The other night when I was out and about in Florence, I had an American girl ask me if I speak Italian. I answered truthfully, I can understand more than I can add to the conversation, but I generally put on I know a lot less than I really do. She then asked me what were the most important phrases in Italian to know, and why I act like I know less than I do. For the second part I told her strictly for convenience. I can eavesdrop (sorry guys), or when I don't want to talk to the taxi driver at 5 am on the way to the airport I don't have to translate in my head while I'm still half asleep.
The cat is out of the bag. By no means do I consider myself fluent in Italian, but I do manage to get along, even when my boyfriend, who is fluent, isn't around.
But the first part of her question...what are the most important phrases to know? I mean I know what I generally say the most, but are those the most important. After thinking about it for a few nights, this is the list of what I think are the most important phrases to know when you're visiting Italy.
"A che ora?"- At what time?
Useful for planes, trains, busses, taxi services, and any other meeting time. If you learned Spanish in grade school, the numbers are fairly similar, so you shouldn't have too difficult translating the response. But to freshen you up on your Italian:
"Dov'é il bagno?"- Where is the bathroom?
Okay. So I thought long and hard about the fated question: "Dov'é?". Mostly because if you ask this in Italian, then you're going to get a response in Italian, which requires you to know directions in Italian. Let me just say that any time I have ever asked an Italian for directions, I've been more lost than had I just searched on my own.
But to ask for the bathroom, the only response really needed is a point, and maybe a few words, but for English speakers it isn't particularly important to get all of the words, if you can get the gist of where the restroom is from gestures.
"Posso avere....?"- Can I have...?
Posso avere un litro di vino rosso della casa. Can I have a liter of red house wine?
Posso avere le chiave per il bagno? Can I have the keys for the restroom?
Posso avere un po' di piú? Can I have a little bit more?
The list goes on. This is a very useful phrase to know when in restaurants, bars, or anywhere with customer service.
Sonno qui con/per....- I am here for/with...
If you are going to an event and trying to find your group you might need to adress yourself to a host. If they don't speak English the best way to tell them is I am here with... or I am here for... and then name the group or event. Usually at that point they can just lead you to where you need to go.
Buongiorno Vs. Buona Sera Vs. Buona Notte
Buona Sera- Good Afternoon/Good Evening
Buona Notte- Good Night
Please do not walk into a cafe, restaurant, gelateria, or whatever in the afternoon and say buongiorno. This means good morning. After 1pm you should say buona sera, and the only time you say buona notte is when parting for the evening or to go to bed.
Most people know this word, and most people not Italian don't know how it's spoken. Gratzie is pronounced graht-zee-ay NOT graht-zee. (Hint: in Italian every vowel is pronounced)
Also note, if some one has done something very kind to you, you can say gratzie mille (graht-zee-ay mee-lay), but this isn't usually something you go around saying to your grocery store clerk.
Again, something post people know, just not how to spell. Chou, chau, chiou, and my personal favorite, chow.
Other things to note.
- In Italian, the letter combination ch- makes a "K" sound
- Buongiorno, buona sera, buona notte and arrevederci are more formal greetings and phrases. If you are going to dinner at a nicer place, are at the post office, or anything involving school or legal matters, these should be used. Ciao is more informal and generally used around friends, and in social situations. Some cafés, pastacerias, and gelaterias will use them, but if you're unsure, it's best to go with the formal version.
- Panini is plural, panino is singular. If you tell someone you ate a panini, this is incorrect. You can eat multiple panini, but only one panino. Please do not say "lest go get some paninis" (Hint: almost nothing in Italian ends in a consonant.)