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12 of the most useful Italian words you need to know

Once you’ve got a few basic Italian phrases under your belt, what’s next? Here are some of the words you'll encounter daily when you live in Italy.

12 of the most useful Italian words you need to know
Thankfully, beginner-level Italian is not all about memorising verb conjugations. File photo: Pexels
When searching for the most useful Italian words to learn, you might come across lists of nouns like gatto (cat), cane (dog), casa (house), and so on. These are fine if you’re a total beginner, or a preschooler. But are they really the most useful words of all?

Like all good Italian language students, I studied my lists of nouns and verb conjugations carefully. But, in the end, the words I found most helpful in everyday life when I first moved to Italy were of a different sort.

I heard the same few words being used over and over again in all kinds of contexts. And during that first year I clung to those little words for dear life. I peppered my speech with them. I used them to buy thinking time, or as stock responses when I had very little idea what was going on – which was often.

So here are just a dozen of the common Italian words that will help when trying to better understand – and even join in with – everyday Italian conversation.


Right then, where should we start? It would have to be with this constantly-used and beautiful-sounding little word. You might have heard it in… well, just about every other sentence uttered by Italians.

What is this word they turn to so often? It must mean something really important, right? Well, at the risk of disappointing you, allora means, quite simply, ‘then’.

But of course, no word is quite as simple as it seems. Think about all the multitude of meanings ‘then’ can have in English: allora works the same way.

And if you want to be sassy (and who doesn’t want to learn how to be sassy in Italian?) it can also mean “and so what?”


Don’t be fooled: this word has nothing to do with the number 15 (quindici) and everything to do with helping your speech flow.

Quindi has two main meanings. The first is ‘so’, or more formally, ‘therefore’.

– Sta per piovere, quindi portati un ombrello.

It’s about to rain, so take an umbrella.

And the second is ‘then’, as in next or afterwards.

– Ho cenato, quindi sono uscita.

I had dinner, then I went out.

Va bene

This is one of the most important phrases you’ll need to know before coming to Italy. It means ‘ok’ or ‘alright’, and you’re going to hear it roughly every five seconds.

Va bene literally translates as ‘goes well’ and, if things are going well, you’d use it in response to the question come va? (how’s it going?)

But much like ‘alright’ in English, you can use it in lots of other ways.

And sometimes it means nothing much at all.

You’ll hear it bunched together with words like allora and quindi to fill in gaps in conversation: “allora… quindi… va bene.”

READ ALSO: The 12 ways speaking Italian will mess up your English


There are lots of ways to say ‘lots of’ in Italian and this is one word you’ll really need to master. It’s not as simple as it might look at first, but when you get the hang of this bit of grammar your Italian will take a leap forward.

Here’s how to do it – and why it doesn’t mean quite the same thing as molto. Except for when it does.


Here we go – another one of those fiddly words that don’t translate easily into English.

You’ll hear ecco all the time. It roughly means ‘here’ or ‘there’. Just as in English we fill our speech with little phrases like “here you are”, “there we go” and so on.

– Eccoci, finalmente siamo arrivati

– Here we are, we’ve finally arrived!

But of course, it’s not always that simple. Find out more about this common and versatile word here.


Comunque is one of those words that make more sense when you hear them in context – and that’s handy, since in Italy you’ll hear it a lot.

It’s used in a few different ways. One of the most common is to mean ‘anyway’ or ‘in any case’.

– Non sai dov’è? Grazie comunque.

You don’t know where it is? Thanks anyway.

See the other meanings here.


You know when someone starts telling you a long story about something that happened to them, and you don’t really have anything to add but want to show that you’re listening?

That kind of situation can get awkward in a foreign language.

But instead of uncomfortable silence, or manic smiling or nodding, here’s a useful word that shows you’re listening, and keeps the ‘conversation’ going: Immagino.

While you can translate it as “I imagine,” it’s used to mean something like “I can imagine!” or “I bet!” and expresses sympathy with whatever the speaker is talking (or more likely, complaining) about.

– Non posso credere che abbiano chiuso la strada. Che traffico! (I can’t believe they’ve closed the road. The traffic was terrible!)

– Immagino!


Even if you’ve only just started learning Italian, chances are you will have encountered the word ma (‘but’) by now. 

But (!) there’s more than one way to contradict yourself or others, especially in Italian. This word is a commonly used alternative: invece (pronounced ‘in-vetch-eh’).

In its simplest sense, it too means ‘but’. It can also mean “instead” and “however”.

–Pensavo che fosse partita, invece era ancora lì.

I thought she had gone, but she was still there.


You might have noticed that Italians say aspetta all the time. I’d never heard of this word before I arrived in Italy, but the meaning was perfectly clear: wait!

– Aspetta, il semaforo e rosso

– Wait, the light’s red

Now it’s one of the Italian words I use daily.


This common expression derives from a Greek word meaning blessed or happy, which is a clue to its first meaning: ‘I hope so!’ You can use magari to talk about things that are desired, wished or hoped for.

