Italian language learning tip: notice Italian signs

Learning a new language is a bit like detective work at first. You can memorize the grammar rules and a list of vocabulary and practice your accent, but those things are only useful when implemented in communication.

Once you’ve arrived in Italy and are immersed in Italian, it can quickly become overwhelming and tiring. A great Italian language learning tip is to pay attention to written signs. Here’s why.

You’ll figure out the meaning from the context sometimes.

Even if you have never learned a word of Italian beyond ciao, pizzeria, or cappuccino, you can probably figure out what the sign below means. I thought the cats in the photo made this amusing, which is also why I like this photo. So just by paying attention to the sign and stopping for a minute to ponder it, you’ll have learned a couple new Italian words! Pat yourself on the back.

Bergamo attenti al cane


Bite-sized written words allow you to slow down.

You’ll be hearing Italian all around you from the minute you get off the plane until the minute you get back on, and if you’re straining to hear every word, it can be exhausting trying to keep up. Paying attention to signs in Italian are a great way to take a bite-sized chunk of the language and process it as slowly as you’d like.


Italian language learning tip

This sign means Reserved for Women, and it’s hung above a parking space.


Very few signs will be as easy to figure out from the context as the top photo, and it’s important to understand many of them for your own safety, so get some translation! I highly recommend downloading the Word Lens app on your smartphone. Set the “from” language and “to” language, point your phone’s camera at the sign, and the Italian is magically translated into your mother tongue.


Italian language learning tip

This was taken in the Dolomites, Italy’s northern mountain area, where everything is written in Italian and German, and sometimes also the local dialect, Ladino.

Signs can be a window into culture.

Part of the reason I snapped the parking for women sign is because it’s culturally interesting. Italian men still value chivalry, and I’m assuming that’s what this sign is about. (The parking space was wider so it could also be a generalization about female drivers but I’m going to assume that’s not the case.)


Italian language learning tip

Different colors mean different things in Italy. Green means the autostrada or toll road, blue means major roads that are not toll roads, and brown are points of interest.


Include sign photos in your Italy photo collection.

I take photos of Italian signs to remind me what I’m looking at (historical data) and where I was, or to help me remember logistics. For example I think I have photos of the transportation signs in most of Italy’s major airports that detail all the ways to get into the city from the airport. I also take photos of road signs in Italy that are different, and of signs I think are amusing. But I recommend photographing signs as an Italian language learning tip mainly because, after you return home, having Italian signs in your Italy photo collection is a great way to infuse your photos with the Italian language when you’re no longer immersed in it.

Italian language learning tip

This sign displays the prices of a Traghetto boat ride in Venice

More of my thoughts on Italian language learning are in this podcast and this guest post.

Photo of Attenti al Cane (Beware of dog) by Sanjay

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Posted by on Feb 5, 2010 in Italian Language | One Comment

1 Comment

  1. Carl Patten
    July 12, 2011

    “Attenti al cane” means “Beware of the Dog” right? But I’m a bit confused with the cats around. =D Anyway, the signage is kinda small. Maybe it would be better if it was made bigger so passers-by can see them clearly.


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