Italian pronunciation might pose some difficulties for the beginner. Yet it is very regular, and once the rules are understood it is easy to pronounce each word correctly. Knowing where to put the correct stress or how to have proper inflection and intonation can help you come closer to understanding Italian. Most important, to improve your Italian, fare la pratica con la bocca (exercise your mouth)!
The Italian ABCs
Twenty-one letters are all it takes to produce the sweet, lyrical language affectionately called la bella lingua (the beautiful language). Using the Roman alphabet and with the addition of acute and grave accents, native Italian speakers are able to argue passionately about the favorite soccer team, discuss the latest elections, or order gnocchi genovese while sounding like characters in a Verdi opera.
What happened to the other five letters that are common in other language using the Roman alphabet? They're found in foreign words that have infiltrated Italian and are pronounced approximately as they are in the original language.
Most Italian consonants are similar in pronunciation to their English counterparts; the consonants c and g are the only exceptions because they vary according to the letters that follow them.
In Italian, double consonants are pronounced much more forcefully than single consonants. Although it may not be obvious at first, a trained ear will notice the difference. Make it a point to listen to native speakers pronounce these words. Common single and double consonant words in Italian include cane (dog) / canne (canes), casa (house) / cassa (trunk), papa (pope) / pappa (bread soup), and sera (evening) / serra (greenhouse).
Italian vowels are short, clear cut, and are never drawn out—the "glide" with which English vowels frequently end should be avoided. It should be noted that a, i, and u are always pronounced the same way; e and o, on the other hand, have an open and a closed sound that may vary from one part of Italy to the other.
Pronouncing Italian Words
For help in spelling and pronouncing words in Italian, here's a simple rule: What you hear is what you get. Italian is a phonetic language, which means most words are pronounced as they are written. The Italian words cane, mane, and pane will always rhyme (compare the English triplet "chalice," "police," and "lice," and you will see that you've got it easy).
Another point to keep in mind is enunciation. Native Italian speakers open their mouths wide—not just to shout, but to get those big, round, vowel sounds. For example, if you want to pronounce the Italian letter a, just open wide and say "aahh!"
Practicing Italian Pronunciation
If you want to learn how to prepare bruschetta or bistecca alla fiorentina, you can read a cookbook—but your guests will remain hungry. You have to get in the kitchen, fire up the grill, and start slicing and dicing. Likewise, if you want to speak Italian with the correct rhythm, tone, and intonation, you have to talk. And talk and talk and talk until your mouth is numb and your brain hurts. So make it a point to listen and repeat Italian—whether you purchase a CD or listen to an Italian podcast, watch Italian TV on your computer via broadband, or visit Italy—because you can't eat a description of minestrone alla milanese, and you can't speak Italian without opening your mouth.