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The Simple Things in Life

It’s easy to get information on how to conjugate Italian verbs in all the tenses (for example, here), but it’s not so easy to know when to use one tense or another. Consider this conversation between two fish in an aquarium:

Che hai? Perché ti lamenti? -E ora che succede?

What’s the matter? Why are you complaining? -And now what's happening?

Shsh, è proprio arrabbiata. Senti come singhiozza.

Shhh, she’s really angry. Listen to how she's sobbing.

Captions 4 and 24-25, Acqua in bocca: Mp3 Marino - Ep 2

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In English we have two types of present tense: present continuous, as in “I am talking on the phone at the moment," and the simple present, as in “I talk to my Mom every evening.” The first has to do with the moment, and the second with regularity or facts (learn more here). As you can see in the above dialogue, Italian speakers will use the present tense for both, unless there is some ambiguity about meaning or unless they want to emphasize the time element, such as in the following:

Non ti posso parlare ora perché sto mangiando.

I can’t talk to you right now because I am eating.

This progressive tense, which doesn’t really have an official name in Italian, is formed with the verb stare ("to stay" or "to be") plus the verb in its gerundio (gerund) form. Learn more here.

Now we are in Commissioner Manara’s office but he’s not there. As soon as he walks in, Sardi, who has been trying to pry information out of Lara regarding the Commissioner, feels she should get out of there. She says:

E infatti vado e tolgo il disturbo e vi lascio lavorare.

And, in fact, I’ll go and I’ll leave you be and I’ll let you work.

Caption 52, Il Commissario Manara: Un delitto perfetto - Ep 1 - Part 7 of 14

(N.b.: Literally, tolgo il disturbo means “I’ll remove the disturbance.”)

Sardi says it all in the present tense, but this time to refer to the (near) future! When the context does not require a specific reference to time, the most “neutral” version of a verb (i.e., the present tense) is preferred.

And il presente (the present) can also express English’s simple future tense (“going to” + verb), like at the beginning of Marika’s lesson about numbers:

Ciao. Oggi parliamo di numeri.

Hi. Today, we're going to talk about numbers.

Caption 1, Marika spiega: Numeri cardinali e ordinali

So the good news is that in Italian, with one tense, il presente, we can cover three different tenses in English. This may simplify things as you practice your Italian speaking skills, but don’t forget to pay attention to the context!

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Learning suggestion: 

In addition to listening to the videos and paying attention to how the present tense is used, try putting these sentences into Italian using il presente

 

You’re asking a friend what she intends to wear to school. The verb is mettere (“to put” or “to put on”).

     What are you wearing today? 

You're talking to your boss about when you will hand in your work. The verb is finire (to finish).

     I’m going to finish the project after lunch.  

You're talking about your eating habits. The verb is mangiare (to eat).

     I eat a sandwich every day for lunch. 

You're at a restaurant talking to the waiter. The verb is prendere (to take).

     I’ll have the fish. 

You have a flat tire and don’t know how to fix it. The verb is fare (to make or do).

     What am I going to do now? 

You're talking about the new person in your English class. The verb is parlare (to speak).

     He speaks English very well.

Answers:

Cosa ti metti oggi?  

Finisco il progetto dopo pranzo. 

Mangio un panino tutti i giorni a pranzo. 

Prendo il pesce. 

E ora che faccio?

Lui parla molto bene inglese. 

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Magari-a magic word

Sounding like a native speaker is quite a challenge. Magari (maybe) is a word that can help your spoken Italian become more natural—almost like magic!  

 

Think of all the ways you say “maybe” in English: 

  • may or might (potrei, potresti, potrebbe, which is the present conditional of the verb potere [to be able to])
  • perhaps (forse)  
  • could be (può darsi, possibilmente)
  • possibly (forse, può darsi) 

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Magari can work for all these meanings. As an adverb, magari basically means “maybe,” as in this telephone exchange between Lara, Lara’s aunt, and Commissioner Manara. He is calling to see how Lara is, and mentions he might (magari) stop in later. Lara’s aunt is thrilled—but Lara, not so much. She grabs the phone and tells him so. Ho detto magari (I said maybe), he protests: 

No, volevo solamente sapere come sta. Magari passo a farle visita più tardi.

