September 29, 2011

Learning an intermediate language - Italian

Hello all,

On my blog I have written articles about difficult and simple languages before and I realized that I didn’t write anything about intermediate languages yet, so I will try to dedicate an entire post to them now. As I mentioned earlier, there are probably much better divisions of languages based on their difficulty. I do not challenge them, but I find that up until now, all the languages that I’ve learned fall into three simple categories: simple, intermediate, difficult – depending on how far a language you already speak at a native/advanced fluency level is from these languages.

For me an intermediate language (or a language that I find to be intermediately difficult to learn) is:
  • A language that is outside of my native language group, or outside the language group of a language that I already speak well, but still within the same general family[1]
  • The grammar is at least 50% identical with the languages I already speak at an advanced/native fluency level
  • Another 30% of concepts present in the grammar are concepts that can also be found in the languages I already speak but are used rarely or formulated in a different way
  • At least 10% of grammar concepts are completely alien to me
  • There is a large number of cognates in the language, but different pronunciation might leave them unrecognized at first
  • The sound system is at least 50% identical[2] with the languages I already speak
  • Literal translations are often possible
  • Cultural difference is not a substantial issue
From a strictly analytical point of view, if you look at English and Italian for instance, you almost can go as far as saying that they are two distant dialects of Indo-European. They both share large amounts of Latin or Greek based vocabulary, Italian vocabulary has received a lot of influence from English, there are numerous grammar concepts that overlap, a lot of expressions in Italian can be directly translated into English, often literally.

The problem is that there are still way too many differences to allow flawless communication, differences which for instance two people speaking Spanish and Portuguese to each other wouldn’t encounter. In my opinion a more than 20% difference in grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation makes a language an intermediate one.


Italian is the first intermediate language that I’ve learned to advanced fluency and I will try to base my explanations around it.

In 2005 I went to Italy on an exchange study trip and stayed there for 5 months. I had only a very basic knowledge of Italian when I went there and I know this claim will sound outrageous, but me and all of my friends who really wanted to do so have learned Italian to advanced fluency in 3 and a half - 4 months. I know this exactly because we had oral university exams in a number of university courses where we had to speak and answer questions for 30 minutes each exactly after 3 and a half months after arriving to Italy.

I tried to analyze how we/I did it and these are some of the key reasons:
  • We were in Italy, living with Italians, speaking in Italian most of the time
  • I personally had no internet connection at home to get me distracted
  • From almost day one I bought books in Italian and started to read them with a dictionary, looked up every word, wrote its translation into the book itself and reviewed the new vocabulary every day
  • I watched a lot of TV
  • We had a great university course that introduced the complete Italian grammar to us in 10 lessons. I think the course was designed to perfection for foreign exchange European students living in Italy. It would’ve been too fast for anyone else
  • I learned the grammar tables by heart at the beginning of my stay
  • Achieving flawless passive fluency as soon as possible was the key
Achieving passive fluency

Basically what I tried to do in the beginning was to build myself a basic structure in the language that was based on all the cognate words that I figured out how to recognize, plus the grammar tables that I memorized and used this structure to start communicating and understand what people around me were talking about or what was written in the books that I was reading. After lots and lots of practice and daily input/output this artificial structure eventually shaped itself into real language.

When I came home, I tried to figure out whether there would be any shortcuts to the whole system. I found out that I learned mostly by listening to what other Italians were saying and learned from the expressions they used. In order to be able to do that I had to first understand what they were talking about and to do that, I necessarily had to have a larger vocabulary base.

I started to read books and translate and note down every single word I didn’t know and reviewed new vocabulary every day, which was very effective in the long run, but also very tiring and this is where I think a shortcut can be made. What I realized later was that after I had figured out how to recognize cognates that were masked by Italian pronunciation or spelling, I wasn't left with that many words that I had to learn (words that were completely alien to me) and I started to type all of these words into an excel file. The file is almost useless to me now, because I wrote it after I have learned Italian, but could be possibly very useful for an English speaker studying the language.

