain.. I am glad it is not only me blundering through the Italian language. I watch the locals laugh and then cringe as I destroy their beautiful language.

    I think last year I reached a new low, when sat around the dinner table with assorted aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews, I congratulating Mrs Sensible’s aunty on the wonderful roasted dog (cane) instead of the roasted meat (Carne).

  6. Haha, this is very familiar. The fig mistake is classic, as are similar errors with the words for pen and keys… I just hope I will get there eventually and in the meantime my revenge is laughing at my students when they say something absurd/rude/confusing in English.

    • I tutor two adolescent girls in English and while I don’t laugh out loud at their silly mistakes I certainly show them what they’ve done then tell them a silly story of how I make the same errors in Italian. They don’t understand how I get cane and carne mixed up!

  7. I can’t even begin to recount my blunders… and I’m now making a whole host of new ones in Portuguese. God knows what I said to my teacher last night… I can’t even get simple sentences right.

    What’s really frustrating is the massive discrepancy between the thoughts in my head and what comes out of my mouth, which is what you’ve described in your sausage/bag conversation. It’s getting a bit better now, but the first two years here in Spain (especially the first!) were massively frustrating, because I couldn’t convey any complex ideas or thinking.

    And people used to say, “Your Spanish is really good”, which was kind, but…. just because I constructed a sentence that was grammatically passable and made sense doesn’t mean I’ve said what I really wanted to say.

    I feel a deep need to have intellectually stimulating, satisfying conversations where a real connection is established, rather than just communicating essential information or make small talk. I’m now at the point where I can just about pull it off, but I guess it’ll be another couple of years until I’m where I want to be.

    When I moved to the UK many years ago, though I did struggle in the beginning, but I got on top of it all really fast, i.e. within the space of a year. This experience led me to seriously overestimate my language assimilation capabilities when I moved to Spain, and much of my frustration stems from this.

    • The thoughts inside my head tell me I speak Italian with fluency like a native-speaker, then I open my mouth.

      I understand where you are coming from in wanting to have intelligent stimulating conversations, I’m so not there yet but I can finally crack jokes in Italian and they laugh right away not 10 seconds later! :)

      • Ah, yes that is very satisfying, and humour is just great social glue :)

        The Spanish in my head runs rings round the Spanish in my mouth… I think that’s quite normal, sigh.

  8. alison@clickinitaly.com says:

    I once told me boyfriend that I had found a white paint which he could use on the pink bats in his bathroom. Naturally he was concerned to hear that he HAD bats in his bathroom, so he went to look for these pink creatures. When he realised I had mistaken the word pipisterlli ( bats ) for the word piastrelle ( tiles ) he laughed for a week !

    • It’s funny the things non native speakers come out with. We once had two bats living in our rafters in the house. My husband loved it, I hated it. There was bat poop on the floor, walls and even the TV. Eventually they left the building. Thank goodness.

  9. Max510 says:

    :-D :-D
    Funny !
    “Ciao ragazza”… Might also be that is usual call with kind of phrase, even if he knows your name.
    I often call my friends in this way: “ciao ragazzo, ciao capo, ciao bella… ecc…”
    Buoni i fichetti ! :-D ;-)
    Ciao Jennifer

  10. I expect he doesn’t mind that you call him “Pablo” — which is not Italian, it’s Spanish. Ask him and find out. (In Italian, it’s Paolo. Paolo with an ‘O’ and not with a ‘U’). He probably associates the term “ragazza” with something “nice” — try and understand that. He is not trying to undermine you. You think it means “girl” ( as in little girl or whatever, inferior) … He means it as a compliment. He is making a blunder too, you see! He thinks that he can be nice to you in Italian (Sardinian Italian) … whereas from the way you are writing, it would seem that he has to learn to be nice to you in a more “English” way.

    • I expect that he has no idea I call him Pablo as this is a story and names have been changed to protect the innocent. Pablo is a Spanish name, I have a friend who was born and raised in Madrid, his name is Pablo. And Pablo sells me sausages and has never called me ragazza, he calls me by my name or signora. The fruit and vegetable guy calls me ragazza and I have every right not to like it, even if it’s his way of paying me a compliment. I am no way a girl.

