Most Italian pronunciation guides are really only about pronunciation rules for the language. They tend to fall short of teaching you how to actually hear and pronounce said sounds.
Here at The Mimic Method, our mission is to help bridge the cross-cultural gap between people and inspire real human connection. If you’re the kind of person who wants to make real long-term relationships in another language, this is the place for you. We do this by teach unique pronunciation method through mimicry.
By the end of this Italian pronunciation guide, you should be familiar with most of the sounds associated with the Italian alphabet in their phonetic form. You may even discover a few tricks to overcome things like ‘trilling your R’s’.
In general, Italian pronunciation is quite regular. You can tell how to pronounce a word from the way it’s written once you know what sound each letter (or group of letters) represents.
Luckily, the sounds almost always match the spelling. Many speak the consonant sounds in a similar way to English. For instance, the main differences are with the dz, ʎ, ɲ, r, ts sounds.
Vowels are pronounced the more-or-less same wherever they occur – unlike English, in which each vowel can be spoken in several distinct ways (i.e., through vs. tough vs. though). Read on to learn more.
Italian Alphabet vs. Sounds
There are 21 scripted letters in the modern Italian alphabet. But there are at least 32 phonetic sounds in modern Italian speech.
Although English and Italian have similar alphabets, the same characters do not always represent the same sound in both languages. The challenge will be to rewire the your brain so you can produce sounds for letters that sound different from what you’re used to.
The reason why there are more sounds than letters is that these sounds are used for the same combination of letters – or syllables – when spelled at different places in words. It is really a matter of hearing these patterns and incorporating them into your own speech.
The other reason has to do with regional dialects, which we won’t get into too much here. Dialects introduces new sounds to spoken speech (i.e., Tuscan vs. Sicilian accent). And this pattern continues for other similarly spelled words in the dialect.
Italian Alphabet Chart
|Alphabet||"Name" of Letter||In Words|
Again, Note that the list of letters in the chart above is NOT indicative of all the sounds that go with them. As said earlier, most guides just teach you things like the alphabet and make you miss out on the nuances of sounds which really give you better pronunciation.
This traditional approach is a “learn by eye” approach. At The Mimic Method, we like to use a “learn by ear” approach to language learning.
But to make things easier for you, for the rest of this guide we’re going to be talking about Italian alphabet pronunciation as well as the sounds behind the patterns in the alphabet starting with the most important group – vowel sounds.
Italian Vowel Letters
What is a vowel?
Vowels are created by completely opening the vocal tract and allowing air to flow out unobstructed. What determines the sound of a vowel is the position of your tongue within your mouth. To help in this process, you will first develop a physical awareness of your tongue’s location in your mouth.
The chart here is a Vowel Chart. A vowel chart plots the location of a vowel sound in your mouth.
The three vowel sounds on this page are the extremes in Vowel Height and Backness. In other words, the other vowel sounds for a given language are going to occur at some point between these three extremes.
You will rely mostly on your ear to do this. But it can help you a great deal by starting on the nearest English vowel and going in the right direction from there.
Do as the speaker in the audio file and alternate back and forth out loud to yourself: EEEE! —> UUUU! —> AAAA! —> UUUU! —> EEEE! —> UUUU! etc. Look at at the chart and try to create a mental connection between the visual directions on the chart and your tongue movement in the mouth.
There are two unique features which make the vowel sounds distinctively Italian.
- The tongue positions are more extreme in the mouth
- Some Vowels sound are crisper, shorter in length
- Some Vowel sounds are longer, more enunciated
Compared to other latin languages such as Portuguese or French, Italian has a relatively simple menu of vowel sounds. In Italian, there are actually more combinations of vowel letters than there are sounds – different combinations of letters and placement in a world will determine a unique sound.
Since we all speak our native languages without thinking about the movements in our mouth, you probably can’t feel what direction your tongue is moving when you speak. That’s why the first step is developing an awareness and control over your tongue’s movement. Let’s start by examining the Italian vowels in more detail.
Fixed Vowel Scripts
A Sound (a) – latte, da, mia
The A vowel is towards the bottom-back part of our mouth. For this, our tongue needs to come further down and further forward than in English.
This sound is slightly more open (tongue lower in mouth) and frontal (tongue closer to teeth) than the vowel sound in the American English words jot, poppa, Ana.
It’s common for people to have the tendency to close this vowel (as explained in the next section). So be sure to always exaggerate its openness by lowering your jaw as much as possible when saying this sound.
Try to exaggerate and lower your jaw as much as possible when creating the A vowel.
E Sounds (e, ɛ) – me, essere, bene
The first sound is more open (tongue lower in mouth) than the vowel sound in the English words hey, bay, say, lays. Typically, the E vowel in the words hey, bay, say, lay glide up near the I vowel.
