A friend in Perugia once tried to demonstrate the difference in pronunciation between the two Italian words pesca and pesca. Yes, they are spelled the same. The first one means ‘peach’ and the other ‘fishing.’ He repeated them a few times, but…. they sounded exactly the same.
In theory, the first one has an open letter ‘e’ and the other one has a closed ‘e,’ which varies the pronunciation from something like ‘peh-sca’ to ‘pay-sca.’ or, for those familiar with the international phonetic alphabet, from /ˈpɛska/ to /ˈpeska/.
At first thought it doesn’t seem like a big deal to just pronounce them the same way. There’s barely any difference, right? No one’s gonna notice.
Then I get an idea of how my American accent must sound to Italians. Kind of like how my Italian friends sound when they can’t hear the difference between similar English sounds and therefore pronounce them the same way.
Once a friend asked me how to say lana in English. I said that it’s ‘wool.’ He looked confused, pointed to the wall, and said in his Italian accent, ‘wall?’ I demonstrated the difference, “wall… wool… wall… wool…” He just shook his head and said they were the same.
Another friend has a teeshirt he bought in Iceland with a picture of a haggard, worn-out and worried looking viking on it. Underneath the picture it says “Viking Worrier.” I laughed out loud when I saw it and he asked me what was funny.
I explained the play on words. He hadn’t realized that they sounded different, and when I pronounced them he listened with a curious expression and then emphatically declared the two words uguali! (the same.)
The same goes for words like ‘robber’ and ‘rubber,’ and ‘duck,’ ‘dock,’ and ‘deck.’ They sound the same to many Italians, along with minimal pairs (sets of two similar words with one phonemic [pure sound] change between them) like ‘vest’ and ‘vast,’ ‘beg’ and ‘bug,’ and ‘form’ and ‘firm.’
Pesca and pesca probably won’t cause me much grief as the meaning is pretty obvious from context clues. I admit that my pronunciation could use some polishing up, but the most that usually happens when I mess up is a good laugh.
I once expressed my frustration to an Italian woman about some Sicilian guys who had ordered for me in cafés without asking what I wanted first, and I ended up with meat dishes I couldn’t eat. Ordered is ordinato, but she understood urinato (urinated.)
That would be a problem.