It’s easy to get information on how to conjugate Italian verbs in all the tenses (for example, here), but it’s not so easy to know when to use one tense or another. Consider this conversation between two fish in an aquarium:
Che hai? Perché ti lamenti? -E ora che succede?
What’s the matter? Why are you complaining? -And now what's happening?
Shsh, è proprio arrabbiata. Senti come singhiozza.
Shhh, she’s really angry. Listen to how she's sobbing.
Captions 4 and 24-25, Acqua in bocca: Mp3 Marino - Ep 2
In English we have two types of present tense: present continuous, as in “I am talking on the phone at the moment," and the simple present, as in “I talk to my Mom every evening.” The first has to do with the moment, and the second with regularity or facts (learn more here). As you can see in the above dialogue, Italian speakers will use the present tense for both, unless there is some ambiguity about meaning or unless they want to emphasize the time element, such as in the following:
Non ti posso parlare ora perché sto mangiando.
I can’t talk to you right now because I am eating.
This progressive tense, which doesn’t really have an official name in Italian, is formed with the verb stare ("to stay" or "to be") plus the verb in its gerundio (gerund) form. Learn more here.
Now we are in Commissioner Manara’s office but he’s not there. As soon as he walks in, Sardi, who has been trying to pry information out of Lara regarding the Commissioner, feels she should get out of there. She says:
E infatti vado e tolgo il disturbo e vi lascio lavorare.
And, in fact, I’ll go and I’ll leave you be and I’ll let you work.
(N.b.: Literally, tolgo il disturbo means “I’ll remove the disturbance.”)
Sardi says it all in the present tense, but this time to refer to the (near) future! When the context does not require a specific reference to time, the most “neutral” version of a verb (i.e., the present tense) is preferred.
And il presente (the present) can also express English’s simple future tense (“going to” + verb), like at the beginning of Marika’s lesson about numbers:
Ciao. Oggi parliamo di numeri.
Hi. Today, we're going to talk about numbers.
Caption 1, Marika spiega: Numeri cardinali e ordinali
So the good news is that in Italian, with one tense, il presente, we can cover three different tenses in English. This may simplify things as you practice your Italian speaking skills, but don’t forget to pay attention to the context!
In addition to listening to the videos and paying attention to how the present tense is used, try putting these sentences into Italian using il presente.
You’re asking a friend what she intends to wear to school. The verb is mettere (“to put” or “to put on”).
What are you wearing today?
You're talking to your boss about when you will hand in your work. The verb is finire (to finish).
I’m going to finish the project after lunch.
You're talking about your eating habits. The verb is mangiare (to eat).
I eat a sandwich every day for lunch.
You're at a restaurant talking to the waiter. The verb is prendere (to take).
I’ll have the fish.
You have a flat tire and don’t know how to fix it. The verb is fare (to make or do).
What am I going to do now?
You're talking about the new person in your English class. The verb is parlare (to speak).
He speaks English very well.
Cosa ti metti oggi?
Finisco il progetto dopo pranzo.
Mangio un panino tutti i giorni a pranzo.
Prendo il pesce.
E ora che faccio?
Lui parla molto bene inglese.