The second E sound is the same sound as in American “everyone.”
Remember to keep your E vowels short and crisp.
I Sound (i) – piccoli, amici
This sound has the exact same tongue position as the vowel sound in the English words see, knee, he, she. Typically, it is shorter in length than in English. Remember to keep your I vowel short and crisp. It helps to smile wide when creating this I vowel.
O Sounds (o, ɔ) – domani, buono
The primary O sound is more open (tongue lower in mouth) than the vowel sound in the English words no, so, go, toe. When this sound occurs in English, it glides towards the U vowel forming a diphthong. This does not happen in Italian. The English version is also rounded, meaning you will curl your lips at the end of the sound. Rounding does not occur in Italian.
The secondary O sound occurs in English words like dog, walk, small. You will usually hear this sound at in the beginning of words in Italian such as buono (bwaw-no), vostro (vaw-stro), cosa (kaw-za).
Remember to keep the O vowels short and relax your lips (do not round them too much).
U Sound (u) – sua, tutto
The U vowel has the exact same tongue position as the vowel sound in the English words who, shoe, two, Sue.
When native speakers make this sound, it is shorter in length than in English. This sound is usually rounded in English, meaning you will curl your lips at the end of the sound. Rounding does NOT occur in Italian.
Remember to keep this sound short and crisp and keep your lips relaxed to avoid rounding the vowel.
Moving Vowel Pairs
For vowel pairs, the same rule applies for each letter in the alphabet. They do not change at all depending on where they are in a word and will always be the same.
When spoken at normal speeds, some movement vowel pairs will be spoken so that they will blend together to make a W sound. For instance, “qua” is pronounced kwa and “dieci” is pronounced dyeh-chi. As a general rule of thumb, remember to keep these movement vowel pairs short and crisp.
Use the list below to identify the movement vowel pairs in the words for numbers one through ten.
Common Pronunciation Errors
As an English speaker you developed hearing and speaking patterns that clash with the Italian sound system. Fortunately, these tendencies are predictable and fixable once you become aware of them. With vowels, these five tendencies will account for 80% of your pronunciation errors so that’s why it is important to review them early on.
By understanding the things you’re inclined to do wrong, you can begin to make sense of these differences. Below, I categorize and explain all the major English vowel mispronunciation tendencies.
In English, diphthongizing is a fancy word meaning we add an additional vowel at the end of words as we close our mouths. For O we glide it near to U as in the word “hello!” (He-lo->u). For E we glide near to I as in the word “Hey!” (He->i). This does not happen in Italian. These sounds are short and sweet with no additional vowels added on the end. The audio below demonstrates.
When English speakers say the vowel U or O, they tend to curl their lips in at the end which alters the sound. In Italian, there is no rounding so your lips should never curl like this. To avoid doing this, you will want to keep these vowels short and crisp. Imitate the audio and try to build an awareness of this lip motion.
As you will review later in this post, there is a Italian consonant sound known as The Alveolar Tap. In Italian writing, this sound is represented by the letter “r”. Very often in Italian, this sound occurs at the end of a syllable, after the vowel (e.g. AR, IR, UR, ER, and OR).
This is called “R-coloring Vowels,” and it does not exist in Italian. R-coloring vastly alters the sound of a vowel. The main reason an English speaker would pronounce it this way in the first place is because she starts with a visual concept of the spelling.
As a Italian learner, you may have a strong tendency as an English speaker to replace the Italian R-Consonants with the English /ɹ/ (ruh) sound.
Even more important, it is also one of the most common consonant speech sounds in the language.
As I’ve said, these tendencies will account for 80% of your pronunciation errors. Develop an awareness of them now and you can drop them from your speech patterns quickly. Be sure to return this page regularly as you improve your pronunciation.
English to Italian Vowel Pronunciation Chart
|English Phoneme||Examples||Italian Phoneme||Examples|
|[i]||me, she, see||[i]||bile, finito, isola|
|[eɪ]||hey, say, lay|
|[ɛ]||well, get, yeah||[ɛ]||presto, bene, dove|
|[e]||era, donne, nave|
|[ɑ]||hot, on, want||[a]||casa, anche, una|
|[aɪ]||guy, eye, arrive|
|[ɔ]||all, sorry, talk||[ɔ]||ancora, fuoco, luogo|
|[oʊ]||go, don't, those||[o]||palo, non, viso|
|[uw]||you, do, who||[u]||museo, humano|
Italian Consonant Sounds
What is a consonant?
Unlike vowel sounds, you create consonant sounds by blocking air from coming out of your mouth. In this section, we’ll review Italian consonant scripts, the sounds they represent and some important consonant differences between English and Italian.