No, I was just wondering how she is. Maybe I'll drop by to visit her later.

Eh sì, certo... -No, no, dammi il telefono! Non ci pensare neanche. -Ho detto magari.

Oh yes, sure... -No, no, give me the phone! Don't even think of it. -I said maybe.

Captions 25 and 27-28, Commissario Manara: Vendemmia Tardiva - Ep. 2 - part 2 of 17

But in the following example, the waiter at the lakeside restaurant has suggested to a woman that, given the very hot sun, she might like to jump in the water. Her reply, Magari! in a phrase all by itself, said with a certain emphasis, expresses a wish that something were true. She’d love to dive in, but doesn’t know how to swim. (“I’d love to, but...”  or, on a more colloquial level, “Yeah, right! I don’t even know how to swim!” or ”If only [I knew how to swim]!”)

Un tuffo? Magari! Peccato che non so nuotare.

A dive? I wish! Too bad I don't know how to swim.

Caption 10, Una gita: al lago - Part 3 of 4

Magari is a word that can temper something you say and you can add it just about anywhere in a sentence. In Amiche: Anna e Marika raccontano..., we are at the close of a conversation between Marika and Anna, talking about their lives. Instead of just saying, ora facciamo i saluti (now let’s say goodbye), or allora ciao (well, goodbye), Marika softens it with magari, turning it into a suggestion rather than a statement or an order.

Bene. -Ora facciamo i saluti magari. -Mmh.

Good. -Now maybe we should say goodbye. -Mm.

Caption 31, Amiche: Anna e Marika raccontano...

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Learning tip: 

Magari is a word that slips off the tongue with ease, and Italians use it often in conversation. As you try talking to yourself in Italian (a great exercise!), experiment with using it when in English you would say, “Maybe I’ll...”  “I just might...” “Yeah, right!” “Yeah, if only it were true,” or “I think I will...”  

It also works in the negative: magari, no (better not, maybe not, I wouldn’t).

Sometimes magari just adds a little something to the phrase; other times it is essential. To see more examples of how it is used in conversation, you can do a search of the Yabla videos: Click here and you'll see all instances magari highlighted. You can then go and watch the videos to get a more complete picture.

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Viva la pasta

Imagine being on vacation in Italy. You’ve rented a little apartment, and you’d like to do some cooking! You might even have bought an Italian-language cookbook. What are some handy things to know? 

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Most Italians have a kitchen scale for dry measure, and use kilos and grams. For example, when deciding how much pasta to cook, they will typically measure out un etto* (one hundred grams) per person, which will then get cooked in a big pentola (pot) of acqua bollente salata (salted boiling water).

*Short for ettogrammo (hectogram), equal to cento grammi  (a hundred grams). To convert to and from the metric system, click here.

Let's look at how real Italian cooks work in two videos, Marino: La maccaronara and Adriano: Pasta alla carbonara -  Part 1 of 2.

In Marino: La maccaronara, Marino is making fresh pasta. He talks about the impasto (dough). But impasto can also refer to a batter, or the result of whatever you have mixed up, like a filling or stuffing. Lavorare (to work) in this context means to manipulate, to knead, to mix up, to beat, or to form. He explains:

È molto semplice: fare un impasto di acqua e farina e sale, lavorarlo almeno quaranta minuti, così la pasta è più buona,

It's very simple: make a dough of water and flour and salt, knead it for at least forty minutes, that way the pasta tastes better,

Captions 8-9, Marino: La maccaronara

Once you have kneaded it, you make it flatter and it becomes “la sfoglia”—thin and flat like a leaf (la foglia) or a piece of paper (il foglio).

E poi si fa la sfoglia con un mattarello in legno,

And then you roll out (the dough) with a wooden rolling pin,

Caption 15, Marino: La maccaronara

Adriano, nel frattempo (in the meantime), has been working on la carbonara, a favorite piatto (dish) among students on a budget, or with those who want to make something simple but tasty and nutritious. Click here for some theories on the origins of the name, or listen to what Adriano has to say about it as he cooks. Carbone means “coal,” so many people associate the name with one of the important ingredients, black pepper (pepe nero).

