Episode #123: 5 tips for learning Italian fast

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Listen to “5 Quick Tips for Learning Italian” on Spreaker.


Learning some Italian for your trip is one of the best ways to enrich your travel experience. When you’re in Italy, there’s so much satisfaction in ordering your very first gelato and getting a smile back when you manage to say what you once thought was a total tongue twister. But where to start? These top tips will help you with some quick ways to build up both your conversation and your confidence, enabling you to make special connections with the locals you meet along the way.

Show notes
In this episode, we are talking to Michele Frolla of The Intrepid Guide, an expert in Italian and languages in general, who has just won TravMedia Vlogger of the Year for her two YouTube channels The Intrepid Guide and Intrepid Italian with Michele. Despite having Italian heritage Michele didn’t learn Italian as a child but after throwing herself passionately into learning the language, including moving from Australia to live in Rome for a few years, her love of Italy and of learning the language has led to Michele developing a unique way of teaching Italian so you can become “travel fluent” very quickly. She shares her top tips to get you started and make your trip to Italy and the connections you can make, that bit more special.

What you’ll learn in this episode

  1. Whilst in Australia, Michele is a different spelling for Michelle – in Italy Michele is actually an Italian man’s name (pronounced Mik-elee) as she was named after her grandfather (Nonno) – which can cause a bit of confusion whenever she’s visiting Italy
  2. Michele moved to Rome in her early 20s and spent three years there. Unfortunately, even though her dad is Italian, he doesn’t have an Italian passport so although staying proved tricky, Michele moved to London and is able to head to Italy often
  3. After moving to London Michele started the Intrepid Guide, with the aim of helping people to learn a language ahead of traveling abroad and more recently has also focused on Italian – be it for heritage learners – for people that have an Italian heritage but didn’t necessarily speak the language growing up, as well as for those that just love Italy and want to have a more authentic experience there and connect with the locals. Her aim is to help people fill those awkward moments when they don’t know what to say.
  4. Michele learned Italian herself in a number of ways and over the years worked out what the most effective ways are and has employed the 80/20 rule into her language teaching. The 80 / 20 rule is also called the Pareto principle, and it was coined by management consultant Joseph M. Juran and named after Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto. Pareto, back in 1896, found that approximately 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the population. He discovered this statistic but it was Joseph M Juran that saw you could apply this ratio to other things in life – for instance, if you’re talking about a website, you’ll have 80% of the traffic will go to 20% of the articles
  5. Applied to language, this means that you don’t need to know everything – all the words in a language. If you learn the top 20% of the language, you can use that to survive in 80% of the situations that you find yourself in
  6. Michele offers a travel-specific course for those who are interested in learning conversational Italian and has a couple of weeks ahead of their trip. Here she focuses on the top 20% that you’ll need when you’re traveling abroad. So how are you going to order your food? How are you going to ask how much something is? How do you ask for directions or recommendations, checking in at the hotel? The practical stuff is what you’re going to be using 80% of the time that you’re there. The things make you feel a little bit more comfortable and confident in your decisions
  7. Her other courses are more in-depth, going from absolute beginner all the way up to intermediate but applying that same 80/20 principle, but also applying that to the grammar and the vocabulary that you learn. So, for example, you’re not going to be learning the names of body parts or the names of items of clothing in your first lesson or even in the first course. That’s something that isn’t a priority. The priority is to get you speaking and to get you creating your own sentences, not just memorizing sentences and phrases, because if you can break down the grammar, then you can start to create your own. That is where the real power and pleasure come from. Even after the first lesson, you can start to create your own sentences and own phrases
  8. Mistakes can help you learn. So penne, the pasta has two Ns, but if you don’t pronounce that double N, then all of a sudden you have a male appendage and this could mean an interesting, quite likely amusing interaction. But those little mishaps and those little moments are the things that you remember – and that is a lesson in itself

