Translating Italian back into English

09/02/2009 - 17:11

My husband and I have been learning Italian mostly with the Michel Thomas CD's on and off for about four years now. We have managed to progress through from the foundation course to the advanced course and more recently the later vocabulary course done by Rose Lee Hayden and Paolo Tite.I am now feeling quite confident in the sayings that I know and how to make up sentences and often even which tense to use and how to form it. The problem that I had when we were there in June was that I was having trouble translating back what the Italians were saying to me. It seems that now we can speak more Italian they are speaking less slowly to us and now all the words seem to run into one. My husband manages to pick up the odd words and gets the gist of what they are trying to say, but I just stand there feeling stupid because I haven't understood what they have said.I usually do OK with the dual language articles in the Italy Mag, but obviously I can take my time with that, and don't have somebody standing there waiting for interaction. What I feel that I now need is a course around the other way where the native speakers are Italian and I have to say what the English is. Is there anything available like this, does anyone know? If so, do I need to buy something when I am next in Italy or can it be bought on-line?Grazie milleToni


Ciao ToniI cant really help you in recommending anything but I`d just like to say that I fully understand your frustrations. I`ve been trying for a few years myself starting with night school then going on to the BBC series of books (Talk Italian) and now i`m on to the Michele Thomas CD`s, the ones were he interacts with a couple of students.I dont think I`m up to your level but I can just about get by and, as you say, when Italian is spoken back to you, especially at the normal rate of a machine gun......... I get totally flumuxed!!I take heart in the fact that everyone I speak to about this assures me that the more you speak and listen the easier it becomes, so I`m cracking on and will do the best I can. One of the first things I asked my teacher was, tell me how to say " can you speak more slowly please" 

Did she say it was "poi parlare piu lentamente per favour" by any chance? That reminds me we also had some Readers Digest tapes at the beginning with some awful accompanying music and that phrase was on those. It is a very helpful phrase, but the last time I asked our friend that, she had somebody else coming in her shop and she didn't want to repeat it in front of them! About a day later the penny dropped of what she had been trying to say to us. As the saying goes "piano piano". Good luck with Michel Thomas, he has definitely helped us come on with our Italian.

I know just what you mean.  I have always used the phrase "Parla piu piano per favore", or "piu adagio".  I usually follow it with "Sono solo un americano."  This brings a chuckle, and they slow down.  As you speak more, you won't need to "translate" back into English, you'll think in Italian.

Can you get Italian TV? Listening really is just practise. The TV is a good way. Or try watching a film you know well on DVD by switching the language into Italian. Some will let you put Italian subtitles on at the same time. I can't say it is a relaxing way to watch a film but it helped me. I have just signed  up for the language course on They have an offer where you can buy all 4 courses for €260. I can do them anywhere (a big bonus for me). There is online support and lots of video and audio segments. My OH is going to start at level one which is all written in English. The thing I really liked is that they don't slow the audio down. I think it's a bad move to listen to audio where they speak very slowly. What are you supposed to do in real life where people speak at normal speed???! I haven't started yet but I want to ultimately do their online degree which looks very interesting and is awarded byt the University of Pisa. I work so I can't attend classes (not that there are any round here anyway). If anyone is also doing this course maybe we could start a group and give each other some help.

In reply to by Penny

Penny's right about the tv i mean,however as one may easily get distracted by images with all the semi nude women on it i'd certainly recomend the radio Radio 3. is a good intellegent channel with interesting subjects and people whospeak well on serious subjects (probably difficult especially at the begining) but worth it because one is forced to listen with out the aid of images....

Toni, what you are experiencing now is just part of the process of learning. You have acquired the basics in a non-Italian speaking environment and that part of your learning is also necessary; however, you have reached the stage where "Immersion" is necessary and you can only do this in Italy or in a class where English is not allowed. One language is not a direct translation of another and if you have systematically been doing this, you are falling into your own trap. You need to reach the stage where just by understanding the meaning of a few words you are able to work out the general meaning of the sentence without translating it. It is a difficult stage to reach and this is where immersion works.It is true that people will tend to speak to you faster if they think that you have a good command of the language. As the others have told you, ask them to slow down and to repeat what they have said. Don´t worry, they will understand your predicament. And keep on practising your oral skills as much as you can. Reading and even writing are easier to acquire than expressing your thoughts or understanding what someone else is saying.