Per iniziare, dobbiamo fare il soffritto.

To start with, we have to sauté [the onions].

Facciamo soffriggere la cipolla, aggiungiamo un pizzico di sale.

We sauté the onion; we add a pinch of salt.

Captions 22 and 32, Adriano: Pasta alla carbonara - Part 1 of 2

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Soffrigere (to sauté) is carried out at a lower temperature than friggere (to fry or deep-fry). Il soffritto is the classic beginning to cooking a great number of sauces and dishes.

The most common kinds of soffritto use: aglio (garlic), prezzemolo (parsley), and concentrato di pomodoro (tomato paste), or cipolla (onion), carote (carrots), and sedano (celery). They cook at a moderate heat in olio di oliva (olive oil) using a thick-bottomed padella (skillet).

Have fun, and buon appetito!

For more about Italian dining and cooking, see Marika spiega: Pentole e posate (Marika Explains About Pots, Pans, and Tableware). 

Learning suggestion: Look up different recipes for la carbonara in an Italian cookbook or on the Internet and try making this delicious pasta dish—or cook along with Adriano!

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Play Time

The verb suonare (to play music, to sound) has various related meanings, all connected with sound (il suono). 

In Escursione: Un picnic in campagna - Part 3 of 4, a guy is talking to his girlfriend about the vendemmia (grape harvest). He concludes by saying:

Suono l'organetto e facciamo una cena tutti quanti insieme.

I play the accordion and we have a dinner all together.

Caption 24, Escursione: Un picnic in campagna - Part 3 of 4

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After taking out his accordion, he says:

Questo è il pezzo che suono sempre.

This is the piece I always play.

Caption 26, Escursione: Un picnic in campagna - Part 3 of 4

Back in the city, Milena and Mattia are sitting at an outdoor café. Mattia is talking about his band.

No, io suono solo il piano. Il ragazzo che suona la chitarra fa anche il cantante.

No, I just play the piano. The guy who plays the guitar is also the singer.

Captions 43-44, Milena e Mattia: Al ristorante - Part 1 of 2

In the above examples, suonare means “to play” (an instrument or music), but suonare also means “to sound.” Consider the following sentence:

Francesco suona bene il violino, ma in questa stanza il violino non suona bene.

Francesco plays the violin well, but in this room the violin doesn’t sound good.

Here's a list of even more ways the verb suonare can be used:

  •      suonare bene (to sound good, or to play well—depending on the context)
  •      suonare il campanello (to ring the doorbell)
  •      suonare il claxon (to honk the horn)
  •      fare suonare (literally, to make something sound; to play something, such as a CD—as in pressing “play”)
  •      suonare in giro (perform here and there, play some gigs)
  •      essere suonato/suonata come una campana (literally, having been rung like a bell—to be off one’s head)
  •      suonare (to ring, as in a telephone or an alarm clock; to toll, as in a churchbell slowly ringing  to announce a death)
  •      suonare male a qualcuno (to not sound right to someone)
  •  

Another translation of “to play” is giocare, but this comes from the word for “game,” il gioco. In Bibione: Torneo del frisbee - Part 1 of 2,  Dario talks about his favorite gioco:

Mi piace molto giocare a frisbee.

I really like playing frisbee.

Caption 3, Bibione: Torneo del frisbee - Part 1 of 2

L'Ultimate frisbee è uno sport che si gioca sia su erba che su spiaggia.

Ultimate frisbee is a sport that is played both on grass and on the beach.

Lo scopo del gioco è fare meta.

The aim of the game is to score.

Captions 34-36, Bibione: Torneo del frisbee - Part 1 of 2

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So whether you like playing frisbee, playing the guitar, or playing your favorite CD, play some videos on your computer and play the Yabla Game. Can you figure out the right Italian word for all the highlighted words in the previous sentence, and in the following one? See if it sounds right to you!

(See below for the solution.)

  • giocare
  • suonare
  • fare suonare
  • fare suonare (or, fare andare—literally, to make something go)
  • giocare
  • gioco
  • suonare
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Attention, please!

