The sometimes frustrating -- but mostly convenient -- thing you will find about larger Italian cities is that most locals speak English. Further, they want to speak English (more than you want to practice your Italian) and will persistently respond to your feeble attempts in their language with your mother tongue.
In establishments in and around touristic areas, employees will know enough to serve you your gelato without too much pantomiming. However, make two right turns from the center thinking “oh let’s turn here, this would be such a great photo op” and, just like that, you’re in front of a bakery passed down in the Rossi family since 1880 where all three generations of women work -- not one of whom speak a word of English.
Should you find yourself in such a state, the below phrases in Italian will help breech the language barrier and assist you in meeting and eating your way around the city during while studying abroad in Italy.
1. Piacere (pyah-CHEH-reh)
Italians are socialites -- all of ‘em. They are affable and warm and constantly introducing themselves. Subsequently, the word “piacere,” meaning nice to meet you is essential, and to be paired with a double cheek kiss greeting and introduction.
This reception is always a little clunky for Americans to execute after a lifetime of personal space training, but it is a staple that is imperative in your acclimation from high school student to Italian local -- if only for a little while.
2. Boh (bo)
The English equivalent of “dunno,” this lil’ phrase is so short and sweet you’ll find yourself hoping you don’t know the answer just so you can use it.
This phrase is most appropriate in relaxed situations like a friend asking about your plans for the day.
If you are stressed about when to use “boh” versus “non lo” just think about instances where you would use “dunno.” This phrase is most appropriate in relaxed situations like a friend asking about your plans for the day, as opposed to a professor asking where that five-page paper is. Be sure to accompany this one with a slight shoulder shrug.
3. Permesso (pair-meh-so)
Whether you be shuffling down the impossibly narrow sidewalks while studying in Florence or weaving your path through the Milano Centrale train station, this Italian parole is as practical as it is polite.
The fact is this: the hunched Italian women in front of you are in no rush, they were raised to regard time as something that, coincidentally, always passes. They have seen that church one thousand times and are pleasantly unaware of the fact that their slow gait is disrupting your neurotically-planned day. Say “permesso” as you brush by them and it will go far to combat any potential stereotypes of you as a rude American.
4. Basta (bah-sta)
Easy to remember and easy to use. This word, meaning "enough," will prove itself powerful, specifically in regards to protecting your wallet.
When vendors carting invariably useless objects (squishy balls of rubber, beaded bracelets, African cookbooks) assail you at the most inappropriate times (over a candlelit dinner in a piazza, while watching an impromptu musical performance in the street, during a morning coffee at a café) this word is your first line of defense. Basta.
It must be said forcefully, like “NO!” and can be accompanied with a palm in the air or downcast eyes. Girls may also use this word aimed at the very persistent Italian men that have no shame in suggestively greeting them from one end of the street to the other.
5. Posso Avere (POHS-soh ah-VEH-reh)
These two words will unlock treasures as esteemed as Michelangelos’ David: food. “May I have,” followed by a motion to the pastry, the stracciatella gelato, the indistinguishable word on the menu. You have done your part to meet in the middle, and you will be rewarded in the food that encompasses two quintessential food groups: pizza and pasta... Or, honestly, any of the numerous must try foods and drinks while studying abroad in Italy.
Another way to order something is “vorrei,” which translates to “I would like,” and it’s less formal and therefore more appropriate in relaxed settings like pizzerias (as opposed to the language you’d use when speaking to a waiter). It’s important to recognize that you will be served whether or not you order in Italian, but more often than not Italians will appreciate the effort.
6. Dai (dayhee)
This is a subtle word you will quickly familiarize yourself with, as you will hear it often. It is not a conjugation of the word dare, but instead it is used as a word of encouragement. Translated, it means “come on,” but it can additionally be used to mean “stop it.”
Although a short little word, this will enhance a sentence significantly.
Context as well as tone will indicate the intended meaning. The irritated tone of a grandmother reprimanding her bickering grandchildren means the latter, while a girl calling over her shoulder to her slow friends means the former. Although a short little word, this will enhance a sentence significantly.
7. Che Figata (keh fee-GAH-tah)
Keep this one close -- you’ll need ‘er. You’re living in Italy for a term? Che figata! What a cool thing! With the opportunities that lie ahead, behind, and underneath you, you are bound to master this phrase.
Something to keep in mind: Italians don’t drop “che figata” like Americans drop “cool” at every comment, TV commercial, and new Ben & Jerry’s flavor. So use it sparingly.
“Che fico” is another version of the expression, translating closer to just “cool!”
All of my (envied) multilingual friends say that in different languages you have different identities. This voyage marks your first opportunity to create and develop yourself as an Italian -- che figata! Don’t be shy to use what you know and what you sort-of-know during your time in high school in Italy.
What Else Will You Learn?
Even if you end up using a word incorrectly, your new Italian friends will no doubt appreciate the effort and you'll be rewarded with a new, more fun vocabulary. Buon viaggio!
Not ready to learn any other Italian? That's okay! Here's how to study abroad in Italy even if you don't speak Italian.