  11. Alberto Mario DeLogu says:

    Jennifer, I teach my student this simple rule, which you will have to learn by heart. It may seem a little complicated, but once you learn it, it will take you everywhere… The rule is:
    Feminine indefinite article: easy. “Una” in front of a consonant, and “un’ ” in front of a vowel. Example: UNA donna, UN’arancia.
    Feminine definite article: same thing. “La” in front of a consonant, and “l’ ” in front of a vowel. Example: LA donna, L’arancia.
    Now to the masculine (in Italian the masculine gender is more complicated, you should know that by now :-))
    Masculine indefinite article: UNO in front of the letters Z and “impure” S. (What is an “impure S”? It is an S followed by another consonant. Examples: UNO studente, UNO stupido, UNO stronzo (no, I don’t use these examples in class :-D), UNO zio, UNO zaino etc.) (Also, in correct Italian, words starting with “PN” like “pneumatico” should follow this rule. But Italians today tend to say UN pneumatico). UN before everything else, all consonants and all vowels (and NO apostrophe!).
    Masculine definite article: “Lo” before all words starting with a vowel, apostrophed into “L’ “, e.g. L’amore, L’odio. As is, before Z and “impure S” (see above), example: LO zoo, LO zio, LO studente, LO stupido.
    “IL” on all other consonants. (Beware: unlike UN, the definite article IL doesn’t like to sit in front of words starting with a vowel. LO does instead).
    Lastly: don’t try any of this on words concerning parts and limbs of the human body! The declension of human body parts is a wide-eyed nightmare, that you will learn with time and lots and lots of patience…
    Did I confuse you enough? :-)

    • This is just what I needed Alberto! Thank you so much for taking the time to explain this, it means a lot! It makes much more sense now. Pretty much the same rules as in English for ‘a or an.’ I don’t know why I didn’t apply this before. I can’t wait to try out my new language skills. :)

  12. Neal says:

    I worked with a couple of Russian girls who were always asking me if I liked figs. Yes my pronounciation was off and they found it hilarious.

    • Sometimes people ask me to say the odd word in Italian, they are asking just so they can laugh at how I say it. I’ve finally caught on (a few years back) and would ask them in return to say something in English to which they got all shy and refused to say it!

  13. LOL!!!!!! I needed a good laugh this morning! My issue is always with the double letters…I can’t tell the difference when my husband repeats what I say using ONE letter or TWO..it all sounds the same! This is the reason why I never say PENNE to Italians…it’s always “pasta” The last thing I want to say is, “is the penis ready yet?!” ;-))))

    • Haha! Is the penis ready! Too funny. For a long time I just pointed to what I wanted, then I started to feel really stupid and just began to speak without caring what mistakes I made. Now the town knows me and how I speak – they are all very patient with me and I’m grateful for that.

  14. Love this post, Jennifer. And I have NOOOOOO idea where I would even begin to explain my Spanish blunders. I will confess, however, that my blunders were way worse when it came to Vietnamese.

    Hug from Ecuador,
    Kathy

  15. I’m hopeless at other languages but considering I had real trouble learning to read and write in English that’s hardly surprising. The first time I really tried speaking another language whilst abroad was in Spain. Knowing we were going to an area where little or no English was spoken, I spent every evening for about three months trying to learn enough to get by. At least three times during our one week stay, I had people roaring with laughter. I did manage to get by though apart from the once when my vegetarian boyfriend ended up with a ham and prawn paella!

    • LOL! That happened to me once in Germany. I had just finished studying German in school for three years and I thought I had it mastered. I was a veg-head then and tried telling the server no meat, no moo-moo. What I got was a plateful of meat!

      Thanks for sharing your story. :)

  16. Jennifer, you’re doing great. Italian is difficult, what with all the tenses (passato remote, wow), masculine and feminine, imperative, formal and informal modes, to say nothing of all the dialects! After 51 years here (is that possible?) I now go by ear: if it sounds right I’m happy. The biggest problem is having to consciously translate from English into Italian. That slows you way down. In a few more years you’ll find yourself ‘being Italian’ when you speak Italian just as you’re Australian when you speak English (did I get that right? You are Australian right?).

    • Ciao Paul,

      I have an internal dialogue with myself when I’m speaking Italian, and generally none of it sounds right. Maybe I’m too busy translating what I want to say from English to Italian that my brain goes in overload. I get a good hour of speaking Italian everyday, then I watch TV all in Italian even with Italian subtitles. And, I am Canadian. Thanks for stopping in and giving your two cents, I appreciate it. :)

  17. nicki says:

    The first time I went to my MIL’s house I told her I ate condoms on toast for breakfast instead of jam. You’ll learn more from your mistakes if you make people laugh!

  18. chirose says:

    Love…love…this blog post.!! It sounds like my word confusion in Spanish.!! hahaha.. And I was always better one on one too. When extra people entered the conversation that would add to my confusion and stress level.! And btw, love the fig photo.!! so perfect and they look delish :)

  19. Rosemarie Kleinberg says:

    Jennifer

    You made me laugh out loud while I was reading and enjoying your experience with the language. Stay as true as you are for you are so honest with your approach! At least you are out there speaking with others! Have a beautiful day! Keep enjoying all that life and Sardegna has to offer while learning the language and making wonderful things happen in your life! When I was taking Italian lessons our teacher had us all meet at a local Italian restaurant and order our meals in Italian only????? Talk about getting weird looks!!!! At least the waiter, Italian, was friendly and helped out when we did not make any sense of what we were trying to order! A fun experience though!