Mi raccomando (I implore you) is an expression you will most often hear in commands: parent to child, between friends, from boss to employee. It’s mainly used to reinforce a request or a command, and indicates a certain degree of importance or urgency as well as trust.

 

In an episode of Acqua in bocca: Pippo e la pappa, the father says to his kids as he walks out the door:

Mi raccomando, qualcuno di voi dia da mangiare ai pesci.

Make sure one of you feeds the fish.

Caption 9, Acqua in bocca Pippo e la pappa - Ep 5

 Play Caption

 

When I say mi raccomando I'm calling attention to what I'm about to say, or to what I’ve just said, and I mean, “Listen carefully to what I'm telling you to do, and make sure you do it, because it’s important!” I'm entrusting you with something, a task or an object. I'm counting on you. 

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So how do you fit mi raccomando into a sentence? It’s easy, and quite common in speech, to consider it as a separate phrase, or a tag:

Non arrivare in ritardo, mi raccomando.

Don’t come late. I’m counting on you.

Mi raccomando, non rompere quel vaso.

Be careful; don’t break that vase. 

 

Sometimes it’s used just by itself as a warning or an exhortation to pay attention, to be careful. Someone’s youngster is going off to camp, or going out with friends for the first time. After giving him a hug, his parent might say, Mi raccomando... (Take care and don’t get into trouble...) while giving him a meaningful look. 

 

But what does the word raccomandare actually mean? Your first instinct tells you it means “to recommend.” That’s not completely wrong, but it’s not completely right, either. In fact, that definition is probably the one used least often! There are various somewhat related meanings, but the most useful and commonly heard form is the reflexive form used in the first person: mi raccomando (I implore you). Here are some other uses:

 

  • raccomandarsi = to commend or entrust oneself to (to God, for example); to urge someone to do something. To entreat, implore.
  •  
  • lettera raccomandata = registered letter (you are making sure the letter gets to its destination. It’s getting special care).
  •  
  • essere raccomandato = to be helped in one’s career or studies or other situations by knowing someone, by friends or connections.
  •  
  • raccomandare = to recommend or advise, to put in a good word, to urge. A doctor might say, Le raccomando di stare a letto (I strongly advise you to stay in bed). But note that in order to recommend a good restaurant or film, Italians will more likely use the verb consigliare (to advise), as in the following example, where a customer at lakeside vacation spot gets some advice as to how to combat the heat.

Se sente caldo, Le consiglio di fare un tuffo.

If you're hot, I recommend diving in.

Caption 11, Una gita al lago - Part 3

 Play Caption

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Learning Tip:

Practice adding mi raccomando to commands, either at the beginning or the end. You will want it to correspond to “I’m counting on you,” “I really mean it,” “Be careful!”  “Pay attention!”

Mi racommando! Don’t forget to visit Yabla Italian today.

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I say hello; you say goodbye

We’ve all heard the informal greeting ciao ("hi" or "bye") and the more formal buongiorno ("good morning" or "hello"). But when is the right—or wrong—time to use them? And what are the variations and alternatives?  

 

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Buongiorno: when do we say this?

 

In Il Commissario Manara: Un delitto perfetto, a freshly transferred Commissioner is greeting his new boss. He certainly wouldn’t say ciao. He says buongiorno. If it were after noon (technically after 12 noon, but more likely later) he would say buonasera ("good evening," "good afternoon," or "hello"). 

Buongiorno. -Si può sapere, di grazia, che fine ha fatto?

Good morning. -Can one know, may I ask, where you have been?

Caption 22, Il Commissario Manara S1EP1 - Un delitto perfetto - Part 3

 Play Caption

 

At the market, Agata is addressing the vegetable vendor with respect (and vice versa). It is polite to add signora (ma’am) or signore (sir) when addressing someone you don’t know well, or when you don’t know their name. Agata’s friend just says a general buongiorno ("good morning") to everyone (a little less formal but still perfectly acceptable): 

Signora buongiorno. -Buongiorno Signora. -Buongiorno.

Madam, good morning. -Good morning, Ma’am. -Good morning.

