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How does Italian work?

When you learn a new language, there's lots to learn. It can be overwhelming, so let's talk for a moment about how Italian works. What can you expect from this language?

Nouns

Nouns in Italian have gender. In German, we have masculine, feminine, and neuter, but in Italian, we just have masculine and feminine. So every noun has an article that will be different according to gender and number. 

 

Daniela talks about that in her series of video lessons here.

 

Marika gives some tips on figuring out the gender of a noun here, beginning with masculine nouns.

Di solito, tendono ad essere di genere maschile tutti quei nomi che terminano in "o" oppure in "e". Per esempio: orso, cavallo, armadio,

Usually, all the nouns ending in "o" or "e" tend to be of the masculine gender. For example: bear, horse, cupboard,

Captions 3-4, Marika spiega Il genere maschile

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Personal pronouns

Personal pronouns need to be learned little by little. We need them to determine who's talking or acting or whom we're talking about.  

 

When we learn how to conjugate a verb, we learn the personal pronouns associated with each person:

 

For example, when we conjugate the basic and irregular verb essere (to be) we use the personal pronouns:

io sono (I am)

tu sei (you are)

lui è (he/it is)

lei è (she/it is)

noi siamo (we are)

voi siete (you are)

loro sono (they are)

 

A tricky thing about pronouns and verbs

One of the trickiest things about Italian is that more often than not, the personal pronoun is left out entirely. You might be desperately trying to understand who are we talking about, but can't find the personal pronoun.

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Italian comes from Latin, so the way a verb is conjugated includes information on the "hidden" or  "implied" personal pronoun. Sometimes it's ambiguous, as you can see in this lesson. But let's have a quick look at what is tricky.

 

Let's take a simple sentence in English we might want to translate into Italian.

I see the horse. 

Your natural inclination is to take the Italian for I = io.

 

Then you want the verb "to see." It's the verb vedere. I need to put it into the first person. I look it up on a conjugation chart: vedere

Io vedo  (I see).

Then I want the object: horse. In this case, it is a direct object because the verb vedere (to see) is transitive in both Italian and English (but this isn't always the case!)

the horse = il cavallo.

We come up with:

Io vedo il cavallo (I see the horse).

 

But, except in certain cases where we want to emphasize who sees the horse, we can just leave out the personal pronoun. The sentence becomes:

Vedo il cavallo (I see the horse).

 

It's perfectly clear without the personal pronoun. I know it is there, implied. This is totally normal in Italian and takes some getting used to. Here's an example you can listen to:

Quindi, quando vedo una persona, prima la saluto: "ciao".

So, when I see a person, first I greet him: "Hi."

Caption 10, Corso di italiano con Daniela Primi incontri - Part 2

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*tip: When you learn a noun in Italian, try to always include the definite article. We don't worry about this in English, but in Italian, it's super important. It's impossible to get it right all the time, but getting off to a good start will pay off later.

Something to know about verbs

Regular Italian verbs generally fall into 3 categories and end in -are, -ere, or -ire.

Parlare (to speak)

Vedere (to see)

Venire (to come)

 

Each of these groups has a specific way of getting conjugated, so little by little it's good to get a sense of how these work. It will help you conjugate verbs without having to look them up all the time.

 

Daniela has a series of video lessons in Italian about Italian, so check out the series here. She delves into the three types of verb conjugations, represented by three types of infinitive verb endings.

-are 

-ere

-ire

 

Don't feel you have to start memorizing verbs, unless you want to, but do be aware that there are basically three ways to end a verb and you will discover them as you learn. This will also help you identify verbs as you listen and read.

Irregular verbs

There are some irregular verbs that need to be learned early in the game because, just as in English, they are also helping verbs. We're talking about essere (to be) and avere (to have).

 

We use these verbs tons of times every day, so the sooner you get used to their conjugations, the easier it will be further on. 

Modal verbs

Just as in English, Italian has modal verbs. Just as in English, the modal verb gets conjugated and then you tack on the verb in the infinitive. So one trick when learning Italian is to learn the modal verb potere (to be able to  [which we conjugate with "can."]).

Posso venire (Can I come)?

 

Daniela teaches us about modal verbs. The main ones are potere (to be able to), volere (to want to), and dovere (to have to). They are irregular, so it's a good idea to learn them early on, especially the first person, so you can express your needs!

Adjectives

Lots can be said about adjectives, but for now, let's remember that adjectives go with nouns, and in Italian, they have a very close relationship. The ending of an adjective has to agree with the noun it is modifying. What matters is the gender and the number.

 

See this lesson in English about adjectives.

 

Daniela goes through everything you need to know about adjectives here.

 

Two adjectives you will need when you begin speaking Italian are bello (beautiful, great) and buono (good). Daniela talks about these 2 adjectives here.

Word order

Sometimes Italian word order is like English but often it isn't. 

 

Let's take the example we looked at earlier.

Vedo il cavallo (I see the horse).

 

In the example above, I know the pronoun io is implied because of the conjugation of the verb vedere. Vedo is the first person singular, so the hidden pronoun will be io.

 

When I replace cavallo with a pronoun, the word order changes!

Lo vedo (I see it).

 

The pronoun lo stands for il cavallo, but it comes before the verb. This is just one example of how word order changes and is different than what we might expect.

So in terms of word order, you need to expect the unexpected, and little by little you will listen and repeat, listen and repeat, and you'll get it.

To sum up

This was intended to give you an overview of what to expect from the Italian language. We've tried to give you some links to Yabla videos and lessons that delve into each aspect of the language. But Yabla is primarily a library of videos you can use to hear the language spoken by native speakers. Don't be afraid to watch videos using the English subtitles, Italian subtitles, or both. Or... just let it soak in, depending on your mood and time availability. Vocabulary reviews and other exercises we've provided at the end of each video will help you learn new words, check your progress, and help you with listening comprehension and dictation. It's up to you to take advantage of them.

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Basics Grammar

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