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The differences between English and Italian

Introduction: Italian belongs to the Romance family, which in turn is part of the large Indo-European language family. It therefore shares many features with other Romance languages such as French or Spanish. Native-Italian learners of English, a stress-timed language, face similar kinds of problems to those faced by native speakers of the other Romance languages, which are syllable-timed.

Alphabet: Italian words are made up of the same 26 letters as employed by English, although the letters j, k, w, x and y are considered foreign and are only used in import words. Italian learners may misspell dictated words containing the English letters r and e, which sound like Italian letters a and i. Some words that are capitalized in English (days, months, languages, etc) are not capitalized in Italian.

Phonology: Italian learners typically have problems with the vowel differences in minimal pairs such as sheep / sheet  bet / mat   cot / coat, The tendency to 'swallow' weak vowels in English causes difficulties both in listening comprehension and in the production of natural-sounding speech.

The pronunciation of consonants include the predictable difficulties with words containing the letters th: (thin, this, other, lengths, etc). Also problematic is the failure to aspirate the h in words  such as house, hill, hotel (or to hyper-correct by adding an aspirated h to all words beginning with a vowel.)  Most Italian words end with a vowel, which often leads Italian learners to affix a short vowel sound to in English ending with a consonant. This, together with temptation to give full value or emphasis to all syllables, results in the stereotypical Italian production of sentences that sound like: I atə soupə for lunchə.

There is another factor leading to the often heavily-accented production of English by Italian learners. Namely, that in Italian the element which the speaker wishes to give most emphasis to is usually moved to the end of the clause. This contrasts with English, in which the salient element is identified by intonation changes rather than word order changes. Italians often find it difficult also to produce the right intonation patterns when asking questions or making requests.

Grammar - Verb/Tense: Italian has 5 inflected tense forms: for the present, simple past, imperfect, future and conditional. The other tenses are formed with auxiliaries. The auxiliary do, however, has no equivalent in Italian, which leads to mistakes such as: What you do? or I no like German food.

Italian does not use the perfect tenses to make a connection to the present in the same way that English does. This results in problems such as I have done my homework on the bus. A similar lack of correspondence in the use of tenses in the two languages leads to interference errors such as: What will you do when you will leave school? or I live in Germany since 1999.

Shades of meaning, which are shown in English by varying the modal verb (must/should/ought to/might want to, etc.) are typically conveyed in Italian by an inflected form of the verb dovere (must). This often results in an overuse of must when Italians speak English.

Grammar - Other: In English the meaning of a clause is largely dependent on the order of words in it (typically Subject Verb Object). Italian, being a more inflected language, allows greater variations in word order. Furthermore, adjectives in Italian usually follow the noun, not precede it as in English. These differences can result in non-standard syntax of Italian learners of English.

Italian learners frequently have problems with the correct use of articles in English. Although both the definite and the indefinite article exist in both languages, their use often does not coincide. As a result it is common to hear sentences such as: Is he teacher? or The health is the most important in the life.

The subject pronoun is not required in colloquial Italian, so learners may say sentences such as: Is impossible.

Vocabulary: Italian and English share many words that are derived from Latin. This facilitates the acquisition of vocabulary, but comes with the associated problem of false friends. Here are some common examples. The Italian false friend comes first: bravo (good/clever) / brave; editore (publisher) / editor; fame (hunger) / fame; libreria (book shop) / library.

Miscellaneous: Italian is a phonetic language. For this reason Italian learners suffer the usual problems that native speakers of such languages have with English. Namely, that they cannot predict with confidence a. the spelling of any new word that they hear, and b. the pronunciation of any new word that they read.

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