Hi ToniI smiled when I read your post because this is exactly what I have been saying to everyone I know. I too have learnt Italian grammar with Michele Thomas and think he is wonderful. I would write and tell him if he were still alive.                                           We live part time in a condominium in Umbria and have very friendly neighbours and I struggle to understand what they say to me. It had not occured to me that they might think my Italian is better than it is. There are a small number of people I can understand better and after an evening with Italian friends I feel I have made a quantum leap forward. I came to the conclusion that I needed a formal Italian conversation class. Like the french one at school with Madamoiselle.I have been put in touch with an Italian teacher who runs various courses here in Uk and I am going to join with one of them when we return to England for 4 months this winter. I am of course terrified I will not understand a word they say, but must do it as I am determined to learn. I cannot bear not being able to gossip with my neighbours.

I struggle with Italian but my wife is pretty good and has basically used all the Michel Thomas CDs, and having just had our 4th holiday there she's much more at ease.  I spent a year working in France and had the same problems.  It took me 6 months of immersion in the language to really undestand it so I could hold a reasonable conversation, but also to realise that just as we chop and change our words around - so do they.   So I guess the Italians do as well.  But we started watching Italian TV over t'internet - you can get RAI on the web.  We started by watching the Meteo broadcasts but it got too depressing!!   Otherwise, we watched TV while we were over there and did manage to catch the odd word.We have found that if you try to speak to them in Italian they are often amazed that British people are taking the trouble to learn it as it's not one of the usual languages we learn.

Toni said:" What I feel that I now need is a course around the other way where the native speakers are Italian and I have to say what the English is. "Hai bisogno di me allora! Io sono italiana! Che ci sto a fare qua, io?  - Scusa, quest'ultima frase ha una struttura un pò difficile da tradurre in inglese.Comunque hai ragione [ you're absolutely right ], potrebbe farti comodo una persona di origine italiana che ti aiuti a tradurre dei discorsi in inglese [ it's not a bad idea to look for someone who helps you to turn italian into english speech ]; Potrei offrirti il mio aiuto ma si tratterebbe di tradurre frasi o un testo, il che non ti aiuterebbe tanto[ I would be more than happy helping you to translate some phrases or an entire text, but that would be written only and wouldn't help you that much. ]Ti consiglierei di andare in un'università di lingue straniere della città più vicina a te, e mettere un'annuncio sulla bacheca dell'università! sono sicura che un sacco di studenti vorranno aiutarti, perchè imparerebbero qualcosa in più sull'inglese![ My personal advice is to go to the nearest University of Foreign Languages and post on the wall that you are looking for someone to practice Italian. I'm sure that many students would be happy to help you, cause they would learn something more about English too! ]Per quanto riguarda i Dual Language Articles, spero ti possano aiutare. Nei prossimi giorni il sito verrà aggiornato con nuove lezioni di italiano e nuovi Dual Language da leggere ed ascoltare.[ Re dual language articles, hope they may be of some help. In the next days the website will be updated with new lessons and other dual language articles to listen. ] 

Hi Toni,I guess Valentina is right. I had the same probelms when I came over to Italy in 2001 and could hardly speak this wonderful language. I came over for an  erasmus year at University (in Naples) and learned "real Italian" by speaking to all those nice people I met there. We just had conversations (in Italian for me and in English to help them as well). I truly believe that many would love to exchange language expereince with you. Just try.Let us know ... :-)monica

Thank you to everyone for your encouragement. Perhaps I am just being impatient. We are off to Italy next Thursday for two and a half weeks, so I should have plenty of time to immerse myself and hopefully I shall feel more optimistic by the end of the holiday. I shall have to prick my ears up more and listen carefully, instead of going into holiday mode and switching off. I suppose it doesn't help when there are so many different dialects all over Italy as well. I shall get there with the language - I am determined to! After all we do plan on living there in the next few years, so I shall have to get up to speed by then.

CiaoI too am trying to learn italian but I have been using Pimsluer and Rosetta Stone. I came across a web site called babbel ( which I have found very useful. You get to meet italians and get to help each other. The site is free and it has it's own built in courses. I have met a few italians who want to pratice their english so we chat to each other via msn or skype. Like you I do struggle with the speed at which they chat away. Martyn

I used the Michel Thomas audio's followed by  teachyourself italian audios. It was only when I discovered the BBC online courses that my italian started to become conversational, I use the 12 week course combined with my weekly lesson.The BBC have so much on offer, I think their revision italian courses would cater to your phonetics problem, the 12 week course on offer, its interactive and for understanding pronounciations its fantastic. their is other courses , such as revision ones offered also, have a look, they start the couirtse every monday and its free of charge of course have fun! Michael

Thanks Michael for the reminder about BBC Italian 12 steps.I used it when I first wanted to learn Italian (house hunting time) but I was  trying to accumulate vocabulary and relying on the written word. Have just tried it again and replaying it again and again hope to hammer home what is being said. But how they run their words together!