Note that the letters in parenthesis are the actual phonetic sounds.
Consonant Sounds List
B (b) – bella, banda, cambio
As in English word bear. It is essentially the same as the Italian B.
C (ci) – cane, cielo
There is a “ch” C sound which sounds like English word chicken. In Italian, this “ch” C occurs before I, E. Before a, o, u or a consonant, it is like the English “k”, it will have a hard sound like K.
D (di) – date, dove
D is very close to the American D in dog, but the tongue pushes a little harder against the teeth causing a somewhat more explosive sound than in English.
F (effe) – fare, famoso
F is identical to English F as in “father”.
G (gi) – gatto, gelato
This consonant has two different pronunciations. When g is followed by a, o, u or a consonant, you pronounce it as you pronounce the g in the English word “good.” Before e or i it is like the j in the word “jam“.
H (acca) – ho, hai
In general, H is silent in Italian.
L (elle) – balo, lungo
L is similar to English L in lake, link. But the tongue is a bit further forward in Italian (they don’t swallow their l as much as we do). English actually has two “L” sounds: the “dark L” and the “True L.” In Italian, there is only the “True L.” A common tendency for English speakers is to use both as if they were speaking English. The difference is very subtle but this nuance is definitely helpful in sounding more like a native speaker.
Some tips for this consonant:
- Exaggerate by having your jaw as low as possible
- Give more love to the consonant, dwell on the L sound
M (emme) – madre, meglio
M is pronounced the same as from the English word mom.
N (enne) – nonna, banca, gnocchi
N is like the English words new, another and pronounced the same as in English.
NG is like English “ing” in smoking, parking. Occurs when two consonants “n + c” are next to each other.
GN is not a common sound in English. It is the NYA sound in the word onion. It is always spelled GN, like in “gnocchi”.
P (pi) – penna, piano
P is similar to American P in spit, sputter but different from the American P in pit or putter. Americans put a puff of air (aspirate) with their Ps when starting a word. The Italian don’t normally do this. The difference is not critical for Italian (although it is for some other languages).
Q (cu) – questo, quella
Q is always followed by a u and this combination is pronounced like the English qu in quest. Q usually silences the U vowel and turns it into a /w/ sound (e.g., questo is /kwe-sto/).
R (erre) – fare, birra
The Italian ‘R’ sounds are also common in Spanish, Portuguese. It’s pronounced with the flip or tap of the tongue against the gums of the upper rows of your teeth. This is the trilled r and it is different from the English r.
This is such an important sound, we have devoted a special portion of this guide if you scroll down below.
S (esse) – casa, svelto, stanza
S is sometimes strong and hissing like the English “s” in house, set, strip. Between vowels or before b, d, g, l, m, n, r, and v it is like the English z in “zoo.” In all the other cases it is like the English “s” in “set”.
T (ti) – tardi, tutto
T is pronounced the same as in English, but no escaping of breath accompanies it in Italian.
V (vu) – vita, volgio
V is the same as in English.
Z (zede) – pizza, pranzo
Z is sometimes voiceless, like /ts/ in English words “gets” or “cats.” Sometimes it is voiced, like English /ds/ in “beds.“
This covers all of the consonant sounds in the Italian alphabet. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, we need to ultimately look behind the letters on paper and figure out the actual sound they represent.
Use the chart below to see how these sounds appear in both English and Italian speech. Note that there are more sounds below than are covered in the list above.
English and Italian Consonants Comparison
|English Phoneme||Examples||Italian Phoneme||Examples|
|/b/||bat, book||/b/||bella, bene, bile|
|/d/||did, dew||/d/||dove, coda, dare|
|/f/||foot, fire||/f/||fa, fine, forse|
|/g/||go, give||/g/||gola, gatto, gusto|
|/k/||kid, cool||/k/||come, cosa, banca|
|/l/||lie, lick, ladder||/l/||mola, colto, sale|
|/ʎ/||taglio, miglio, maglia|
|/ɫ/||all, eel, cool|
|/m/||me, mat||/m/||mano, mio, mese|
|/n/||no, never||/n/||nonno, noi, nave|
|/ŋ/||parking, going||/ŋ/||ancora, banca, anche|
|/p/||pillow, paper||/p/||palo, papà, campo|
|/ɾ/||butter, lotta||/ɾ/||fare, amaro, regalo|
|/ɾɾ/||serra, guerra, birra|
|/s/||sat, rice||/s/||sole, sali, sete|
|/ʃ/||she, machine||/ʃ/||cosce, scelto, scivolo|
|/tʃ/||kitchen, church||/tʃ/||cielo, ciabatta, faccia|
|/ts/||let's, gets||/ts/||zitto, vizio, grazie|
|/d͡ʒ/||jam, gym, giant||/d͡ʒ/||gemma, plagio, fagiolo|
|/t/||ten, two||/t/||tutto, tale, ti|
|/v/||very, verb||/v/||via, vicino, vai|
|/w/||will, water||/w/||ouva, buono, suola|
|/j/||yes, yarn||/j/||sodio, copio, dio|
|/dz/||stanza, zebra, zero|
|/z/||zoo, his||/z/||peso, mese, casa|
The most difficult movements to master for English speakers are the Rhotic (Italian R) consonants. This sound does indeed exist in some dialects of English, but with limited usage.