    Love,
    Rosemarie,
    The Sard/American

  20. Expat Eye says:

    Ha ha ha! The vagina one had tears streaming down my cheeks! At least you’re trying though – and at least they answer you in Italian. Everyone here answers me in English all the time which is really frustrating when you’re trying to learn!

  21. This is so great!! I am sure I say the dumbest things all day and don’t even know it. I would be petrified if I really knew how many screw-ups I emit from my poorly practiced bocca! Need to practice, need to practice. It’s as hard as getting up early every morning to go to the gym…which I don’t do either! But ya, I don’t think you change ‘un’ to ‘uno’ if you want to say ‘A’. ‘Uno’ is meant for words that start with an ‘s’ and the second letter being a consonant, like LO ‘ST’UDENTE. Also, for zio and zoo…and a few tricky ones.

  22. joesard says:

    What a fabulous blog Jenny and the comments of your followers are truly enlightening. So if i got it right the gender of your average Italian noun is determined on how it ends. Thus telegramma or clima or pirata or problema or schema or coma would be female gender and radio or mano or dinamo would likewise be macho nouns…and how about fruit trees and fruit: pesco and pesca or pera and pero, which of the two should be at the grocery or growing in an orchard? I’ve learned the hard way that even if what you write or pronounce in italian “sounds right” it will be probably be totally and hopelessly wrong. ;-) Even foreign words commonly used in Italian tend to make things all the more confusing “e-mail” is male gender if you use it in Italian, but if the term is translated it becomes posta-elettronica and somehow turns out to be female o_O ….truly another case of “lost in translation” ;-)

  23. lizbert1 says:

    What a great blog!! Thanks for sharing your pain but don’t give up – I’ve always found Italians to be very encouraging and appreciative that you’re trying to speak the language, however much you mangle it! Keep up the good work!!
    BTW Have you ever thought of swapping English lessons for Italian lessons?

  24. Bob says:

    Problema and all other greek-based words (dilemma, sistema, etc.) are masculine; Non c’e` un problema.

  25. Anna says:

    You know, the close-up of that fruit on your header /flash banner, did look like a vagina. An alien vagina which would devour everything in its path!

    I once described my job as an energy markets analyst as being an ‘energetic anal-f*cker’ in Russian, so I think I win the ‘embarrassing sexual innuendo’ contest :-P

  26. barbedwords says:

    I also have the problem of people talking to me in English whenever I attempt to speak to them in Italian. Mind you, it’s probably safer. Recently, a neighbour informed me that her father had died. As I walked away, I realised that instead of ‘mi dispiace’ (I’m sorry), I’d said ‘mi piace’ (I like) – no wonder she thinks English people are odd!

  27. rmescola@gmail.com says:

    WE had friends from CALIfornia visit us in 2000, and had taken a short course in Italian before coming over. One night Sandro went downstairs to get a bottle of house wine. Jim picked up the bottle and said…”Questo vino non contiene preservativi (condoms)” Sandro replied…Dio bon, speriamo di no. We laughed and I understood Jim’s mistake immediately. I said…preservativi are condoms in Italian, conservanti are preservatives…he turned beet red and said he was grateful to have made this mistake with us and not out in a restaurant. I told him that a waiter would understand immediately that Italian was not his first language, he would have gone into the kitchen and told everyone there, when they were done laughing, he would have come back out and taken his order…lol. I also had a friend who was using a primitive translation program to write to a potential relative in Italy, and retyping the sentence Do you like being a fireman, typed pompino instead of pompiere…lol…we caught it before she sent it…guffaw

  28. Wanderlust23 says:

    I’ve had blunders in the English language, more so in regards to slag, so kudos to you for rolling with these!

  29. Wanderlust23 says:

    *that should read slang!

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  31. aj vosse says:

    Might be overload at 7:30 in the morning but remember… it’s also a fun read for us at 7;30! ;-)
    The symbolism of the sausage and the fig so early on a Saturday morning… ;-)
    Yes, I’m often at it…. just 2 or 3 days ago I greeted a group of Japaneses lads by saying ‘thank you’ and then when I should of thanked them i asked how they were. My Japaneses is limited to about 5 words or phrases yet I can’t even get them right! :-P

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  33. M. R. says:

    Non è male il tuo italiano – non ti preoccupare. Però ci sono qualque parole … [grin]
    How lucky are you to be living the dream?!

  34. M. R. says:

    Vero? Ed il denaro … da dove viene? Non sono i miei affari – scusami! Beh …ho studiato un paio di volte, ecco tutto. University Continuing Education short courses – three, if I remember correctly. E poi, quando siamo stati alla bellissima Italia, a tutti ho parlato l’italiano. [grin] Those poor bastards!

  35. M. R. says:

    Posso capirti per quanto riguardo al lavoro: non c’è quasi niente da tanti anni.
    E tu – sei anni!!!! Meraviglioso! Alla fine quanto ci vuole?

  36. ahhahhahh LOL, they probably say “aahh e’ straniera…”

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