I know there are several methods that incorporate wordlists and unfortunately I am not very familiar with them and might be repeating what someone already wrote somewhere else but what I think makes the difference in my word list is that it is not a simple excerpt from a dictionary or a course book, but is based on my personal living Italian language and words that made it necessary for me to communicate and understand advanced fluency Italian. In the list, there are no cognates (or only a minimum), only words and expressions completely different that I had to learn. I realized that even at advanced fluency, there was only a limited amount of vocabulary and expressions in Italian that I use daily and that is what is in the excel file. I know that the list is not complete, but I tried to write it over several months after I had returned back home and it more or less should be 95-98% of the vocabulary that I had to learn as a speaker of English and Slovak in order to speak Italian the way I do now. Now in the recording that I did, my Italian isn’t all that great, but I haven’t been in Italy since 2005 so you’re going to have to take my word for it, that I spoke it much better back then :)[3]

If you are an English speaking student of Italian and you memorize this list, you should have a passive vocabulary base necessary to understand everyday advanced fluency conversations and learn from native speakers by observation. I think observation and imitation is the best way to learn almost anything, but in order to be able to do that you need to understand what you are observing and I think this word list might be a very good starting point.


The sounds of intermediate languages are generally very close to the languages you already speak well so learning them should not be a problem. As far as I know, words in intermediate languages are relatively long, so even if you mispronounce something, you should be able to get your point across in the beginning stages. 

In order to get better and work on the details, I would recommend going online and look for some good pronunciation practice websites. If in country of course, practice with natives as much as you can, try to visualize them as you speak and imitate a lot.


A lot of people go against learning grammar and instead suggest learning an entire language by feel or other methods completely excluding grammar explanations. I am an advocate of this approach when it comes to learning very difficult languages, but as far as easy and intermediate languages go, not learning what we call ‘grammar’ would be a big mistake. I think what we really do while we learn ‘grammar’ is mostly learn to understand the 30-50% portion of the target intermediate language that is different from our native languages.

Apart from the fact, that speaking correctly requires the knowledge of grammar (Italian children also need to learn what is correct and what is not) learning the grammar of a different language is a great shortcut to being able to understand the language sooner and allows us to start improvising in the language sooner as well. When it comes to speaking, after memorizing grammar, I was still very far from being fluent or being able to understand people right away, but I could listen for these grammar patterns in other people’s speech and then try them out daily in my conversations.

There are many approaches to studying grammar, but what I personally did was, that I memorized the Italian grammar tables by heart. I roughly familiarized myself with the basic concepts to have an idea what I was memorizing and while I was reading books and looking up words in them, I was also looking for these grammar patterns that I memorized before. Reading books is a wonderful way of learning because if you listen to radio for instance, the speech is often too fast, but in books, the sentences stay in one place, you can compare grammar patterns that occur in different places of the book and have the pleasure of reading a hopefully interesting story as well.

Grammar instruction for our western languages has evolved close to perfection and with the diversity of available methods today, almost everyone should find what he or she finds suitable. As I mentioned our university course in Italy for instance was based on a course book with only 10 lessons that explained the Italian grammar perfectly, so learning grammar is not necessarily a tiring task.

The vocabulary list

This list is only for English speakers learning Italian, but as I said, I have it translated into 8 other languages and I am adding more. Today, I will only post the Italian verb list and see what people think. If it is workable I will post nouns, adjectives, proverbs and grammar lists as well.

The vocabulary list is very easy to work with. The light green color indicates that the word is not a very frequent one in my opinion. In case the verb is irregular, I wrote the corresponding past participle next to it. 

[1] ex.: I speak English and Slovak, an intermediate language for me is Italian
[2] All percentages are based on my rough personal estimates
[3] I have later added Spanish, Portuguese, Slovak, Russian, Mandarin, German, French and Hungarian parts to the file and I will try to post the whole list in a series of posts later.


  1. Good to know about your blog There are many approaches to studying grammar, but what I personally did was, that I memorized the Italian grammar tables by heart.
    Thanks for post.

    Learn Chinese

  2. Thank you for your comment.

    There are many approaches to grammar indeed. I think that if the grammar of the language you are studying is not as different as Chinese and English is, memorizing the grammar tables (with explanation of course) is a big plus.

    When I was (am) learning Chinese, I think it was (is) useless because Chinese is just so different with so many new concepts, that it only confused me more and more. I could've saved the time and practiced speaking instead.

  3. Awesome blog. I enjoyed reading your articles. This is truly a great read for me. I have bookmarked it and I am looking forward to reading new articles.Keep up the good work!

  4. Dear Alex,

    thank you for the nice words.

    wish you the best with your studies as well.


  5. I can't seem to find this document. I am living in Italy now and I would love to have access to this verb list. Can you help me?

  6. Hello there. Try again please. It should work now. The site that I used to host files on closed down and I forgot to move this one file. Hope it helps. All the best.

