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How many words do you need to speak Italian?

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Should you build some vocabulary before having a conversation in Italian?

No! You can – and should – speak from Day 1!

Let’s debunk the myth of “vocabulary first, speaking later”!

Can you teach me this way…?

Occasionally, when a potential student approaches me to take Italian lessons on Skype, they ask me if I can teach them vocabulary without having conversations.

I always found these requests quite odd and turned them down.

Typically, they come from casual learners at their first foreign language and read somewhere about shortcuts to master languages.

A couple of months ago, I received the same inquiry, but this time regarding my audio course Ripeti Con Me.

I’m a good student and I recently took a year of italian, going through all the basics of grammar (little bit of future and past).

In the process I learned something like one or two thousand words. (I gather you need 7-10 thousand to be fluent).

BUT, although I learned this stuff pretty well, I can’t hear even the most basic conversation and follow it. That’s why I signed up with you, but I’m not getting far.

What I think I need is a set of graded dialogs/stories/conversations adding on vocabulary as you go, that I could listen to over and over and learn the words by ear, not just by sight.

HERE’s the catch: I think just randomly getting something to hear doesn’t work for me.

I’d like to get the vocabulary FIRST, study it, THEN listen to the dialog using these words, several times until I can hear them easily, then move on to the next set of words.

Is there anything like this on the market? Do you guys offer any way to work through learning vocabulary then listing to it?

After one year and 2,000 words, they’re still writing in English.

Since I can’t read the mind of every visitor of my website, I’ll put in writing the explanation I usually give upon such requests, in case you ever think of studying that way.

wrong way to study italian

Why this method is wrong

Words without context are difficult to learn

If all you need is words, you don’t need to take lessons.

Just grab a dictionary or a wordlist and memorize everything.

If you can.

Because words alone are difficult to remember.

We remember information much better if it has context, for example, if you hear it in a conversation, or, even better, if you use it in a conversation.

Words without context are boring

Learning should be fun, but I don’t know anyone who would find it fun to memorize words just because.

Even if it were effective (and it’s not), mere memorization isn’t viable because you’d get bored soon.

Words without context are of little use

Words alone can be useful in some cases, for example, to navigate a simple text like a menu.

However, if the purpose of learning is communication, you still need to put those words together and you just don’t know how to do that.

learn words in context

Pronunciation alone is boring and useless

Together with the request to learn vocabulary alone, often comes the request to learn pronunciation. Alone.

Like, A-B-C.

This is tricky because you’d expect pronunciation to be taught starting from single letters (phonemes).

After all, every textbook starts with a chapter about pronunciation, with fancy symbols and pictures of tongues, teeth, and lips.

Well, forget that. It’s more fun and effective to learn pronunciation by listening and mimicking.

The purpose of learning languages is communication

We may have different purposes and goals to learn a language, like work, study, hobbies, or our loved ones.

However, all these purposes have one point in common: they need communication. Typically, oral communication, and less frequently, written.

Arranging words alone is barely enough to convey the meaning of simple phrases, but no serious communication can be achieved without familiarity with grammar patterns and word usage.

You don’t need all those words

You might argue that you can’t just communicate if you don’t know enough words.

But, how many words do you need to speak Italian?

Yes, you need some words, but not as many as you think.

A few hundred words are already enough for survival, and with 2,000 words you can say virtually anything (not in the most correct or natural way, of course).

If you set realistic goals for your communications skills, words are always enough.

For example, if you’re a total beginner, you only need a handful of words to introduce yourself and ask your counterpart to do the same.

In another post, I discuss how long and how many words it takes to learn Italian.

language learning styles

Many learning styles vs one method

We live in the age of customization.

We expect the products and services we use to be made exactly for us and to match our lifestyle and personality.

Advertisement flatters us by acknowledging that we’re all special.

In the language learning industry, this translates into bad apps that match your “learning style”.

Do you (think that you) learn better with tons of words? Here’s an app with wordlists and flashcards!

Do you (think that you) learn better with pictures? Here’s an app with pictures!

Do you (think that you) learn better with an avatar staring at you? Here’s an app with avatars, coins, and fanfares!

Now, I’ll debunk this. Or, rather, I’ll leave this to someone more authoritative than me.

In case you can’t watch the video, the conclusion is that we all learn in only one way – by mimicking.

How to introduce new words

By now, you should be convinced that you need context to learn words faster.

But… what makes context?

Ideally, you would be chatting and doing things with your Italian friends in Italy.

However, it takes as little as a simple sentence to make context, with these advantages:

  • You see/hear how words are used and pronounced
  • You can repeat the words and patterns in many small bits (sentences)

Recommended resources

You can achieve this kind of practice with a course like Ripeti Con Me.

It’s a list of sentences in English and Italian with audio and transcript, grouped by grammar pattern, ordered from basic to advanced.

A useful supplement to see words in real-world material is Leggi Con Me.

It’s a collection of short stories, news, and conversations with bilingual text and slow audio.

Together, they make excellent material to mimic and acquire word and grammar patterns naturally.

how to learn italian vocabulary

Not recommended resources

Flashcards are a thing now.

Anki, Memrise, and Quizlet are the most popular apps to make flashcards and memorize vocabulary with them.

However, I don’t recommend flashcards because:

  • It takes time to create and collect flashcards
  • We learn better by handwriting than by typing
  • Flashcards with words alone lack context
  • Flashcards with sentences still lack the organization to focus on specific words and patterns

Generally speaking, I don’t recommend any resource that doesn’t prompt you to speak.

And, no, you can’t learn languages while sleeping!

Learn how to learn

Important concepts in language learning include:

Take some time to understand them and it will become natural to choose resources designed to make you acquire languages naturally.

2 Responses

  1. Ciao Stefano.!sono insegnante de inglese.pero imperando due lungi-italiano e francese per divertenti(secura che ho tanti errori) 😁 tuo article e molto interesante e utile.usaro metode ascoltare la storie ,conversazioni ,spesa (sometimes)scrivo metre ascoltavo. I am grateful tuo paroli anno fatto mi scrivere in italiano

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