Guest Post by Gloria of SpeakIta.com
Find her on Instagram @speakitalianlanguageteaching
You’ve been living in Italy for a while now. Or maybe you’ve just arrived. And you realize (or
you have realized already) that people don’t speak the way you thought they would. You had
a certain idea in your mind: you thought that it would be easy to understand the Italians
when they spoke, but it turned out that reality is actually a bit different from what you
There are a number of reasons why this is happening. And, in this article, I would like to give
you a science-based explanation of what is going on and of what you can do to start
understanding Italian fast speech.
Please, keep in mind that the exercises that I’m going to show you are for solo learners.
When you work with a teacher, you get to use other types of exercises, benefit from
feedback and move on faster. When you’re learning on your own, you don’t get all of that but
you can still do something by yourself. And here is what you can do. But first of all, let’s
Why you can’t understand?
If you’ve been learning Italian for a while, you may expect to speak and understand every
single word that you know. And when you see that that doesn’t happen, it can be quite
frustrating indeed. Perhaps you even think that you did (and are still doing) everything
But is that really the case?
Of course not. Let me tell you why.
Learning Italian with a book doesn’t prepare you for real-life conversations.
Grammar and vocabulary exercises are good, for sure, but they don’t prepare you for when
you’re in front of another person and you’re trying to have a conversation in Italian with them.
All the exercises that you’ve been doing until now haven’t given you any idea of how words
and sentences sound in real life. And when you don’t know that, you can be easily tricked by
your first language sounds system. If you don’t know how Italian words are pronounced, you
will expect to hear them as you would pronounce them with the sound system of your first
And no, you cannot get rid of that. But you can learn the Italian sound system, which is the
a first important step in the next section about…
What helps you understand
Now we’re going to see how to get the tools to start understanding the Italian fast speech so
that Italian conversation will no longer be a nightmare to you.
The Italian sound system
As I’ve said before, your first language sound system tricks you all the time, and the only
way in which you can stop it from disturbing you is to learn the Italian sound system. You
can do it with a teacher or even by yourself. You will see that, if you take some time to get
used to how words sound in Italian, you will start to recognize them when you hear them in
How can you learn it?
Coursebooks are a great tool to begin to learn Italian sounds. You will find a lot of exercises
there and you will start to understand how Italian words are pronounced and how you will
hear them during a conversation.
If you have any doubt about certain words, online dictionaries like WordReference can be an
The words that you know
There’s also something important that I would like you to know: many people underestimate
this, but you can only understand the words that you know. So before blaming yourself for
not understanding, check if you’re not listening with something with way too many unknown
words. Chances are that might be the cause. And, of course, the more words you know, the
more you will understand.
Context and cues
There’s also something important that you need in order to understand better: knowledge of
the topic and the context. When you’re listening to an audio track or watching a clip, if you
already know a thing or two about the topic, you’re going to understand much more.
Remember that, as we’ve seen with words, what you already know helps you understand.
And when you’re watching a movie or a TV show, you get the benefit of visual cues:
gestures, looks, facial expressions… all things that contribute to your understanding.
Let’s get practical
Now that you’ve seen what you need, you’re going to learn a few strategies to help you
understand Italian conversations and know what is going on around you.
before jumping to real-life conversations, start by watching videos or by listening to audio
tracks. You can listen to a podcast or watch a TV show or a short video. Pick something that
you like and that is at the right level for you. Don’t forget to help yourself with visual cues if
you’re watching a video.
Transcripts and subtitles can be your friends
A great idea is to listen to something that comes with a transcript or subtitles. Transcripts
and subtitles help you make that connection between written words and spoken words.
In other words, they help you understand how Italian people pronounce their words.
There’s more. You can use transcripts to mark intonation and word stress. Something that
will make your life easier when you try to understand the Italian fast speech.
What do I know about it?
As we’ve seen before, what you know helps you understand. So, before listening to any
track or watching any video, ask yourself first: “what do I already know about this topic?”.
Think about it and answer yourself in Italian and then listen (or watch) and see how it goes.
Play with speed
If you want, and if you have software to help you with that, you can speed up or slow down
your track or clip. You can start listening to a slow version and then speed up as you move
forward. See how it goes as you increase the speed and add a little challenge.
Take a short segment where you know almost all the words. Listen to it, rewind and then
repeat out loud while you hear the original voice talking. This is a quite an old technique but it
has been proven to be effective when you want to improve your understanding.
Choose a small segment and transcribe what you hear word by word. Then compare your
transcription with the original one. This will help you catch the details and understand every
word and not just the gist.
Listen a lot
If you want to understand more, you need to listen more. Choose something easy and
enjoyable where you know at least 95% of the words. It can be a longer than usual track or
clip, as long as you know most of the words. Then, listen to it with the whole purpose of
enjoying the “show”. Remember to do it several times, not just one or two.
Don’t forget that, when you’re talking to someone and you don’t understand you can always
ask to repeat, to speak slowly, or to clarify. Get into the habit of doing it before you realize
that you’re not understanding. There’s nothing wrong with asking for clarification, and people
are usually happy to help you.
To sum up
- Learning the Italian sound system is the first step toward understanding Italian conversations.
- The more words you know, the more you can understand when you listen to a conversation.
- When you’re watching a video, context and visual cues are a great ally.
- To start understanding Italian conversations
- Prepare yourself by listening to tracks and watching videos. Choose something at the right level for you.
- Go for something that comes with a transcript or subtitles.
- Before you listen, ask yourself what you already know about the topic.
- Slow down or speed up the track to match your listening needs.
- Shadow the original voice.
- Transcribe a short segment to learn how to catch every word.
- Listen a lot to something that you find easy.
- When you’re in a conversation, remember to ask for clarification and help.
I hope you found this guide helpful. Listening to Italian fast speech takes a while, but with practice and consistency, you can get there step by step.