TEFL Problems for Learners in Italy

ESL students whose first language is Italian certainly have many advantages over some students who speak languages less closely related to English. The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) of the US Department of State, which recently categorized languages into how closely they were related to English and how long it would take speakers of those languages to reach a certain level of proficiency in English, placed Italian in the category of languages most closely related to English. Indeed, Italian speakers have the advantage of familiarity with the Roman alphabet, and the two languages share many similar grammatical structures and even similar-sounding vocabulary items. At the same time, Italian students of English still encounter many difficulties relating to the pronunciation and spelling of English, and there are some specific vocabulary items and grammatical structures that tend to cause trouble for Italians. Some of the most common errors will be discussed below.

In terms of spelling, English can be extremely difficult for Italian speakers because Italian spelling is very sound-based, i.e., one can usually know how to write a word simply by knowing how to say it. Unfortunately, as with native English speakers, correct spelling can only be learned by lots of experience with reading and writing and by rote. The few mnemonic devices used by English-speaking children ("i before e except after c" etc) could also be used to help Italian students.

Pronunciation also poses problems for Italian speakers because the two languages use quite different vowel systems. Italians may particularly have problems with short vowels, which they tend to lengthen (e.g. pronouncing ´full´ like ´fool´) and with dipthongs, which are rare in Italian. There are also a few consonants which give Italians problems, in particular /h/, which they tend to overpronounce, and /w/ which they may pronounce as /v/.

There are several areas of grammar that give Italians trouble, but two of the most important are prepositions and verb tenses. Italian has many prepositions which are similar to English prepositions, but the two sets do not quite overlap, and this can lead to Italians using incorrect prepositions, such as "She is married with him" instead of "She is married to him"). As with spelling, the correct prepositions for use with various adjectives and verbs just have to be learned by rote and experience.

Verb tenses can be difficult for Italians because Italian uses the present simple much more than English does. This results in Italian speakers using the present simple in places where they should use other tenses like the future simple, the present perfect, or the present progressive. On the surface, the Italian past simple appears structurally like the English present perfect, so Italians will often use the present perfect in places where they should use the past simple. Other common mistakes include using the future simple in the condition clauses of conditionals (e.g. "If it will rain tomorrow..."), using the present simple instead of the present progressive, and using the past simple instead of the past perfect progressive.

Italian uses articles in many places where English doesn´t, such as before possessive adjectives and after the verb "like" when the direct object is general. This results in Italian speakers overusing articles in English, saying things like "the my room" or "I like the soccer". Italians also may leave out existential ´it´ or ´there´ (as in "It is raining") because Italian does not require a dummy pronoun here where English does. Italians may pluralize many mass nouns that are count nouns in Italian, such as ´hair´, ´money´, ´information´, ´news´, ´luggage´, and ´homework´. Italians may also tend to use infinitive verb forms instead of present participles, e.g. "To dance is fun" instead of "Dancing is fun". Other problem areas include using double negatives where English doesn´t allow them, placing adverbs in the right place in a sentence, and adding reflexive pronouns after verbs that are reflexive in Italian, but not in English.

Though it is more difficult to say which particular vocabulary items will give Italian students trouble, there are a few common errors. A good deal of these are caused by "false friends" - words that sound similar in both languages, but do not have the same meanings. For example, Italians will use ´actual´ or ´actually´ to mean ´present´ or ´presently´ (based on their words ´attuale´ and ´attualmente´), and they may use ´rest´ to mean ´stay´ (as ´restare´ means in Italian). Italians may also find the words ´make´ and ´do´ confusing, since both word meanings are covered by the single word ´fare´ in Italian. Some other common mistakes include saying ´time´ for ´weather´, ´soon´ for ´early´, ´high´ for ´tall´ and ´remember´ for ´remind´.

Some final areas that give Italians trouble are stating age (In Italian you have years, instead of being a certain number of years) and giving the date.

In general, these problems are almost all caused by students´ translating from Italian to English. With time and practice, students can hopefully begin to think in English and so eliminate many of these problems.


Jones, Crystal. "Galleria Degli Errori." English Gratis. 19 Dec. 2006 <http://www.englishgratis.com/risorse/sfiziosi/sfiz-4- galleriadeglierrori>.

"Language Learning Difficulty for English Speakers." 2006. National Virtual Translation Center (NVTC). 19 Dec. 2006 <http://www.nvtc.gov/lotw/months/november/learningExpectationsl>.

Mangano, Carmelo. "English for Italians >> Common Mistakes." English for Italians. 19 Dec. 2006 <http://www.englishforitalians.com/? page_id=58>.

Power, Ted. "English Pronunciation Practice for Italian Speakers." 19 Dec. 2006 <http://www.btinternet.com/~ted.power/l1italianl>.

Author: Zoe Bogart

Date of post: 2007-04-12