TIP 1 – Focus on your essential vocabulary 80/20

  • Learn the main areas that will cover you in a lot of situations – so focus on the 20% of the vocabulary that you can use in 80% of the situations that you find yourself in
  • Start with your biography. Learn how to say your autobiography, such as “My name is..” “I come from…” “This is my partner…” It doesn’t need to be detailed, just a few short phrases. This is the sort of small talk that you have with people or if you’re arriving at the hotel or restaurant and you want to say what your name is. These are the sorts of things that will come up a lot when you’re interacting with people
  • Learn how to order food. It’s going to be useful to be able to say any specific allergies that you have, or if you’re vegan/vegetarian, learning those words and how to say them is really important,  or simply any ingredients that you don’t like
  • Asking for directions. When wandering the streets of a new city, you might get lost and you don’t always want to have to rely on things like Google Maps. Learning a couple of phrases like, “how do I get to” and then understanding things like left, right, straight – those sorts of key vocabulary, is really useful 
  • Asking for recommendations. Asking someone where you can find a good restaurant is a great way to engage and you’ll likely get the best tips from locals. Ask your taxi driver, what their favorite place is. When Michele first moved to Rome, she would ask people what is their favorite place in Rome and why? That was just a great way to see the place through local eyes
  • Buying things and paying for things. If you’re going shopping or you’re out in the market or paying for a meal in a restaurant – these are all situations where you need to pay for something. So learning to ask for the bill, if you can pay with a credit card and things like that are useful for the kinds of situations you’ll likely find yourself in
  • There are not that many words that you need to learn to be able to have meaningful conversations. You might need to stumble your way through it, but that’s fine – that is part of the process. Italians are really understanding and they’ll help you through it and they’ll correct you. Or they’ll ask you to repeat because not many Italians are able to speak English – only around 34% can speak English, and an even smaller percentage speak it very well

TIP 2 – Practice

  • Doing small bits every day is better than one chunk once a week and have a nice mix between passive and active learning
  • We are all strapped for time and we’d like to imagine that we can dedicate 2 hours a day to intensively learn Italian or some big chunk of time to set aside. However, Michele advises to take it slowly to be able to keep up your momentum.  You don’t need to do it 2 hours a day every day – that’s pretty impossible for most of us anyhow. People that go to a language lessons might spend 90 minutes or 2 hours in a class on a Wednesday night and then the next week they come back and have forgotten everything that they did last week and have to spend the first half an hour or more trying to catch up and warm up their brain
  • If you have a trip coming up in a few week’s time, Michele recommends starting with 10-15 minutes and just revise your biography, for instance. Then next day, focus on ordering food and remembering that vocabulary. Then on the third day, quickly revise those first two days, and then you move on to the next part, which could be asking for directions and recommendations. This way you have the compounded effect, where you are constantly going back and reviewing what you’ve learned as well as learning a little bit more new material
  • There is active and passive learning. Active is when you make the time for revising. You sit down and are focusing on what you are doing. Passive learning is when you are washing the dishes and you’re listening to Italian radio or you’re driving and listening to an Italian podcast – it’s basically doing two things at once and you’re not fully concentrating on the learning. While it is nice to listen to Italian music or listen to Italian films, unless you’re actively participating in the process of learning, it’s not going to get you to where you want to be
  • It’s better to focus on active learning if you’re going on a trip in a couple of weeks. You want to have more active and less passive learning to prepare you
  • A hurdle that gets in the way for most people is that actual getting started bit. That is a challenge for the best of us with all kids of things but once you get started, it becomes a lot easier, because once you’re in the act of doing it, you begin to find the pleasure in it. It’s a great feeling when you’re learning something new and things are starting to make sense to you
  • If you can get past the fear or anxiety of getting started, if you can just push through that and just start, it will make such a difference. Don’t think about it too much, just get started. Like Nike say – Just do it

TIP 3 – Say it out loud

  • It’s important to say things out loud, to repeat them to yourself (or to someone else if you can)
  • You need to say things out loud because it’s all well and good to see how something is written, but you also need to connect what your brain knows with your mouth, your tongue and the muscles in your mouth
  • Depending on where you’re from, you need to be aware of the muscles in your mouth that you may not use in a particular way that you need when you speak Italian. It’s really important, so you need to start practicing. You can practice this if you’re traveling with someone, or you can simply practice it at home, saying a couple of phrases out loud to yourself
  • Saying it out loud really connects the dots in terms of what you’re learning, and your brain remembering your voice when you say it. So if you are suddenly in a situation and you’re trying to remember what a certain word is, sometimes the brain will remind you what it is – because you can hear what you sounded like when you said it out loud whilst learning. It’s a really important piece of the puzzle to help you to remember and recall something
  • Try not to be embarrassed and just have to go for it. Feeling shy or embarrassed is another kind of mental block. The more you do it the more you’ll get used to your own voice. Record yourself and play it back. This can also be a useful tool to look back on and realize how far you’ve come. It’s easy to lose sight and forget how far you’ve come. Especially if you are on a longer journey with learning a language and you feel like you’ve hit a plateau, but going back and listening to where you were a couple of weeks ago you can realize – well I was struggling with that and now that seems easy. It’s a really good way to track your progress

