Italian Languages, Dialects, and Hands: An Outsider’s View

The art of understanding Italian languages and dialects is difficult – for me anyway. Throw Italy’s hand language into the mix and it’s nigh impossible for an outsider…

Ever travelled to Italy with a basic understanding of Italian only to discover that you really can’t understand much at all?

I’m not surprised.

A little background

Italy, EuropeWhat compelled me to write this post?

After almost 3 years in Italy I’m still learning the beautiful melodic language that is the Romantic Italian language and its difficulties. Apart from immersing myself in Italian, I also use the free version of Duolingo to learn mainly grammar.

I hope to shed some light for other travellers to this gorgeous country so as to ease the pain, if you feel guilty about not getting it right.

You may not realise that Italy has more than one language and it’s not just the official language – Italian.

In addition to the various Italian languages there are hundreds of dialects that are spoken throughout regions, cities, towns, and villages – every corner of Italy.

If this isn’t enough to confuse you, then the hand gestures Italians use also make up a different language, so I’m here to help you digest some of the basic differences. But, before I go on any further, just letting you know that I’m definitely not an expert at any of this and these are just my outsider’s observations.

In the beginning…

So now you may be wondering why Italy has so many languages?

The answer isn’t difficult.

Although thousands of years’ old, Italy was not always a unified country and used to be geographically and politically fragmented with separate territories, languages, governments, and currencies.

Italy 1000AD, Europe
Map credit: Wikimedia Commons

Following Napoleon’s second conquest of the Italian peninsular annexing the north in 1799, Napoleon’s fall in 1814, an uprise against occupation, and then the Franco-Austrian war in 1859, Garibaldi finally unified Italy in 1861.

Today, Italy is made up of 20 regions.

regions of Italy
Map credit: Wikimedia Commons

So what happened to all those languages you ask?

Nothing. They’re all still spoken.


With the Roman conquest, the introduction of Latin spread throughout half of Europe and the Mediterranean basin creating in effect, another layer over the already spoken languages. Subsequent invasions introduced even more variations to dialects.

Italy’s Romance languages grew from Vulgar Latin (“informal Latin of classical times”), which predates Italian.

Although Standard Italian spread through Italy in the 20th century, regional areas of Italy used variations of Italian languages and dialects and became known as Regional Italian (italiano regionale).

Today, 34 native languages made up of 28 indigenous and 6 non-indigenous (Ethnologue) and classed as the Romance Languages are still spoken.

Italy language map
Map credit: Wikipedia

But let’s not forget Italy’s dialects as these 34 languages are not dialects but separate languages.


Throughout Italy, cities, towns and villages also have their own dialects, which can be completely different or similar to a nearby village of only 20 kilometres away, and still different to one of the Italian languages or the official Italian.

dialects, languages, Italy, Europe
Over 200 dialects on this incomplete SB Language map

As an example, Genoese – locally known as Zeneize – is the main dialect of Liguria’s language in northern Italy.

Visiting my relatives in Genoa in 2015, I was shown a brief video to see if I could understand Genoese. Not surprisingly, I only understood one word in every twelve or so words of Genoese – it really is that different to Italian.

Although not great at speaking Italian back then, I did pride myself on understanding a few variations of Italian and some dialects. And, can only put this down to growing up around my parents’ relatives and friends that hailed from various regions throughout Italy.

dialects, languages, Italy, Europe
Groups of languages and dialects

As my father’s family is from several villages scattered at the start and into the Sila National Park in southern Italy’s Calabria region, each dialect holds its own nuances and colloquialisms.

Have I mentioned just how different dialects look when letters dance off a page?

For me, it’s almost nigh impossible to read these alien words staring back at me, waiting patiently to be deciphered…

I’ve heard that there are over 300 dialects in Italy, but can’t find an actual figure. Does anyone know the actual number?

When travelling through Italy, remember that the majority of Italians still use dialects and 15% of the population use dialects as a primary language. Locals in some of the tiny villages I’ve visited don’t know the official Italian language and just understand their own dialect.

