Tips To Perfect Your Italian Accent
When studying Italian or any other language, it is vital to use your ears. You can study Italian's many grammar rules and conjugations by heart. You can read books, magazines and newspapers to broaden your vocabulary knowledge, but you also need to listen to a real speaker and imitate the sounds he or she produces.
You can meet for a drink with an Italian friend, watch movies (first with subtitles, then try to go without), or listen to Italian music (you can find the lyrics on the net) and try to sing along. Singing is a very useful activity as it allows you to develop a quick talking pace. Listen and repeat as many times as it takes to sound like a real Italian, and try to notice which Italian sounds are different from those of your mother tongue. Being aware of differences is important!
There are a number of features one has to pay attention to. It can be challenging, as you may have to modify the way you move your mouth, lips, and tongue.
There are five Italian vowels: a, e, i, o and u. They can sound quite different from English vowels and they usually stand as one single sound. In the case of diphthongs and triphthongs there are, respectively, two and three distinct sounds:
- [ia] chiave ['kjave] - key
- [ie] niente [ni'ente] - nothing
- [iu] fiume [fi'ume] - river
- [io] piombo [pi'ombo] – lead (metal)
- [iai] cucchiai [ku'Kjaj] - spoons
- [iei] miei [mi'ei] – my
- [uoi] suoi [su'oi] – his
- [uai] guai [gu'ai] - troubles
To develop a good accent, it is important to understand how vowels work in Italian. When you are able to produce the five basic sounds, you can refine your pronunciation and produce the delicate difference between an open and a closed "o" or "e".
- [e] pianeta [pia'neta] - planet
- [E] lettera ['lEttera] - letter
- [i] risma [r'izma] – stack of paper
- [o] sconto ['skonto] - discount
- [ɔ] orca ['rka] – killer whale
- [u] numero ['numero] - number
Some Italian words end with an accented vowel (caffè, perché, potestà, lassù and many more). These accents are part of the standard spelling and cannot be omitted in any case. The accent can be acute (é) to indicate a closed sound, or grave (è) to indicate an open sound. Nonetheless, not all Italian speakers actually observe this distinction and tend to produce only one variety of sound and write only one type of accent. There are some regions in Italy where the accent is characterized by peculiar open or closed vocalic sounds, so it is often possible to guess the native region of the speaker just listening to his or her pronunciation.
One of the most noticeable characteristics of Italian is a trilled "r" sound. This can be difficult to master as it involves a quick trembling movement of your tongue against the back of the front teeth, and the sound produced is quite dissimilar to the corresponding English sound, especially when doubled. Some native speakers are not able to produce such a strong vibrating sound, so it is common to meet some Italians who pronounce this sound in a different way.
"C" and "g" can be pronounced in a hard or soft way, depending on their position of the word. In general, when followed by "e" and "i" they are soft and should be pronounced like the English "ch" (chess) and "j" (jewel), otherwise they are hard, even when followed by "h + i/e" and should be pronounced like the English "get" and "kitchen":
- Cesto ['tΣesto] – basket
- Forcina [for'tΣina] – hairpin
- Forchetta [for'ketta] – fork
- Panchina [pan'kina] – bench
- Perché [per'ke] – why/because
- Collo ['kollo] – neck
- Gesso ['dZEsso] – chalk
- Giardino [dZar'dino] – garden
- Ghirlanda [gir'landa] – garland
- Gatto ['gatto] – cat
3. Double Consonants
Many Italian words present double consonants. This affects the pronunciation, as it means that you have to elongate the sound and reinforce it while pronouncing them. This is important, as this feature can distinguish between two different meanings:
- casa/cassa ['kasa/'kaSa] - home/ box
- nono/nonno ['nono/'noNo] - ninth/grandfather
- camino/cammino [ka'mino/ka'Mino] – chimney/I walk
- caro/carro ['karo/'kaRo]– dear/cart
- capello/cappello [ka'peLo/ka'PeLo]– hair/hat
When a soft "c" is preceded by "s", the sound is like the English "sh" (shell). When in between vowels it is pronounced as doubled:
- Uscire [u'Σ:ire] – to go out
- Prosciutto [pro'Σ:ut:o] – ham
- Scemo ['Σ:emo] – stupid
When "g" is followed by "n" it sounds like "ni" in "onion". When it is between vowels it sounds doubled:
- Gnomo [omo] – dwarf
- Lasagne [la'zae] – lasagna
- Legno ['leo] – wood
When "g" is followed by "l" it sounds like "lli" in "million". Just like "gn" and "sh", it sounds doubled when in between vowels:
- Biglietto [bi×'×etto] – ticket
- Moglie ['mo××e] – wife
There are just some exceptions to this rule. In this case, three separate letters must be pronounced:
- Geroglifico [dZero'glifiko] – hieroglyphic
- Anglicano [angli'cano] – Anglican
4. Voiced and unvoiced consonants
One should try to pay attention to the difference between voiced and unvoiced "s" and "z".
The voiced pronunciation of "s" sounds like the English "rose" while the unvoiced sounds like "base". The "s" is voiced before a voiced consonant (b, d, g, l, m, n, r, v) and unvoiced after an unvoiced consonant (c, f, k, p, q, t):
- Sbaglio ['zba××o] – error
- Sveglia ['zve××a] – alarm clock
- Tasca ['taska] – pocket
- Storia ['storia] – story
The voiced pronunciation of "z" is similar to the English sound "dz", while the unvoiced sounds like the combination "ts":
- Zaino ['dzaino] – backpack
- Zanzara [dzan'dzara] – mosquito
- Zucchero ['tsuKero] – sugar
- Zuppa ['tsuPa] – soup
Some dialects and even some individuals present variations from the "standard" pronunciation, so you will learn them by listening and repeating.
Generally speaking, it is necessary to pronounce every letter of every word as clearly as possible at first, and then try to be quicker. Try to learn how different vowels and consonant sound and how you have to move your mouth to obtain that very sound. Remember to read, listen and repeat a lot. Listening to music, watching movies and meeting people are all very useful ways to practice your accent.