Self-Access Centre - Italian

Welcome to the Self-Access Centre materials database. Here you can find out about the Italian materials available in the SAC.

If you are interested in studying Italian at UCL, please click here.

The SAC is here to provide you with opportunities to study Italian outside class time. You may feel extra study is necessary in order to achieve the exam score you want, or you may just enjoy studying Italian. Either way, the SAC could be useful for you.

If you have a very clear idea of what you need to study in Italian, use the Resources menu above to look for the study topics which are of importance to you. If you need advice and guidance on what to study, you should talk to your class tutor, who will help you identify your strengths and weaknesses and make recommendations on what to study.

We have a wide range of resources to help you study Italian on your own. In the Self-Access Centre you can find course books, dictionaries, but also, reading, grammar and vocabulary books. You can also browse through magazines and newspapers in Italian. There are links to BBC Languages programmes, which will allow you to learn Italian by watching interactive videos. You can also watch Italian films, TV documentaries, or course videos. You can also practice your Italian by doing the online exercises.

A bit about the language

Italian (italiano) is a Romance language spoken by about 60 million people in Italy, and by another 10 million Italian descendants in the world, making it spoken by a total of 70 million native speakers. It is also spoken by an additional 125 million people as a foreign language. In Switzerland, Italian is one of four official languages, spoken mainly in the cantons of Grigioni and Ticino. It is also the official language of San Marino, as well as the primary language of Vatican City. Standard Italian, adopted by the state after the unification of Italy, is based on Tuscan (in particular on the dialects of the city of Florence). Its development was also influenced by the other Italian dialects and by the Germanic language of the post-Roman invaders.

Italian derives from Latin, and is the closest national language to Latin. Unlike most other Romance languages, Italian retains Latin's contrast between short and long consonants. In particular, among the Romance languages, Italian is the closest to Latin in terms of vocabulary. Lexical similarity is 89% with French, 87% with Catalan, 85% with Sardinian, 82% with Spanish, 78% with Rhaeto-Romance and 77% with Romanian.

Italian is written in the Latin alphabet. The letters J, K, W, X and Y are not considered part of the standard Italian alphabet, but appear in loanwords (such as jeans, whisky, taxi). X has become a commonly used letter in genuine Italian words with the prefix extra-. J in Italian is an old-fashioned orthographic variant of I, appearing in the first name "Jacopo" as well as in some Italian place names, e.g., the towns of Bajardo, Bojano, Joppolo, Jesolo, Jesi, Ajaccio, among numerous others, and in the alternative spelling Mar Jonio (also spelled Mar Ionio) for the Ionian Sea. J may also appear in many words from different dialects, but its use is discouraged in contemporary Italian, and it is not part of the standard 21-letter contemporary Italian alphabet. Each of these foreign letters has an Italian equivalent spelling: gi or i for j, c or ch for k (including chilometro for kilometer in prose), u or v for w (depending on what sound it makes), s, ss, or cs for x, and i for y. (In informal Internet usage and texts, it goes back the other way; for example, ch is replaced with k.)


  • Dante Aligheri

The Italian language has a long history, but the modern standard of the language was largely shaped by relatively recent events. The earliest surviving texts that can definitely be called Italian (or more accurately, vernacular, as distinct from its predecessor Vulgar Latin) are legal formulae from the region of Benevento that date from 960-963. What would come to be thought of as Italian was first formalized in the first years of the 14th century through the works of Dante Alighieri, who mixed southern Italian languages, especially Sicilian, with his native Tuscan in his epic poems known collectively as the Commedia, to which Giovanni Boccaccio later affixed the title Divina. Dante's much-loved works were read throughout Italy and his written dialect became the "canonical standard" that all educated Italians could understand. Dante is still credited with standardizing the Italian language and, thus, the dialect of Tuscany became the basis for what would become the official language of Italy.