I’ve also noticed that locals use their dialect at home and Italian when out or when meeting foreigners, or when speaking with other Italians from different regions.


Italians are renown for speaking with their hands – it’s not a myth – this is an effective form of communication, especially if you’re not in earshot of a person.

As Italy had many languages when not a unified country back in the 1700s, hand gestures also became an easy form of communication.

Research from professor Isabella Poggi (Rome Tre University), states that the Italian hand language does “comprise a lexicon of gestures that is comparable in size and sophistication to the lexicon of sign language for the deaf”.

What I’ve observed in Italy is that the hand language is not just a gesture with hands.

Hand gestures are also delivered with the most passionate of facial expressions and at times the whole torso. Whilst an outsider may find this slightly over-reactive or quite dramatic, it’s serious business for Italians as it’s an excellent form of self-expression and communication without using words.

Unable to find an official number for Italian hand gestures, I found that around 250 hand gestures are used by Italians daily. Does anyone know the exact number?

Meanwhile, Marco in a BOX explains only 60 of the most common hand gestures used around Italy in his 4-minute video – enjoy! 😉


My experience is that Italians are very patient and appreciative when a foreigner tries to at least speak some sort of Italian – even if it’s just a few words of Italian or words from one of the hundreds of dialects. You may get some laughs at your pronunciation. Don’t be offended, take this reaction in your stride and try to learn a little more whilst having some fun.

Sometimes a smile is the best universal language.

What about your experience whilst travelling through Italy?

Did you find that locals appreciate when you speak Italian? I’d love to hear about your experience, so leave me a comment below and we can chat further…

Visit Nilla’s Photography for more global images. More posts on Italy.



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64 responses to “Italian Languages, Dialects, and Hands: An Outsider’s View”

  1. Maile Maglioli Avatar
    Maile Maglioli

    Greetings! Very useful advice within this post! It is the little changes that will make the most significant changes. Thanks a lot for sharing!

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Hi Maile
      Thank you for your kind feedback. Totally agree a small change is better than no change.

  2. Christie Avatar

    Your post reminds me of a study my daughter did in high school, in her French class: the most similar Romance language with Latin is Romanian😉 But the smile and the sign language are the most popular in the world for sure, especially in countries that speak Latin languages, hmm, and maybe the Balkans?
    I also remember 2 different situations when I smiled and tried to “speak” with 2 ladies in our trip to Peru last year, and they ended up asking their husbands to take a picture of us LOL
    All languages evolve so much these days, and tons of words are added to most of the languages around the world. I wonder if old dialects change at the same speed.

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Hi Christie

      I had to salvage your comment from my Trash folder. Not sure what WP is doing with comments.
      How did you come across this post as it’s an older one?

      Funny stories and yes, the smile is the best language of all. Knowing the local language is such an intricate part of travelling.
      We had that happen in China. Locals love to have their photo taken with tourists even though they’re total strangers. 🙂

      Languages do evolve and sometimes not for the best. Take the recent changes with mobile devices as an example “u” instead of “you” and a plethora of shortened words. The issue is that these become the norm and with time, we’ll forget the correct language/grammar ever existed.

      As for old dialects, I’m not sure. What I do know is that the dialect that my father and his family brought out to Australia in the early 1950s remained the same. When I visited his village, the dialect was a little different. It’s as though his dialect stopped in time once in Australia.

      Thank you for your great comment!

      1. Christie Avatar

        Have no idea how I’ve come across with this post of yours LOL I noticed it is old, (I’m not active all the time on WP and I missed a lot of posts for sure), and I had the “urge” to comment🙂
        Some of us know sometimes more signs than correct words LOL and definitely less grammar. Recently, my daughter advised me of some emoji tendencies these days, as they might have some other meanings than what I wanted them to be LOL
        So, now, with your extended stay in Australia, hope you’re not going to lose your resident visa for Italy!.
        Have a lovely day!

