How to Sound Natural When Speaking Italian: 25 Useful Expressions

I have been learning Italian for just over two years now and after five trips to the country and living with a native Italian speaker, I am happy to have made decent progress. I sat a GCSE in Italian in May/June of this year with a colleague; we met up once a week to revise and we did a fair amount of past papers and Zooms with a tutor and other exercises which lead to us both achieving a grade 9 (the highest grade at GCSE now, higher than the old A* I have to add!).

I don’t get much time to study intensively as my job consumes so much time and I have my poetry, social life, family etc, but it is good to maintain as much exposure to the language as possible to keep it ticking over. I still remember a tip a woman gave me when I first set out on my language learning journey which was to keep it in your life in some small way every single day. Even when you can’t actively sit and study, playing music, looking at an Instagram page or Whatsapping someone in your target language.

I started learning Spanish seven years ago, and one of my biggest linguistic challenges is keeping the two languages separate in my brain as they are both Latinate languages and there are many similarities (which can be useful when beginning) but there are many significant distinctions between them and it is easy to slip into using the grammar system of the other language.

After the GCSE, I spent a month in Italy where I got plenty of chance to speak with Italians which was great, and as a result I picked up more expressions as people chat more informally than the slightly scripted formal language style when studying for an exam.

I am still quite a distance away from being a fluent speaker, but it is definitely coming to me more naturally now and it is by our errors that we learn more and improve!

[You can read my Italian learning progress diaries at 8 months and 20 months by clicking on the links].

My post on Spanish expressions is one of my most viewed on this blog and continues to be read almost every day so I thought it would be timely to do a post on Italian expressions for any Italian learners out there. After all, there are 6.5 million people learning Italian on Duolingo alone!

I’ve also taken the liberty to punctuate each section of this blog with a picture from Italy; all pictures were taken by me from my various trips so far!

I hope you find this useful and enjoyable- let me know in the comments of any other Italian expressions you use and love!

1) Allora

This is said often as a sentence starter or connective to mean ‘so’. It sounds lovely and musical, and it makes your speech sound much more natural when you drop it into general conversation.

Example: Allora, andiamo al cinema stasera?

(So, shall we go to the cinema this evening?)

La Galleria Vittoria Emanuele II Shopping Centre in Milano

2) Vaffanculo

A well-known Italian swearword! Vaffanculo is comprised of ‘va‘- go, ‘fan‘- do, and ‘culo‘- ass, and when it is spoken it is usually accompanied with an emphatic hand gesture at each syllable. English-speaking teenagers seem to know it from online gaming with Italian teens, and obviously it isn’t an expression for use at the dinner table. It sounds funny though and is definitely expressive for when someone has annoyed you. You can preface it with ma (but) for emphasis.

Example: Ho perso il gioco, ma vaffanculo!!

San Mauro Mare, Emilia Romagna

3) Figurati!

This is a nice expression along the lines of saying “no worries” or “forget about it” when someone thanks you for doing something.

Example:

“Grazie mille per fare la pulizia oggi.”

“Figurati!”

Brisighella, Emilia Romagna

4) In bocca al lupo

Literally, this idiom would translate as “in the mouth of the wolf” and is used to wish someone good luck. In fact, it is considered bad luck to wish someone “buona fortuna” and when I was starting out in Italian, my boyfriend and his friends recoiled a couple of times when I forgot and said the latter. I’m used to it now and it has been nice to use it when wishing people luck in a way that is natural and welcomed!

Example: “Hai l’esame oggi? In bocca al lupo!”

5) Che palle!

Basically, palle means “balls”, so it is an exclamation of when something has gone wrong or is annoying, or heavy. An example would be if you said you had to stay behind late after work, someone could respond with “che palle!”.

Example:

“Devi lavorare fino a molto tardi stasera? Che palle!”

6) Acqua in bocca

This literally translates as “water in mouth” so I initially thought it meant that your mouth was watering at the thought of certain food. When I learned it was about secrets, I then thought it was about someone spilling the gossip but it turns out it is about keeping your mouth shut. So if someone tells you a secret, you can show your promise to not tell anybody by saying “acqua in bocca!“.

Example:

“Non dire niente! Acqua in bocca!”

Lago Trasimeno, Perugia, Umbria

7) Boh!

This is a non-verbal sound that shows you don’t know the answer to something; it could just stand in for “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure”.

Example:

“È molto costoso?”

“Boh!”

8) Mamma mia!/ Madonna mia!

Everyone knows “mamma mia” from cartoonish Dolmio ads or from the name of the Abba-inspired film. It translates to “mother of mine” or ‘my mother”, while “Madonna mia” is more of a reference to the Mother Mary of Jesus. Both expressions are exclaimed alone to convey a whole range of feelings and emotions including disbelief, surprise, shock, exasperation, tiredness, excitement, and more. Accompanying hand gesture optional.

Example:

“Mamma mia, che stanchezza!” or “Davvero? Madonna mia..”

Il Duomo, Milano, Lombardy

9) Non vedo l’ora

This is lovely; it was the first idiom I learned! It is used to say that you can’t wait for something (in an excited sense) and it literally translates as “I don’t see the hour/time”.

Example:

“Domani andiamo in vacanza!”

“Sì, no vedo l’ora!”

10) Che schifo!

This one always makes me laugh for some reason, usually the way in which it is delivered with an expression of pure disdain. Schifo means disgust as a noun, so to say ‘che schifo’ means you are exclaiming that something is disgusting.

Example:

“Il cibo non dovrebbe essere così! Che schifo!”