  7. For me, italian was an easy one (as a French speaker).

    More than Spanish and far more than English, which has a lot of cognates from a frenc point of view, but a hard pronounciation and weird germanic features (phrasal verbs ...)

  8. I just came to know that Italian and English language are similar to each other. Thanks for sharing this post

  9. Szia! Elképesztő a munkásságod, tudásod. Köszönöm szépen az eddigi tippeket! Ennyi idő elteltével megtudnád még osztani az olasz főnév/nyelvtan stb. listákat légyszíves?

    1. Szia Daniel. Nagyon szepen koszonom a komentet.

      "megtudnád még osztani az olasz főnév/nyelvtan stb. listákat légyszíves?"

      Jelenleg nyilvanosan sajnos nem.

  10. Hi there! I love our site a lot and find it very helpful. My native language is English and I have been studying Hungarian for just over a year. I'm upper intermediate level with major stage fright when it comes to speaking. I am learning it for my fiance, and want to be able to speak to their family. What would you say is the best way to progress when I feel stuck at this intermediate level? I know the grammar basics but don't know how to force it into usage or retention.

    Thank you for all your great posts!

    1. Hi. Thank you for the comment. The situation is a bit complicated when it comes to language learning if you're shy or afraid of using a given language with people because fun conversations are the very essence of solid and quick progress I feel.

      If you only learn language rules (grammar) and information units (vocabulary), these are just static information in your brain and language is a dynamic skill almost like dancing or wrestling so you absolutely have to practice using it. Otherwise the language will never become an automatic fluent process in your mind.

      I feel like writing a journal/online chatting and reading can help a bit, but it is still speaking that is the most important thing to do.

      Maybe you should find a conversation partner you trust and talk to that person regularly. If you're afraid of being silent throughout the conversation set up a 2 minute rule where you will speak for 2 minutes uninterrupted and your partner won't be able to interrupt you. It works really well.

      You'll either realize that speaking actually isn't that bad or, you'll realize that Hungarian is much more difficult than it seems and you'll need to study more words and sentence patterns before you can talk to someone.

      Good luck.

  11. Hey Vlad, Your blog is very useful and interesting, thank you for the content! I'm brazilian, i'm 16 years old and I'm trying to learn english. I'm at intermediate level but, I cannot hear the oral part of the language, and that is my main goal and motivation, I have been nearly 1 month watching videos in english average 3 hour a day and i understand a bit some simple videos but other is impossible, I don't seem to have any progress, I can read articles, simple books and videos with subtitles, I don't care so much about pronounce and conversation yet, i really want to watch videos and podcasts, and read literature books is my next goal. Could you please help me? I'm learning english because it is very important in academic life and professional, but it's take a long time and i'm almost gave up and learning french and spanish.

    1. Hello.

      You're written English is very good, so I think you maybe just need more practice.

      What I would do is choose a podcast recording I like (audio only, no transcript or subtitles) and I would use a technique I call 'intensive listening' which is:

      Play the recording, and as soon as you get to the first word you can't understand, pause, rewind and play again until you can either understand the word or realize that you have to look it up in a dictionary. Once you have it, replay the entire sentence again and move on until you find another word you can't understand and do the same thing again. Every now and then rewind a few minutes and re-listen to what you've been listening to. When you finish analyzing the entire recording this way, play the entire recording over and over until you can understand it perfectly and then move on to the next one.

      It is extremely boring, because it's just like going to the gym or doing some running drills instead of playing the game you are training for but has great results.

      I learned to understand most of the languages I speak this way and in quite a short time.

      All the best,


  12. Oh, thank you very much! I will try this, but English is a very different language from written language, and mainly from my mother tongue, I’ve tried this a few times, but what happened was that I stood for several minutes in the same word at 2 seconds of video and never managed to find the word including one of your audios, you said Taipei and I spent about 10 minutes trying to guess what it was and concluded that you had said "typing" hahahah. I've learned a few words from so many times that I heard it in videos, I knew how to identify it but I didn't know the meaning, would that be how your "intensive listening" method works? What happens if you spend dozens of minutes on a word or phrase yourself and don't understand, you should jump in and try to continue to understand or stay in the same sentence? Thank you very much for the feedback, I was very happy that you answered me, all good for you!

    1. I think you just need more practice (a few hours a day for a few months).

      Identifying the word by sound is not enough. You need to link it to a meaning and remember both, otherwise there is no point in doing this:)

      If you can't find the word you hear in a dictionary after 10 minutes of trying then just move on.

      Good luck