      2. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Hey Christie,

        It’s bizarre how posts pop up and I’m always interested as to how a reader came across my older post.
        As we know, Google ‘dismisses’ older posts, especially when the WP date is in the URL. Google likes to display newer “fresher” posts in search results. Don’t you hate how these platforms makes assumptions on our behalf?

        Your comment made me laugh. The first thing I learn is definitely the ‘sign’ language of a country as it’s so easy to get it wrong.

        Can’t do anything about my visa, so not sure when I’ll return. Australia is one of the safest countries to be in right now, so it’s not all bad. 😉

        Have a great weekend and thanks for taking the time to comment!


    2.  Avatar

      What is balkan ? I am croat, and I dont understand what is balkan. Balkan is mountin in Bulgaria.

      1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Hi Anonymous
        Thank you for your question. This link on the Balkans may help.
        Many thanks

  3. Gay Erlanger Davis Avatar

    Thank You for verifying what I already thought. I’ve been here 15 years & when I’m in Rome it’s so much easier than where I live speaking a Sabina Mountain dialect. I was just telling a potential guest what happens when you go to school in Rome for Italian & then go to Toscana Milano or Sardegna. So, I told her to rent a place where no English is spoken like here in Torricella in Sabina & stay 3 months. That’s how I learned but still difficult to write in Italian. Most people think I am Italian then a mountain dialect comes out and they say Wait, you’re not Roman!!!! Ha Ha Ha no idea but happens all the time! I say no I’m AMERICAN And they’re really shocked.

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Hi, that’s impressive if locals think you’re Italian! As soon as I open my mouth locals ask me where I’m from so my accent always gives me away.

      The Calabrese dialects are difficult, especially further into the mountains. Although I can understand most of a conversation in different dialects, I can’t speak anything but just the odd few words.

      I’ve only been here 3 years so maybe things will improve with time.

      Many thanks for leaving me your comforting thoughts! 😉 Please feel free to share this post or any of the 50-plus posts I’ve written on Italy, especially the south, Nilla

  4. teamfollowthrough Avatar

    I agree. My experience traveling in Italy is that Italians appreciate any small amount of Italian that foreigners speak.

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Yes, very much so as also I think Italians understand that it’s not easy learning Italian or a dialect.
      Many thanks for sharing this post on your blog.

  5. Francis.R. Avatar

    It speaks highly of the cultural force of a country when their different languages are conserved. Very inspiring : )

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Very true Francis and yes, Italians are extremely proud of their different languages and dialects, as they are of their culture and food. 🙂
      Although there are people that believe that dialects shouldn’t be spoken in certain places such as government offices and Standard Italian should be spoken instead.

  6. Diana Avatar

    A very informative post, thanks! I studied Italian, but I am yet to converse “using my hands”.

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Thank you for the feedback Diana.
      I think you’re born with “using your hands” as I find it a little strange sometimes. 😉

  7. Inside From An Outsider Avatar

    Being Calabrese, this could not be more true! Much trouble being understood in the north

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Ha, ha, I know exactly what you mean!
      The dialects and languages meshed together for me when I was very young and think it threw out a type of pigeon Italian!

  8. Suellen Tomkins - Wild Heart Gypsy Spirit Avatar

    It’s one of my favorite countries and I’ve tried to learn the language so often but it’s tricky when you don’t live there. My mother was first generation Australian of Italian parent from Piedmont and I always remember them speaking a dialect when I was growing up. How are you finding learning the language?

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Hey Suellen…many thanks for your comment – much appreciated.

      I’m finding the grammar difficult but I’m not really applying myself to rote-learning this part of the language and use more the ‘wing it’ principle. Maybe I’m just a slow learner! My Italian has improved though and I’m very conscious of pronouncing my words correctly and trying to fit some grammar rules in correctly – it’s the practicing that’s crucial for me…

      You should try and learn Italian whilst sailing night passages. 😉

      1. Suellen Tomkins - Wild Heart Gypsy Spirit Avatar

        That’s a great idea! Its a beautiful language and the best I can do is ask for food, coffee, say hello and thank you but it’s a start, right?