Caption 21, L'isola del gusto: Il macco di Aurora - Part 1 of 7 

 

Ciao and arrivederci

 

Agata and her friend Catena are still at the market. Catena says buongiorno since she doesn’t know anyone at all. Agata just uses her vendor’s name (Giuseppe) to greet him, and he greets her using the familiar form:

Buongiorno. -Giuseppe! -Ciao Agata.

Good morning. -Giuseppe! -Hi Agata.

Caption 8, L'isola del gusto: Il macco di Aurora - Part 1 of 7

 

Another vendor is saying goodbye to her customers: ciao to those to she knows well and arrivederci (literally, "until we see each other again") to those she doesn’t:  

Grazie. Arrivederci, ciao.

Thanks. Goodbye, bye.

Caption 37, L'isola del gusto: Il macco di Aurora - Part 1 of 7

 

Pronto (telephone only)

 

One version of "hello" has a very limited application: pronto. It literally means "ready," and it's how Italians answer the phone:

Pronto, Sicily Cultural Tour. Buongiorno.

Hello, Sicily Cultural Tour. Good morning.

Caption 1,  Pianificare: un viaggio

 

One more option: Salve

 

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Still another way to greet someone is salve (hello). Less formal than buongiorno, it is still polite and you can use it all by itself. It is especially useful when you’re not sure how formal to be or whether it is morning or afternoon/evening, and when you don’t know or remember the name of the person you are addressing.

Salve, vorrei fare un viaggio alla Valle dei Templi ad Agrigento.

Hello, I'd like to take a trip to the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento.

Caption 2,  Pianificare: un viaggio

As you go about your day, try imagining how you might greet the people you meet if you were speaking Italian. Keep in mind the hour, and how well you know the person—and, remember, when in doubt, there is always salve

To learn more:

A detailed explanation of Forms of Address used in Italian can be found here.

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Essere o non essere? To be or not to be?

Essere (to be), is conjugated as follows:

Io sono (I am)

Tu sei (you are)

Lei è (you are - polite form)

Lui è (he/it is)

Lei è (she/it is)

Noi siamo (we are)

Voi siete (you are plural)

Loro sono (they are)

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Simple enough! But it can be tricky knowing exactly who "is."  That's because of a convention in Italian that's not used in English. Often, the pronoun that's the subject of essere is assumed or implied:  

Sono Minivip.

I'm Minivip.

Caption 3, Psicovip Il treno - Ep 3

 Play Caption

È pieno di posti liberi.

It's full of free seats.

Caption 55, Psicovip Il treno - Ep 3

 Play Caption

 

 

Context is very important in understanding these constructions. Consider the answers to the next two questions – they look the same, but their meaning is quite different:

Dove sei? (Where are you?)

Sono a casa. (I am at home.)

Dove sono i bambini? (Where are the children?)

Sono a casa. (They’re at home.)

In fact, if the context of "the children" has already been established, the question can be:

Dove sono? (Where are they?)

 

Feeling lost? You may be tempted to ask yourself Dove sono? right now. That's because it also means "Where am I?" How do you find your way through these abbreviated, pronoun-less constructions? Pay attention to the context! Sometimes the ambiguity can be a source of humor.  At the end of one of the Psicoivip episodes, Minivip is talking to his doctor about his dream and trying to understand something about himself:

E questo cosa significa? Che, che sono... -Sono ottanta euro, prego.

And what does this mean? That, that I'm... -That's eighty euros, please.

Captions 63-64, Psicovip Il treno - Ep 3

 Play Caption

 

 

The doctor finishes his sentence with a completely different subject in mind, using the seemingly identical form of esseresono. In this case he is speaking in the third person plural to refer to the euros, which though expressed in the singular (euro always remains the same), are plural in this case, since there are eighty of them: 

Che, che sono... -Sono ottanta euro, prego.

That, that I'm... -That's eighty euros, please.

Caption 64, Psicovip Il treno - Ep 3

 Play Caption

 

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Learning Tip:

While watching new videos, make sure to click on any word whose meaning you aren't totally sure of. You'll see the definition appear to the right of the caption, and the word will be added to your own personalized flashcard list for later review. It's a great way to watch yourself improve!

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