Are you a native Italian speaker who:
- struggles with pronouncing American English vowels, such as the tense EE /i/ sound in beat and the lax IH /ɪ/ sound in bit?
- has difficulty speaking American English with appropriate fluency, connections, and flow?
- is confused about how to pronounce the H /h/ consonant in American English? (Is it silent? Is it pronounced?)
American English Pronunciation for Italian Speakers: Top 5 Pronunciation Challenges
If you are a native speaker of Italian and you struggle with American English pronunciation, then this resource is for you. Here you’ll learn 5 of the most common pronunciation challenges that native speakers of Italian experience when speaking English, and you’ll learn how to improve your pronunciation of American English.
Read about the top 5 pronunciation areas below, and then watch the free English pronunciation video lessons to learn how to pronounce each sound. Don’t forget to click here to download your free Guidebook to the Sounds of American English, too!
Italian Challenge #1: The EE /i/ and IH /ɪ/ Vowels
The EE /i/ as in beat and IH /ɪ/ as in bit vowels are very common in American English. The EE /i/ vowel is also found in Italian, but the IH /ɪ/ vowel does not exist in Italian, and this is where native speakers of Italian tend to have difficulty with pronunciation.
The EE /i/ as in beat vowel is a long, tense vowel in American English. This means there is tension somewhere in the vocal tract when you pronounce it. Say “eee” and place your hand under your chin - do you feel the muscles tensing there when you say “eee”?
In contrast, the IH /ɪ/ as in bit vowel is a short, lax vowel in American English. This means the muscles in the vocal tract are relaxed as you say it. When you say the IH /ɪ/ vowel, there should not be any tension in the muscles under your chin - IH /ɪ/ should feel very different from EE /i/ in terms of muscle tension.
Native speakers of Italian tend to pronounce the short, lax IH /ɪ/ vowel like the long, tense EE /i/ vowel, so a word like bit may sound like beat, or a word like similar (sih-mih-ler) may sound like "see-mee-lar".
How to Pronounce the EE /i/ and IH /ɪ/ Vowels in American English
The biggest difference between the pronunciation of EE /i/ and IH /ɪ/ is tongue tension. When you pronounce IH /ɪ/, remember to relax your mouth and tongue. Use a mirror to make sure you are relaxed when you say it. Now contrast that with the tense EE /i/ vowel and add as much tension as possible when you say it. Can you feel the difference in muscle tension?
To learn how to pronounce the EE /i/ and IH /ɪ/ vowels, watch the pronunciation videos below. Or you can read about their pronunciations by clicking here: How to Pronounce the EE /i/ Vowel; How to Pronounce the IH /ɪ/ Vowel; EE /i/ and IH /ɪ/ Vowels: EE /i/ and IH /ɪ/ Vowels: Minimal Pairs Listening Quiz.
Italian Challenge #3: The H /h/ Consonant
The H /h/ consonant can be tricky for Italian speakers because in the Italian language, the "h" is silent, so Italian speakers tend to apply this rule in English as well. But unfortunately, the pronunciation of the "h" isn't as clear-cut in American English.
Sometimes the "h" is silent in American English words, like honest and hour. Yet more commonly, the "h" is pronounced as /h/, like in the words hello, history, and upheld. When native speakers of Italian omit the /h/ from a word like hello, this results in the pronunciation sounding like "ello". While this type of pronunciation pattern isn't likely to cause any confusion for a native speaker of American English, it may distract from the message and cause the listener to think, "Where is this person from?"
However, when it comes to conversational English, there are some h-words that consistently drop the initial "h" consonant: pronouns that begin with the H /h/ consonant, like he, him, her, his, and hers, and the word have when it's an auxiliary verb.
Sometimes the initial /h/ is dropped from the pronunciation of these pronouns, which results in the word he sounding like "ee" and her sounding like "er". You can use this reduced pronunciation when those pronouns are unstressed in a sentence or phrase, such as Is he busy? and Give it to her.
And the initial /h/ is often dropped from the pronunciation of have when it's used in phrases like could have, would have, should have, might have, etc.
How to Pronounce the H /h/ Consonant in American English
There are two ways to pronounce the H /h/ consonant in American English. The first way is to make the H /h/ consonant in the throat as you lightly squeeze the vocal cords together. The tongue is relaxed. This is how I make the H /h/ consonant.
The second way is to make the H /h/ consonant with the back of the tongue as you lightly squeeze the back of the tongue towards the soft palate.
I don’t prefer the second way of pronouncing the H /h/ consonant because if you squeeze the tongue too much, then the H /h/ will sound too heavy or constricted, and this is not how the H /h/ consonant sounds in American English. It’s a light constriction of airflow, just barely shaping the air as it travels through the throat and mouth.