      2. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        That’s more words than some people know or try to learn – very impressive but you’ve missed wine. 😉
        Many thanks for your feedback.

  9. karleyyalday Avatar

    I hope I could learn how to speak the Italian language as well.

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Me too Karley – I’m trying to learn the grammar rules. 😉

      1. karleyyalday Avatar

        But I bet that would be hard for me! Haha. Anyway, thanks for sharing this post. Happy Sunday, Sweetie! ♥️

      2. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Not sure what you’re like with languages but I was brought up speaking a mesh of Italian and dialects so I call my version pigeon Italian! Rarely spoke it for decades then came back to it but I still don’t think the grammar is easy. I think my problem is that I never studied the grammar, which is of course fundamental.
        have a wonderful Sunday! 🙂

      3. karleyyalday Avatar

        You are absolutely right! Have a great day ahead! ♥️

  10. serialjetsetter Avatar

    Interesting read! I had no idea there were so many different dialects! I love how receptive the Italians were when I attempted to speak their language. Even when I didn’t get it quite right!

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Thank you for stopping by and leaving me your thoughts.

      Totally agree that Italians are receptive when you at least try and say a few words in Italian but I’ve found the same in most of the countries in which I’ve travelled. Make the effort I say…we are guests in their country after all. 😉

  11. msolomonstyle Avatar

    So interesting! I’m loving Duolingo too, studying German (very slowly ha!)

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Yeah, know what you mean – my studying is very slow also… 😉
      Thank you for stopping by and commenting.

  12. Constantine Matsos Avatar
    Constantine Matsos

    Love this post!

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Thank you Constantine! I’ve been wanting to write this for a while now… 😉

  13. map195 Avatar

    nice post…thanks for share

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Thank you for your feedback!

  14. Giovanni Augello Avatar

    Articolo molto interessante ed esaustivo sulle tante sfaccettature della lingua italiana e dei suoi dialetti.
    Many thanks for sharing 🙂

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Thank you for the great comment Giovanni! I’m happy for such positive feedback, especially from an Italian.
      If you know the exact number of dialects, I would be grateful.

  15. the eternal traveller Avatar

    I never knew there were so many versions of the Italian language. Perhaps if I travel to Italy I’ll just concentrate on some basic vocab. 😉

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Yeah, neither did I until I got here…but it’s all great experience and so much fun trying to work out all the dialects – love it!
      Always great to have a few local words up your sleeve for any country. 😉

  16. fakeflamenco Avatar

    Thanks for this informative post! Glad to hear so many languages and dialects are going strong in Italy. Now, to plan a visit… So much to see, hear, taste! -Rebecca

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Hey Rebecca…glad you enjoyed my post!
      Come sooner rather than later, I’ll be waiting with a Spritz. 😉

      1. fakeflamenco Avatar

        Grazie, would love to! Saving my lira/Euros for the chance ; )

      2. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Excellent! It’s not as expensive in the south… 🙂

  17. Suzanne Avatar

    I have always tried to speak the native tongue in whatever country we were in [Turkey was difficult!] though my communication goes up a level with wild hand and arm gestures 🙂 Informative post, Nilla.

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      You made me laugh! I know the visions of the wild arm gestures Suzanne and frequently do this in Italy! 😉
      Thanks for your feedback.

  18. Valerie Cullers Avatar

    This is such a good post and so true!!!!! When I first went over there to live, I heard my uncle speaking in the dialect of Milan??!! to his friends. Then I hung out with a girl from Genoa at the beach and my family didn’t like my accent! Truly, there are a lot of dialects and accents throughout the region! Viva la Lingua! 😍

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Ha, ha, I know exactly what you mean – it’s very complex. 😉
      Glad you enjoyed this post as much as I enjoyed writing it but also sharing my humble thoughts and experiences…

      1. Valerie Cullers Avatar

        I did a lot! It’s so nice when others have had similar experiences and they write about them!

