Ciao from Cortina: Learning Italian


When we’re back in Steamboat Springs for the summer, the question I dread the most is, “How’s your Italian coming?” The truth is this: My Italian is terrible. And now that this is our fourth year in Italy, it’s getting embarrassing.

The issue of learning Italian is one that lingers constantly in the back of my mind, but I realized I had a huge problem when, last week, my Italian teacher asked me to translate the phrase, “I would like to eat the cake” into Italian.


Courtesy Photo

Sophie Dingle

“Vorrei mangiare,” I began, and then, for some reason or other, the French word, not the Italian word, for cake popped into my head.

“La gateau,” I finished, immediately realizing my mistake. “Gateau,” the French word for cake, is pronounced the same as “gatto,” the Italian word for cat.

“You would like to eat the cat?” my Italian teacher asked incredulously, shaking her head. I decided then to seriously commit to improving my Italian.

You would think that learning Italian in Italy would be relatively easy — we’re surrounded by it after all. But here we are, in our fourth year, and I realize that we’ve just skimmed the surface of this wonderful (and difficult) language.

We know the basics: how to order coffee, glasses of wine, dinner; how to get 100 grams of prosciutto from the deli counter; how to swear at hockey games; how to ask a friend how they are; and how to comment on another beautiful day or that it’s snowing outside.

We’ve picked up on the words for “danger,” “falling snow” and “slow down” from street signs across town. We know most fruits and vegetables, most farm animals, the numbers from one to 100. All of these words and phrases, we’ve absorbed here and there the way a toddler learns to speak English. We basically have the vocabulary of an Italian 4-year-old.

Unfortunately, all of our friends are older than 4 and love to tease us about how we’ve been in Cortina for four years and still don’t speak Italian — at the standard that they would like us to, anyway, which is very rapidly.

Deep down, I know they’re right though: There’s no reason why, after four years, we can’t speak better Italian. Europeans, I’ve noticed, tend to speak multiple languages and make them all sound good. One of my husband’s teammates, for example, speaks near-perfect English, Italian and German, but his first language is a very complicated sounding South Tirolean dialect that probably only about 50 people know.

Personally, I prefer to speak what I like to think of as my own dialect, which is a jumbled mixture of half-English and half-Italian. But not wanting to be the ambassador for the “lazy American” image, I’m determined to learn more Italian this year; to be able to speak in the past and future tenses (although, aren’t we always supposed to live in the present?); and to be able to effortlessly order a steak from the butcher, which is my scary place.

Yes, Italian is hard. They have phrases like “in bocca al lupo,” which translates to “in the wolf’s mouth,” but means good luck.

They have a million different verb endings not to mention tenses. There is nothing you can do but simply spend hours memorizing all the irregular verbs. Which is exactly what I intend to do.

Until then, I’ve noticed, all the neighborhood cats are keeping their distance.

Sophie Dingle is a freelance writer living in Cortina, Italy, where her husband and Steamboat native, Ryan, plays professional ice hockey. While in Italy, she loves to eat, cook, explore and drink red wine. You can follow her adventures online at


rhys jones 2 years, 5 months ago

Thanks again Sophie!! Our far-flung correspondent provides another gem. Your lighthearted essays provide welcome relief from the otherwise-staid offerings provided herein (Russell and Ross to the exception).

I barely scratched Japanese, in my year there -- a few basic phrases and words, and that's about it. There are actually three written Japanese languages, going back thousands of years, one for the strict purpose of incorporating foreign sounds into Japanese -- sometimes with interesting effect -- McDonald's comes out "Mack-a-danoldo." Each symbol stands for a syllable. My girlfriend then had a book called "The 20,000 Most Common Symbols In Hiragana" (sp?) one of the three written languages. I was only ever a gygene (foreigner).

I could speak and understand French as well as any of my classmates, but I still got D's -- on the written assignments and tests, I was forever confusing my genders, and spelling it wrong. Plus I didn't get my lab hours in.

Spanish (and I assume Italian) is also heavily affected by gender -- tia and tio, aunt and uncle -- and I've been hearing it long enough -- a lot longer than a lot of the kids I hear speaking it better than I can -- you'd think it would have soaked in better by now.

Spoken languages are much like computer languages -- the nouns and verbs can be compared to operands and operators, they all have standards and similarities, and the more you know, the easier the next one is to pick up... I know many of the latter -- so why are spoken languages so difficult for me? English is supposedly the WORST to learn, due to the variety of its background and influences. Every regime that ever ruled in Europe occupied England at one time or another, imparting their influence. I doubt if Columbus spoke English -- so how did THAT hop the pond? (rhetorical, unless someone takes it on)

I rented a room from a Romanian immigrant here a few years back -- sounded like he just got off the boat last week, despite being here over 20 years -- yet he knew at least eight languages -- English, French, German, Spanish, Portugese, Italian, Romanian, Russian -- maybe another eastern European dialect or two... raised eyebrows in Phoenix, when this Romanian of halting English could converse fluently with the busboys. I was jealous. Briefly.

Thanks again Sophie!! Your columns are always a breath of fresh air. You've got it, girl!!


Dan Kuechenmeister 2 years, 5 months ago

Sophie, Good luck with the Italian. I have a friend - Norwegian - speaks a few languages fluently, got involved in the Olympics in Turino, decided to learn Italian. He thought it one of the most difficult European languages to learn. Enjoy your writings, keep them coming.


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