Italian was often an official language of the various Italian states pre-dating unification, slowly usurping Latin, even when ruled by foreign powers (such as the Spanish in the Kingdom of Naples, or the Austrians in the Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia), even though the masses spoke primarily vernacular languages and dialects. Italian was also one of the many recognised languages in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Italy has always had a distinctive dialect for each city since the cities were, until recently, thought of as city-states. Those dialects now have considerable variety, however. As Tuscan-derived Italian came to be used throughout Italy, features of local speech were naturally adopted, producing various versions of Regional Italian.

In contrast to the Northern Italian language, southern Italian dialects and languages were largely untouched by the influences introduced to Italy by bards from France, during the Middle Ages but, after the Norman conquest of southern Italy, Sicily became the first Italian land to adopt Occitan lyric moods (and words) in poetry. Even in the case of Northern Italian language, however, scholars are careful not to overstate the effects of outsiders on the natural indigenous developments of the languages. The economic might and relatively advanced development of Tuscany in the Late Middle Ages, gave its dialect weight, though Venetian language remained widespread in medieval Italian commercial life, as well as Ligurian (or Genoese) remained in use in maritime trade alongside the Mediterranean. Also, the increasing political and cultural relevance of Florence during the periods of the rise of Medici's bank, Humanism and the Renaissance made its dialect, or rather a refined version of it, a standard in the arts.

  • The first page of Dante's Inferno

Middle Ages

The re-discovery of Dante's De vulgari eloquentia and a renewed interest in linguistics in the 16th century sparked a debate that raged throughout Italy concerning the criteria that should govern the establishment of a modern Italian literary and spoken language. Scholars divided into various factions:

The purists, headed by Pietro Bembo (who claimed the language might only be based on the great literary classics...notably, Petrarch and Boccaccio). The purists thought the Divine Comedy not dignified enough because it used elements from non-lyric registers of the language.

Niccolò Machiavelli and other Florentines preferred the version spoken by ordinary people in their own times.

The courtiers, like Baldassarre Castiglione and Gian Giorgio Trissino, insisted that each local vernacular must contribute to the new standard.

A fourth faction claimed the best Italian was the one the papal court adopted. Eventually, the purists ideas prevailed, and led to publication of the first Italian dictionary in 1612 and the foundation of the Accademia della Crusca in Florence (1582-3), the official legislative body of the Italian language.

Modern era

Two notable defining moments in the history of the Italian language came between 1500 and 1850. Both events were invasions. The rulers of Spain invaded and occupied Italy down to Rome and the Vatican in the mid-16th century. This occupation left a lasting influence upon the formerly irregular Italian grammar, simplifying it to conform more to the dominant Spanish language. The second was the conquest and occupation of Italy by Napoleon in the early 19th century (who was himself of Italian-Corsican descent). This conquest propelled the unification of Italy, and pushed the Italian language into a lingua franca. The increased unity among people on the Italian peninsula weakened many regional languages.

Contemporary times

Italian literature's first modern novel, I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed), by Alessandro Manzoni further defined the standard by "rinsing" his Milanese "in the waters of the Arno" (Florence's river), as he states in the Preface to his 1840 edition. After unification a huge number of civil servants and soldiers recruited from all over the country introduced many more words and idioms from their home languages ("ciao" is Venetian, "panettone" is in the Milanese dialect of the Lombard language etc.). Only 2.5% of Italy’s population could speak standard Italian when the nation unified in 1861.

Geographic distribution

  • The Italophone World: Native (dark blue), Administrative (blue), Non-official (light blu), Minority (green)

Italian is the official language of Italy and San Marino, and one of the official languages of Switzerland, spoken mainly in the cantons of Ticino and part of Graubünden (Grigioni in Italian), which together are a region referred to as Italian Switzerland. It is also official language with Croatian and Slovenian in some areas of Istria, where an Italian minority exists. It is the primary language of the Vatican City and is widely used and taught in Monaco and Malta. It served as Malta's official language until the Maltese language was enshrined in the 1934 Constitution. It is also spoken to a significant extent in France, with over 1,000,000 speakers (especially in Corsica and the County of Nice, areas that historically spoke Italian dialects before annexation to France), and it is understood by large parts of the populations of Albania and coastal Montenegro, reached by many Italian TV channels.