As an Italian learner, you may have a strong tendency as an English speaker to replace the Italian /ɾ/ with the English /ɹ/ sound.
Even more important, they are also one of the most common speech sounds in the language. As you saw in the vowel section, English speakers already have a tendency to “R-Color” in between vowel sounds as well.
Doing this wrong is perhaps the biggest giveaway of whether you have a bad accent.
Acoustically, the English /ɹ/ sound is completely different from the Italian R /ɾ/. Yet this is still the most common pronunciation error that English speakers make. Persist in saying the English ‘r’ in your Italian, and you will NEVER achieve Italian fluency.
How do I trill my R’s?
There are actually TWO distinct sounds in Italian pronunciation patterns that people refer to as “The Italian R” and phoneticists refer to as “The Alveolar Tap.”
Referring to it as an ‘r’ may make people think that it has some relationship to the ‘r’ sounds of other languages like English and French, but these sounds are completely different.
This is actually a very common sound in English. We actually replace the T and D sounds with this sound when we talk fast, like in the words “butter” and “better.”
In the recording below, I say the phrase “Got to eat a matador” two times. The first time I say it slowly and enunciated, the second time I say it quickly and naturally.
If you can’t the alveolar tap sound yet, replace it with a fast D. In other words, the Italian R is just a really fast D sound.
If you replace your alveolar taps with fast D sounds, your mouth and ear will eventually fall into place and start creating the alveolar tap naturally. In the recording below, I demonstrate this by repeating the syllable “da” several times slowly, then gradually building speed.
By the end of the recording, my tongue is moving too fast to make the D sound, so I am effectively saying “&a”.
Most of the time, you can replace the trill (rr) with a tap (r) and you’ll be fine. Of course, I strongly encourage you to strengthen that sound since it can be tricky to use in Italian at normal speed.
Italian Stress & Intonation
How Intonation Works
Intonation in Italian pronunciation has to do with the emphasis or stress of some syllables or words over others. If we keep the rhythm and phonemes the same for a phrase, a change in intonation will result in a change in meaning.
In the English phrase, “Great, we’re having steak for dinner again” I seem to be expressing a genuine feeling of excitement, but with a different tone it seems sarcastic and perhaps suggestive of the exact opposite meaning.
Most language programs focus exclusively on vocabulary and grammar and completely overlook the question of intonation. As a result, most language-learners maintain their native intonation patterns when speaking a foreign language.
Intonation is the most characteristic element of an accent. That’s why when people make fun of accents, they tend to exaggerate the intonation more than anything else.
I know many adults are embarrassed about speaking with a foreign intonation. Our personalities are closely linked to the intonation patterns of our voice, so completely changing them requires stepping out of our comfort zone. You might feel “silly” stepping our of your comfort zone and sounding like someone else, but trust that you will look even sillier if you don’t.
Italian Intonation Patterns
The basic unit of Italian rhythm is by syllable. When compared to the English language, Italian has a more distinct sound and a “bouncy” intonation.
- The stress usually lies on the second-to-last syllable, or the penultimate syllable (Bam-BI-ni, la-SA-gna, pre-no-TO-ri).
- The exception lies in words that have either the acute or grave accent marks (perché – per-KE) or in some words that just have the third-to-last syllable as the enunciated part (MA-cchi-na, SA-ba-to).
Although you’ll need to learn some words just by rote, most of how to say these in Italian follows this general set of patterns.
Italian Pronunciation: The Conclusion
Becoming aware of the nuances of how to sound more like a native speaker is the first step towards fluency and flawless Italian pronunciation. And that prompts the question: Why do you want to learn Italian in the first place?
At The Mimic Method, we teach that the goal of learning a language is to connect with people and cultures. So that’s why we make the first step to learning a language about learning what the people actually sound like so you can sound like them, too.
At The Mimic Method, we’re always looking for feedback to help serve you better. We don’t currently offer an Italian class, but if you would be interested in one, please let us know in the comments!