TIP 4 – Write it down

  • Write things down with pen and paper
  • We use our laptops, tablets and phones so much now. If we’re making notes, the chances are it will be on a device. But when you write notes on electronic devices, we miss that connection that we get when we’re writing things down. There have been some studies that have shown that you remember more when you actually put pen to paper because your brain is actively participating in interpreting and remembering that information
  • When we write it down, we’re internalizing on a deeper level than if we were just typing it in on a Google Doc, for example. This is really important for the memory, which is what many people struggle most with learning a language
  • So, you know what to learn, you’re making time to learn it – now let’s look at ways how you can remember that. So along with saying things out loud, writing it down means that you’re actually participating and helps you remember
  • >When Michele is learning any language, even when she’s watching a film that has the subtitles on in that language, she will have a pen and paper and will write things down

TIP 5 – Create memory hooks

  • Memory hooks are a way to remember a word that is not familiar to us
  • This is basically a way that you can create like a mnemonic. So when you’re a child and learning the coordinates –  North, South, East, West, you may be taught something like Never Eat Soggy Wheatabix. These are the things that you need to create to help you to remember things.
  • A memory hook is when you’re looking at a word and wondering ‘how am I going to remember this?’ This is very much on a personal level and will be different for everyone. For example – the word for ‘he’ in Italian is ‘lui’. If you pay attention to how it sounds –  Lui, the name Louis – that reminds me of King Louis. The spelling is a bit different, but the pronunciation is there. And King Louis is a he. He is King Louis – so that could be your memory hook
  • Similarly, ‘lei’ means she. How could you remember Lei? Lei-a. Princess Leia is a she. She is Princess Leia. These can be really powerful because you create a little story around a word, which is a great memory tool that memory champions use
  • Another example could be the phrase “how much does it cost?” which is “quanto costa”. Quanto is the same first few letters as the English Quantity and then Costa sounds very similar to cost. “How much does it cost?” So this hook could be quantity costs as the reminder you need
  • It doesn’t need to paint a complete or perfect picture. The idea is that it just jolts the memory. Sometimes all you need is a little clue or a little indication of what the word could be and that is where the memory hooks come in
  • Michele has a module as part of her courses about how you create these memory hooks. There is no right and wrong – it’s basically, if it works for you then great because that’s all it needs to do

Putting your 20% into practice

  • It’s easy to land in Italy and despite what you’ve learned you just freeze and clam up – at least for a little, so it’s good to get started quickly – even before you land, as Michele does. If you’re boarding a plane, there will usually be someone in the cabin crew, who speaks Italian, so you can start to practice as soon as you board the plane
  • It could be a simple Buongiorno or it could be Grazi when they pass you your meal. Anything just to warm you up. These sorts of interactions help build your confidence
  • Perhaps speak to the immigration officers. They say, “next”, you give them your passport – maybe simply greet them in Italian. Say what your name is when you reach your hotel reception and tell them you are with your spouse
  • You don’t need to be perfect. You just need to throw it out there and see what comes back and have fun with it
  • It might not be true of every nationality, but in Italy, they really appreciate you making an effort with their language and so you’re probably going to get a big smile back and someone’s going to help you

Michele’s unique courses

  • Whether you have a trip to Italy coming up shortly, or you have more long-term goals, Michele offers a number of courses with her unique way of learning, if you go to www.theintrepidguide.com.  The courses come with lifetime access so you only pay once and you can learn anywhere, any time on any device which means that you only pay once. These courses give you everything that you need and it’s just a matter of you finding time, as and when. It also comes with access to Michele and a private community where you can get feedback and support and ask any questions

About our guest – Michele Frolla

Michele is an Italian-Australian language educator and travel blogger and ‘guide’ behind The Intrepid Guide. Michele aims to enrich her readers’ travels with her detailed destinations guides and travel phrase guides. Michele also offers online language courses that use her unique 80/20 method to help you learn the local language so you can travel with confidence, enjoy meaningful interactions with the locals, and avoid being treated like a tourist. Follow Michele on social media as she shares fascinating and little-known linguistic and cultural facts.

Michele has recently won TravMedia Vlogger of the Year for her two YouTube channels The Intrepid Guide and Intrepid Italian with Michele. This is the first time I’ve won an industry award which makes it all the more special

You can find Michele on these channels:


  • Pareto principle – principle states that for many outcomes, roughly 80% of consequences come from 20% of causes, also known as the 80/20 rule, created by Joseph M Juran 
  • Vilfredo Pareto – Italian economist who the Pareto principle was named after. In 1896, he stated that approximately 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the population
  • Arthur Rimbaud –  French poet of the late 19th century known for his transgressive and surreal themes who completely stopped writing literature at 20 years old 
  • Charles Baudelaire – French poet of the mid-19th century, credited with coining the term modernity
  • Carabinieri – are the national force of Italy who primarily carry out domestic policing duties
  • Mnemonic – a memory device and any learning technique that aids information retention or retrieval (remembering) in the memory for better understanding
  • Princess Leia – character in the Star Wars movies
  • vegetariano – vegetarian in Italian

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