      2. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Very true. I’m hoping that someone out there knows the exact number of dialects in Italy.

      3. Valerie Cullers Avatar

        Someone might but it sure wouldn’t be me. The funny thing about dialects is that people up in the mountains may have their own, too! Google says that there are approximately 34!

      4. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Not may but do have their own dialect and that’s exactly what I’ve noticed. For example, the deeper into the Sila National Park you go, the stronger (tighter) the accent.
        I think that’s 34 languages not dialects.

        For some odd reason, WP put this comment in my Trash folder – bizarre.

      5. Valerie Cullers Avatar

        Wow! I put dialects in…I must have read it wrong! Thanks for the correction!

      6. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        No problem. Google can return search criteria that is either non-related or closely related, but not entirely accurate.

  19. suburban tracks Avatar

    Italians think that everybody should understand their language, so not only one time I have received a phone call from Italy here in Berlin and the caller would just speak Italian saying: Ciao, sono …. And I normally say simply: Non capisco niente! Don’t you speak English? Cheers. 😎

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Thank you for your comment! Agree if they’re phoning Germany, German (or English) should be spoken.
      Although I think that when you’re travelling in a different country, you should at least make the effort to know a few local words. It’s a little arrogant to expect a local in every country to speak English don’t you think? After all, you are a guest in that country. 😉

      1. suburban tracks Avatar

        When an Italian (whom I do not know at all) calls on my phone in Germany for whatever reason), and I am German, I find it very unpolite and arrogant that he/she speaks Italian first of all to me. Do you understand me now? In Germany we speak German and not Italian! English is a fair compromise In this regard.

      2. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Yes, I did understand your first comment and agreed with you.
        I also added that when travelling to another country, we should make an effort to learn a few local words… 😉

      3. suburban tracks Avatar

        If you read my first comment rightly, you would have seen that I am able to say “Non capisco niente” as well much more of course also. The same does not apply for many Italians in regard of foreign languages who are really quite lazy respectively. And I remember also very well that when we once asked people in the area of Bari – of course in Italian – for the way to a nearby town, they would have explain to us that this is very difficult and absolutely dangerous to go there, although a nice road was leading there, no problems at all and completely uncomplicated secure. A bit stubborn this mentality to some extent. Ciao.

      4. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Hey…I did read your first comment correctly and did understand. Think you misunderstood me as what I’m speaking of is when travellers approach a local in any country (not just in Italy) with English when this isn’t their first language.

        So, my experience in the south is that Italians either haven’t learnt English (especially in the smaller villages and elderly people), or they learnt at school and forgotten, so quite embarrassed to speak English, or are happy to speak English if they’re confident.

        It sounds like you didn’t have a great experience in Bari. I haven’t visited Bari since 1985 and remember that it wasn’t the greatest part of southern Italy back then, but I’ve also had your exact experience in many countries.

      5. suburban tracks Avatar

        My wife is a Romanist, but in fact we have not been to Italy since 2004 except in 2013 for a short day trip to Southern-Tyrole which we then found quite crazy and not very relaxed due to feragosto. I fear the Italy I once liked does not exist anymore, otherwise people like Salvini would not play such an important and disgusting role!

      6. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Feragosto but also the month of August is too busy in Italy – totally agree.
        Calabria is relatively untouched still and the reason I love this part of Italy.

  20. Blogging_with_Bojana Avatar

    What an enjoyable read.
    I think everyone appreciates when you speak their language, at least some.

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Thank you and happy you enjoyed this post!
      I’ve found this is the case worldwide, not just in Italy. Even if you know a few basic words in any country, locals are very appreciative that you’re making an effort.

      1. Blogging_with_Bojana Avatar

        For sure.

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