– Magari andrà tutto bene.

– Hopefully everything will be fine.

You even can use it to stress just how much you want something, usually if someone’s offering it to you: it’s like answering their question with ‘you bet!’

– Ti piacerebbe andare in Italia?
– Magari!
– Would you like to go to Italy?
– I certainly would!

See all the other ways you can use it here.


What a load of cabbage! Who would’ve thought this would be such a useful word? But once I learned it, I felt like I immediately understood about ten percent more Italian.

It usually serves as a milder substitute for cazzo (‘shit’ or ‘dick’), much the same way ‘sugar’ and ‘fudge’ can stand in for stronger terms in English. But more than just a placeholder, we think cavolo has a certain charm all of its own.

– Che cavolo vuoi?

What the heck do you want? (literally: “What the cabbage do you want?”)

Cavolo has many uses. For example as a noun, to mean ‘nothing’ or ‘not at all’…

– Non m’importa un cavolo

I don’t give a damn!

… or you can yell it out on its own to express your surprise or frustration.

– Ho vinto la lotteria!
– Cavolo!

– I won the lottery!
– Wow! (or literally: “Cabbage”!)


Is this a word, or is it just a noise? Either way, you need to know what it means.

It’s ‘I don’t know’, but in its most informal form – like when we shorten the phrase to ‘dunno’.

– Di dov’è?
– Boh, forse Puglia… ma che ne so?

– Where’s she from?
– Dunno, maybe Puglia… but what do I know?

Of course, there are dozens more extremely useful Italian words out there. Check out our word of the day archive for more.

Member comments

  1. Fantastically useful article, so happy, thank you so much! I’ve heard these so often but up till now have had no clue on how to use them in the more nuanced forms! Looking forward to reading the links too!

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Italy has one of the worst levels of English in the EU, study finds

Despite Italy's popularity with English-speaking visitors and home buyers, the country's average level of English is still among the worst in Europe according to a new study.

Italy has one of the worst levels of English in the EU, study finds

Italy ranked 32nd out of 35 nations in Europe for English-language skills, according to the latest English Proficiency Index study conducted by language school empire English First, putting the country near the bottom of the table once again.

The ranking is based on English language test results of more than two million adults in a total of 111 countries and regions.

Italy scored 560 points out of 700 – placing slightly ahead of Spain with 548 points and France, which came last out of the European countries, with 541.

On average, people in Spain, Italy and France have a “moderate proficiency” in English, the study says, which is in the same range as that in Ukraine, South Korea and Costa Rica. 

A colour-coded map of Europe based on English proficiency (credit: EF EPI)

People with this mid-level of English are able to carry out simple tasks in English such as understanding song lyrics and writing professional e-mails about subjects they’re familiar with, but may have problems with more complex conversations and understanding films that haven’t been dubbed.  

READ ALSO: Why Italians have a hard time learning English

All other European countries were rated as having “high” or “very high” average English-language proficiency levels.

The Netherlands was in first place with a score of 661, and Austria came second with 628.

The global average score was 502.

Italy’s score this year was a slight improvement on 2021, when it came bottom of the ranking among European countries.

The study this year again showed a clear north-south divide when it comes to English language levels, with southern Italian regions scoring markedly worse than those in the north.

A map of Italy showing English language proficiency by region. Dark green indicates a higher average score. There was no data available for Marche. (credit: EF EPI)

Veneto, Emilia-Romagna and Lombardy, all in the north, were named as the Italian regions with the highest levels of English proficiency.

At the bottom end of the table were the southern regions Sicily, Basilicata and Calabria.

Cities with the highest English language levels were Vicenza, Modena and Bergamo, while Puglia’s regional capital Bari fared worst overall, followed by the Sicilian cities of Palermo and Catania.

Why is Italy lagging behind other European countries?

There are thought to be several factors contributing to Italy’s persistently low scores in English-language proficiency rankings.

Teachers, students and language experts say that the way the language is taught in Italian schools generally leaves students at a disadvantage, and that students have few opportunities to use the language in real life.

READ ALSO: Why is Italy ranked among the worst at speaking English in Europe?

Meanwhile, the prevalence of dubbing in film and TV means young Italians are not exposed to foreign languages in this way as often as their counterparts in some European countries.

Why does it matter if Italians don’t speak English?

Criticism of Italians’ English language skills can be a source of irritation for some. 

After all, many Anglophones don’t speak any language other than English – so why should Italians or anyone else need to speak English?

But the study is concerned less with the convenience of tourists, and more with the fact that language learning opens up more opportunities for work, study and communication – and comparatively poor attainment in this regard leaves Italian nationals at a disadvantage.

“A worldwide lingua franca is still necessary,” stated the study’s authors.

“This explains the estimated 2.5 billion English speakers, of which only about 400 million were born into the language. People are learning English because it is useful to them,” the findings noted.

“English is by far the most common language of information exchange across borders, making it a key component for accessing knowledge and expertise.”