To learn how to pronounce the H /h/ consonant and when to omit the initial H /h/ consonant in pronouns, watch the pronunciation videos below. Or you can read about their pronunciations by clicking here: How to Pronounce the H /h/ Consonant; English Rhythm: Pronoun Reductions; Top 10 Reductions of the Word "Have".
Italian Challenge #4: Final -s and -ed Endings
Italian is a phonetic language, which means the spelling of a word typically match up with how it is pronounced. American English, on the other hand, is not phonetic, and this can make pronunciation of American English a "guessing game" for non-native speakers.
The -s and -ed endings in American English can be especially difficult for native speakers of Italian to pronounce accurately because there are multiple ways that the same spellings can be pronounced, and most of the pronunciations aren't phonetic. For example, the words plays, cats, and watches all end in -s but the -s ending is pronounced differently in all three words!
How to Pronounce Final -s and -ed Endings in American English
To know how to pronounce the final -s and -ed endings in American English, you must first look at the infinitive form of the word, which is when the word is in its root form without any special endings. Once you have the infinitive form of the word, then you can apply the following rules to the pronunciation.
The rules of the final -s ending are as follows:
- -s is pronounced as /s/ when a word ends in any voiceless sound other than S /s/, SH /ʃ/, or CH /ʧ/. The words cat, ship, and kick all follow this rule: the final -s in cats, ships, and kicks is pronounced as /s/.
- -s is pronounced as /z/ when a word ends in any voiced sound other than Z /z/, ZH /ʒ/, or J /ʤ/. The words shoe, dog, and love all follow this rule: the final -s in shoes, dogs, and loves is pronounced as /z/.
- -s is pronounced as its own syllable /ɪz/ when a word ends in the following sounds: S /s/, Z /z/, SH /ʃ/, ZH /ʒ/, CH /ʧ/, and J /ʤ/. The words class, watch, and push all follow this rule: the final -s in classes, watches, and pushes is pronounced as its own syllable /ɪz/.
The rules of the final -ed ending are as follows:
- -ed is pronounced as /t/ when a word ends in any voiceless sound other than /t/. The words kiss, type, and look all follow this rule: the final -ed in kissed, typed, and looked are all pronounced as /t/.
- -ed is pronounced as /d/ when a word ends in any voiced sound other than /d/. The words travel, brag, and apply all follow this rule: the final -ed in traveled, bragged, and applied is pronounced as /d/.
- -ed is pronounced as its own syllable /ɪd/ when a word ends in /t/ or /d/. The words vote, divide, and grade all follow this rule: the final -ed in voted, divided, and graded is pronounced as its own syllable /ɪd/.
To learn how to pronounce the -s and -ed endings in American English, watch the videos below. Or you can read about their pronunciations by clicking here: Pronounce the Past Tense Like a Native Speaker; Never Delete This Sound!; Speak Smooth and Easy English Using the Flap T.
Italian Challenge #5: The TH /θ, ð/ Consonants
The TH /θ, ð/ consonants do not exist in Italian, so these can be particularly challenging for native Italian speakers to pronounce in English. It can be common for Italian speakers to substitute a /t/ or a /d/ for the TH consonants in English words, which results in the words the, this, and that sounding like "duh", "dis" and "dat", and think, thing, and three as "tink", "ting", and "tree".
While these types of pronunciation substitutions aren't likely to cause that much confusion for a speaker of American English, it can distract the listener from the message and cause them to think, "Where is that person from?"
How to Pronounce the TH /θ, ð/ Consonants in American English
To pronounce the TH /θ, ð/ consonants, the tongue tip comes out between the upper and lower teeth. The teeth lightly come together to anchor the tongue tip in place (don't bite the tongue!). The body of the tongue is in a wide shape. The air flows out of the mouth along the top of the tongue, between the space where the upper teeth make contact with the upper surface of the tongue. The cheeks come together to push the corners of the lips in towards each other.
The TH /θ/ is voiceless, meaning just air is released as you make this sound (no vocal cord vibration). This is how the "th" in think, thing, and three is pronounced. But the TH /ð/ is voiced, meaning the vocal cords vibrate as you say this sound, and this is how the "th" in the, this, and that is pronounced.
To learn how to pronounce the TH /θ, ð/ consonants in American English, watch the videos below. Or you can read about their pronunciations by clicking here: How to Pronounce the TH /θ, ð/ Consonants; Place, Manner, and Voicing of the American English Consonants; English Made Easy: The TH /θ, ð/ Sound.