Italian is also spoken by some in former Italian colonies in Africa (Libya and Eritrea). However, its use has sharply dropped off since the colonial period. In Eritrea, Italian is widely understood. In fact, for 50 years, during the colonial period, Italian was the language of education, but as of 1997, there is only one Italian-language school remaining, with 470 pupils. In Libya, Italian has been wiped out by the Libyan Revolution's Arabization programs in education and media. In Egypt and Tunisia, it is mostly spoken by Italian Egyptians and Tunisians. In all of the above former Italian African colonies, most of the fluent Italian speakers are people who grew up in officially Italian-speaking nations, especially Italy, and returned to Africa.

Italian and Italian dialects are widely used by Italian immigrants and many of their descendants living throughout Western Europe (especially France, Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and Luxembourg), the United States, Canada, Australia, and Latin America (especially Uruguay, Brazil, Argentina, and Venezuela). In the United States, Italian speakers are most commonly found in five cities: Boston, Chicago, the Miami region, New York City, and Philadelphia. According to the United States Census in 2000, over 1 million Italian Americans spoke Italian at home, with the largest concentrations (nearly half) found in the states of New York and New Jersey. In Canada, Italian is the fourth most commonly spoken language, with about 2.1% of the population according to the 2006 Census. Particularly large Italian-speaking communities are found in Montreal and Toronto. Italian is also strongly visible in the Hamilton area. Italian is the second most commonly spoken language in Australia, where 1.9% of the population, reported speaking Italian at home in the 2001 Census.

Italian as a lingua franca

Starting in late medieval times, Italian language variants replaced Latin to become the primary commercial language in much of Europe and the Mediterranean Sea. This was consolidated during the Renaissance with the strength of Italian and the rise of humanism in the arts. During the Renaissance, Italy held artistic sway over the rest of Europe. All educated European gentlemen were expected to make the Grand Tour, visiting Italy to see its great historical monuments and works of art. It thus became expected that educated Europeans would learn at least some Italian; the English poet John Milton, for instance, wrote some of his early poetry in Italian. In England, Italian became the second most common modern language to be learned, after French (though the classical languages, Latin and Greek, came first). However, by the late 18th century, Italian tended to be replaced by German as the second modern language in the curriculum. Yet Italian loanwords continue to be used in most other European languages in matters of art and music. Within the Catholic church, Italian is known by a large part of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, and is used in substitution for Latin in some official documents. It continues to be used in music and opera.

  • Languages spoken in Italy


In Italy, all Romance languages spoken as the vernacular, other than standard Italian and other unrelated, non-Italian languages, are termed "Italian dialects". Many Italian dialects may be considered historical languages in their own right. These include recognized language groups such as Friulian, Neapolitan, Sardinian, Sicilian, Ligurian, Piedmontese, Venetian, and others, and regional variants of these languages such as Calabrian. The distinction between dialect and language has been made by scholars (such as Francesco Bruni): on the one hand are the languages that made up the Italian standard language; and on the other, those that had little or no part in it, such as Albanian, Greek, German, Ladin, and Occitan, which some minorities still speak.

Non-standard dialects are not generally used for mass communication and are usually limited to native speakers in informal contexts. In the past, speaking in dialect was often deprecated as a sign of poor education. In parts of Italy, the younger generations tend to speak standard Italian, rather than dialects, in all situations, albeit usually with local accents and idioms. Regional differences can be recognized by various factors: the openness of vowels, the length of the consonants, and influence of the local dialect.

Source: adapted from www.wikipedia.org