11) Pronto/a

Pronto means ‘ready’ in Italian, rather than ‘soon’ as it does in Spanish. I knew Spanish before learning Italian so it took me a little while to get my head around this (to tell someone you’re ready in Spanish would be to say “estoy listo” if you’re male or “estoy lista” if you’re female).

In Italian, a man would say “sono pronto” and a woman would say “sono pronta” to tell someone they’re ready.

The reason why it is on this expressions list is because it is used for answering the telephone. You answer a phonecall by saying “Pronto/pronta?” to show the person you’re there and ready to speak. I thought this seemed a little awkward when you could answer with “Sì?” as the Spanish answer the phone with “Sí?”, but apparently it dates back to telephone switchboards. In the past, you would be connected to the switchboard, then the person who is being rung would say “Pronto/a” to indicate that they’re ready to take the phonecall with the original caller.

Parma, Emilia Romagna

12) Sogni d’oro

Dreams of gold, or, “sweet dreams”. Beautiful expression!

Arezzo, Tuscany

13) Un pezzo di pane

“A piece of bread”, meaning something “easy peasy” or a person who is really soft.

Example:

“Il lavoro è stato un pezzo di pane.”

14) Avere la coda di paglia

This is a curious idiom. It literally means ‘to have a tail made of straw’ but refers to someone being defensive and unable to take any criticism. The metaphor comes from a Tuscan saying which says that those with a straw tail fear it being set on fire.

Example:

“È impossibile dargli consigli costruttivi, lui ha una coda di paglia.”

15) Prendere in giro

This means ‘to make fun of’ or to ‘pull someone’s leg’ metaphorically speaking.

Example:

“Vuoi prendere in giro?”

Reggio Emilia, Emilia Romagna

16) Top!

It means what it seems it means! Italian people often use the English word ‘top’ as an exclamation or affirmative when something is great or if they hear good news.

Example:

“Possiamo finire il lavoro presto oggi!”

“Top!”

17) Un figo/ una figa

A figo is a fig, yet in this context it is used to describe someone as good looking or sexy. They change the final vowel to ‘a’ when referring to a woman. It isn’t demeaning but it probably isn’t the politest word choice, meant to be used in an informal manner.

Example:

“Hai visto Roberto?”

“Sì, lui è veramente un figo!”

Lake Garda, Veneto

18) Limonare

I have no idea where this lemon-rooted expression came from but it is a verb that refers to snogging. No idea even how to put that into an example, either!

Verona, Veneto

19) Non c’è di che

Like ‘figurati’ listed earlier, this phrase means ‘it’s nothing’ when used after a thank you or an apology.

Example:

“Scusami per essere arrivato in ritardo.”

“Non c’è di che!”

La Campaza, Fosso Ghiaia, Ravenna, Emilia Romagna

20) Tuta

This is a cute word I like to use and even my mum uses it now. The tuta is loungewear, the comfortable clothes you put on when you get home from work or lounge about in around the house at the weekend. It originates from gymnastic wear then became a word for comfy clothes.

Example:

“Preferisco indossare la tuta a casa.”

21) Meno male

This just means “not so bad”, used as a consolatory or reassuring phrase.

Example:

“Ho quasi perso il treno ma l’ho preso appena il tempo.”

“Meno male!”

Borgo Grazzano Visconti, Piacenza, Emilia Romagna

22) Essere al verde

Literally, this means to be in the green. It doesn’t mean in nature, and it doesn’t mean to be in a good financial state either, even though green usually signals a positive state of being!

‘Essere al verde’ means to be skint!

Example:

“Vuoi venire alla festa?”

“No, non posso… sono al verde.”

Reggio Emilia, Emilia Romagna

23) Vale la pena

This is the same as in Spanish and it means it is worth it, or worth the pain/nuisance/effort/cost.

Vale– (‘value’) la– (‘the’) pena (work/effort, stemming from ‘penalty’)

Example:

“Devo passare tutto il giorno lavorando nella casa.”

“Sì, ma vale la pena.”

Bolzano, Trentino

24) Volentieri

This is a word rather than an expression but it sounds nice when inserted into conversation to sound more natural. ‘Volentieri’ means ‘gladly’, or ‘willingly’. You say it in response to someone asking you if you’d like to do something. It is clear that this word has the same root as the English word ‘volunteer’, from the Latin ‘volo’ meaning to want or wish for something.

Example:

“Vorresti venire alla mia festa di compleanno?

“Volentieri!”

Dante Alighieri’s tomb, Ravenna, Emilia Romagna

25) Piano, piano

British TV viewers may have heard Gino d’Acampo say this. It simply means “slowly, slowly”, nicely conveying the typical Mediterranean approach to enjoying life at a slower pace. If only this were possible! What we call a ‘piano’ in English is the musical instrument and many musical words come from Italian, but ‘piano’ meant ‘slow’ in Italian before the instrument was invented. The instrument was originally called a ‘pianoforte’: piano= slow; forte= strong.

Back to the slowly, slowly sense, it is a lovely expression to use (complete with hand gestures) when discussing the plans for the day or if someone seems rushed or stressed.

Example:

“Ho tante cosa da fare oggi ma non ho tempo!”

“Non ti preoccupare. Piano, piano.”

Bellagio, Lake Como, Lombardy

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3 thoughts on “How to Sound Natural When Speaking Italian: 25 Useful Expressions

  1. Pingback: 28 Spanish Sayings to Sound Like a Local! – Laura Ferries Writer

  2. Pingback: Learning Italian: My Progress Diary (approx 8-10 months in so far) – Laura Ferries Writer

  3. Pingback: Learning Italian: My Learning Diary (20 months in) – Laura Ferries Writer

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