I used Michael Thomas but as there are no classes in our part of the uk the first time I went out to Italy I'd only got the basics.After 4 years of working on the house dealing with 3 or 4 different workmen who speak no English I've got to the stage I can speak Italian in a basic form ie no philisophical conversations.I like to listen to how people use Italian in reality rather than how its written or taught in a class.I find I pick up at least 2 or 3 useful new phrases each time I go out - for example I arrived at a hotel and someone heard me and shouted arriivo! So now when anyone calls for me I use that as a reply if Its something I'm doing.I also picked I that Italians use I said ie 'ho detto' and I can just put the to have verb which I know in front of the to say verb!In Abruzzo most of the peole speak dialect and drop the vowel sound from the end of words and in the next vilage they use a French/Italian mix of language so its hopeless just learning from a book or CD.I've just bought Barrons Italian Idioms - which I got on Amazon and its excellent as these are the things you'd love to say but just cannot translate to Italian.Whats this mean in English???'un morto di fame' 

In reply to by myabruzzohome

I can get La Stampa on the internet but cannot open the videos.  Do you know what kind of driver or codex I need to do that?  I have tried the web Rai but still have not been able to get it to work.  Any suggestions would be helpful.Don L

 i came at all this from a different angle...  having had a fairly wide european life for many years had picked up basics in most alnguages ... of the places  i used to spend time ... but nothing formal... married an Italian and had to start spending time with Italians and my understnding grew .. a lot..speech little...  wactching Italian TV in Engalnd was the biggest help i believe..  ant sat box aimed at the right satelite and you get the theree RAI progs for nothing... is one of the best ideas  given..and radio is even simpler...  my Italian is still atrocious.. am sure most of you that have done grammar courses will speak better than me... and thats seven years down the line... however i pretty well understand it all now.. speed  a nightmare to start now feels almost in comparison like they are talking in slow motion...  and really its not a far stretch to realise that Italians get completely lost in english if they are with a crowd of english speakers nattering away.... instead of just one on one... italian speed is the same as english speed its just we dont realise how we cut off word ends and roll them together to make it unintelligeble  for the average non english speaker... my posatings are an excellent examople ... almost coded if you are not english... but most english speakers can work out my mis spellings and lack of punctuation..and get the sense...imagine if you were Italian trying to read what i attempt to write...  so i agree with most of the above advice... it will come with time... doing the basic ground work is something i skipped... because im lazy and also have an italian/english speaking wife and son...  so always had a safety net... but being immersed in the sound.. and this changes from area to area with the sort of knowledge you have will lead to within a few weeks of being easily able to get basics and even start replying like Becky... my main problem now is that at a party with a lot of englsih people i could not understand a word they said...  well actually not a desperate problem not soemthing that occurs very often... but it sort of makes your head swim...  am happier now in mixed circles...have a few friends with anglo italian type partnerships with friends that are italian and speak some english and the conversation really flows well as everthing gets mixed up... all very strange i  know...  but i think you that tak the time to learn the basics properly will find little trouble once you get the cahnce to spend decent amounts of time here... am impressed

I wonder how much time its going to take me to learn.I find I understand much more Italian than I am able to speak, and it does depend on who I am with. I can spend hours with my friend Paola who speaks alittle English, so between the two of us we seem to chatter on with no problem, but with others I am lost. I really do admire the English people here who are fluent in Italian, but doubt I will ever achieve that, was rubbish at languages at school and that trait has followed me here.A

I came back from Italy feeling much more confident with the language than I was before I went. I even understood more of what the eighty year old lady next door to us was saying, and she often speaks in dialect.We do have access to some of the Italian TV stations here in England, but I rarely get time to watch TV, so I don't get much practise in that way. Also I do now feel that with more time spent in Italy that understanding the language will come and that eventually (maybe one day) I will become fluent.Thanks for the encouragement, it helped me to go to Italy in the right frame of mind to pay more attention and to listen carefully to what was being said to me! Toni