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Speak Like a Local, Think Like a Local: Italian Colloquialisms

Updated: Sep 3, 2020

by Paola Bassanese, Guest Writer


Do you dream in Italian? If you do, you have made it! If you are not quite there yet, here are a few pointers to help you think like a local.

I moved from Italy to England more than 20 years ago, and it took me about a year to think like an English person (and start dreaming in English!).


I believe that my biggest breakthrough was when I started learning English colloquialisms: all of a sudden, I became “one of us” instead of “one of them”. I must say, British people still try and locate my accent, saying it sounds “European”. I am happy with that, because I feel first and foremost European. Recently I was on a plane sitting next to a Briton, and when I told him “I don’t want to be a party-pooper, but you should take your rubbish away with you” he laughed and said I sounded so British!

Let’s talk about colloquialisms: they break the barriers between people. You can start by learning some expressions that are used in day-to-day life, and once you try them out, you will start noticing that others will warm to you quicker. Not that Italians need to be any warmer than they already are!

The Italian language is extremely complex: grammar rules are difficult, and pronunciation can be a huge challenge for English speakers. There are sounds that don’t exist in the English language (try saying gnocchi correctly – the “gn” sound is nowhere to be found in the English language- the closest example is the “ny” in canyon).

Mastering those sounds will help you considerably with listening and comprehension. Also remember that there are at least 30 different regional dialects in Italy, and learning some of the local dialect will help you feel more integrated. The region I was born in is Friuli Venezia-Giulia, and there we speak at least two dialects. My local dialect is triestino, which is quite similar to veneto, the dialect spoken around Venice.


Creative Edge Travel founder, Sierra Busch, during an Italian class in Cortona during her first trip to Italy.

One main difference I noticed between Italians and British people is that Italians often don’t want to correct a stranger’s pronunciation, preferring to encourage them and support them. British people tend to be very proud of their language and they will give you feedback if you are not making yourself understood. Without wanting to be controversial, public school-educated Britons corrected me the most (I am not complaining, because their parents paid for a very expensive education!).


There are some expression you may hear when you are browsing in a shop or waiting for a bus. I will stick to those that are acceptable in polite society. It’s worth learning a few of these words to understand what is going on around you.


Uffa is something similar to “enough already” or “boring” or “I can’t believe it”. If you are bored of the same situation repeating itself, you will say “uffa”, especially if you tried hard to get some results and didn’t get them. It’s less strong than “damn”.


Desidera is the equivalent of “can I help you?” when you walk into a shop and a shop assistant greets you. Some shop assistants will also say “posso esserle d’aiuto?”, which is pretty much the literal translation of “can I help you?”.

Ma dai!

Ma dai is the equivalent of “I can’t believe it!” or “come on!” If you have ever watched One Foot in the Grave, that’s Victor Meldrew’s catchphrase. This is quite self-explanatory and people tend to use it as an interjection if they don’t believe what you are saying, or maybe they don’t believe your bad luck when you are telling them a story.


Accidenti or mannaggia or accipicchia are typically used to express disappointment or annoyance. For example, you are running late for work and you have just missed your train, or the bus never comes. Accipicchia is also an expression of surprise.


Cavolate means “nonsense” or things of no value.

Non fare complimenti

Non fare complimenti literally means “please don’t compliment”: it doesn’t make any sense, right? You are likely to hear this when you are invited to someone’s home and there’s plenty of food and drink, but you don’t want to be rude and start stuffing your face. You wait for your host to give you the go ahead to eat and drink, and that’s when your host will say “non fare complimenti” or “please help yourself”.

About Paola Bassanese

Paola Bassanese is the chief editor and founder of, a website for digital nomads and freelancers who want to work and live around the European Union.

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