How Knowing the Form, Meaning and Use of a Word Can Improve Your Study of Italian


languageIt has been said that there are as many ways of learning a language as there are language learners meaning that to master the language you must master the method that works for you.

One of the most popular ways to learn a language is by learning the vocabulary, the words or groups of word units that covey a particular meaning. Even without grammar, with some useful words and expressions, you can manage to communicate. Not very well but in “see Jane run” language at the most elemental level you can get someone’s attention. By associating words with pictures or the objects they represent and with memorization and consistent repetition, the vocabulary based approach allows for a rapid introduction into a language.     You’ve probably seen this type of method all over the internet. However the method can lead to a false sense of security because words alone can’t covey a complete thought.

A second approach to learning a language is the grammar based method. That usually involves workbooks on or off line that combine a small dose of vocabulary at the beginning of the lesson with a face slamming dose of grammar rules. The vocabulary is recombined in several different ways to highlight the finer points of the grammar and subsequent lessons build on the vocabulary learned in previous lessons and introduce new grammar. This goes on ad infinitum and at some point you feel like putting up the cross symbol to drive away the grammar vampire that is sucking the life out of your once enthusiastic new language learning self. However grammar is essential and you can’t learn to speak or write a language without it. So embrace conjugation. After a while you will learn to love it.

In an attempt to combine vocabulary and grammar and give a sense of authenticity to the learning experience language programs offer what at first seems like a the ideal way to learn “la bella lingua”, the communicative conversational approach.  Focusing on “real life” situations students learn the vocabulary and grammar specific to certain situations they are “likely” to encounter when traveling on a train, ordering food, shopping in the department store of farmacia or meeting your friends on the piazza etc.  Lessons are generally divided into units that stress a certain skill supported by grammar and theme-based vocabulary that target using the language in various everyday situations. Although this approach is promoted as conversational, students have a tendency to learn by memorizing scripted encounters and if the conversation goes “off script” are unable to communicate. 

Then there is the immersion approach. No studying necessary. Simply go to Italy. Try to communicate with the locals. Gesture. Point. Draw pictures. Get into awkward situations. Learn by doing.  Sometimes you can pick up enough basic vocabulary, present tense grammar and colloquial idioms to get by.

The final approach is the bilingual dictionary translation approach or more recently the translation technology method. A method that is totally dependent on something or someone other than you. Today tech savvy travelers use their Smartphone or Smartphone camera with apps and internet sites that allow you to speak directly into your phone and the phone speaks back in the language you want or types a visual response.  You can point your camera at some foreign words and watch them change right in front of you into words you can understand. Are you learning a language? I don’t think so. Are you socially interacting with the culture of the country? I’m not so sure. Does the means justify your ability to communicate with the least amount of effort and expedite your encounter? Only you can answer that.

For those of you who would like to try a different approach or incorporate a new technique into your language learning routine ask yourself what it means to know a word.  All words have form, meaning and use.  

  • Form involves pronunciation (spoken form), spelling (written form), and any word parts, linguistic elements like word roots that give meaning to a word and suffixes and prefixes that modify the meaning,
  • Meaning is the concept of the word and what it refers to and the associations that come to mind when people think about a specific word or expression.
  • Use involves the grammatical functions of the word. 

Studying the language using these 3 components has been shown to reinforce and expand on vocabulary, grammar, sentence construction and common usage all at the same time in the most productive and meaningful way using a grid based system and a fundamental set of questions.


What does the word sound like?

What does the word look like?

What parts are recognizable in this word?

How is the word pronounced?

How is the word written and spelled?

What word parts are needed to express the meaning?


What meaning does this word form signal?

What is included in this concept?

What other words does this make people think of?

What word form can be used to express this meaning?

What items can the concept refer to?

What other words could people use instead of this one?


In what patterns does the word occur?

What words or types of words occur with this one?

Where, when, and how often would people expect to meet this word?

In what patterns must people use this word?

What words or types of words must people use with this one?

Where, when, and how often can people use this word?

The following FMU (form, meaning ,use) grid uses the Italian word velocemente to show how this works.

 Velocemente Velocemente




Sound Alike   Velocity

Written Form   Velocemente

Recognizble Parts  

  veloce                    – mente

Pronounced           vay loh cheh men tay

Spelling  velocemente


Significant Word Part(s)

– ly or – ally




Definition   Quickly

Concept      Speed

What other word(s) does this word make people think of? Rapid

Grammar    Adverb

What other English word(s) can be used to define this word?

Fast – Quick




What Italian  word(s) mean the same as this one?

Rapidamente, Subito

Use in the present tense.

What Italian word(s) are the opposite of this one?

Tranquillamente Lentamente Adagio

Use in the past tense.

 PRACTICE Make these adjectives into adverbs.