I've been learning Italian for the past 2 years, and I've reached a point where in the average sentence (in introductory material) I understand over half of the words. This usually allows me to understand the general gist of the sentence, but something still feels missing.

As an example, if I read the sentence (from here): "L'opera è il termine italiano di utilizzo internazionale per un genere teatrale e musicale in cui l'azione scenica è abbinata alla musica, al balletto e al canto."

The way my brain reads that is: "Opera is italian term use international for a genre theater and music in which scenic action happens with music, ballet, and singing."

in other words, it feels like I'm still "reading the words" and translating each word, rather than the entire sentence and comprehending the meaning from the sentence.

What I'd like to get to, is reading the above and getting to this on a first pass: "Opera is the italian word, used internationally, for a genre of theater and music in which the scenic action develops through music, ballet, and singing."


How do I go from word-for-word comprehension to sentence comprehension?

2 Answers 2


What seems to be the key here is Grammar. When we begin to acquire the skills to be fluent in another language proper grammar understanding plays a very important role. So if you want that then you should spend a lot of time to consolidate grammatical rules, and practice them on a daily basis. Watching movies and shows in Italian (first with subtitles) will give you the push to become more comfortable with how Italian is spoken in everyday life and thus how its grammar "works". I've been doing this for a lot of years while learning English and I must say it has amazing results and the more you do it the easier it will be to speak, read and write in the language you want to learn. The more you use the language the more it is becoming a way of thinking. this means you won't need to go through your mind and look for grammatical correctness when writing or reading. It will become natural. This is what got me into reading English literature. And I'm glad I did. Hope this helps! :)

  • So really, the issue is that I'm not as comfortable with the grammar as I think, and that by seeing more real life examples of the expressiveness of the rules in the grammar, I'll begin to pick it up more naturally -- i.e, the "pieces" of the sentence, without reading it word for word. Right?
    – Marco
    Commented Apr 9, 2017 at 22:11
  • Well of course! Commented Apr 9, 2017 at 22:18
  • 1
    I'd recommend not to spend too much time with grammar rules. Reasoning like "The words have these endings and come in this order" will stop you from the natural way of language learning, being associating phrases and sentences with situations. So I highly agree with the "movies" recommendation, but not so much with the "grammar" one. And try not to translate, but to forget your native language as much as possible. Commented Nov 12, 2017 at 22:23
  • @RalfKleberhoff - You should convert your comment to answer, it could gain you some XP and separate answer would allow to debate pro and cons of it. I do agree, I still don't know the grammars of my L2 and L3, even if I am fluent in both by just using them for many years. Commented Dec 28, 2017 at 17:37

Similar to Michael's answer, you need a reading approach to your studying and some grammar and other factors (which will be explained later).

Quoting from my own answer here, the Reading Approach:

The priority in studying the target language is first, reading ability and second, current and/or historical knowledge of the country where the target language is spoken. Only the grammar necessary for reading comprehension and fluency is taught. Minimal attention is paid to pronunciation or gaining conversational skills in the target language. From the beginning, a great amount of reading is done in L2, both in and out of class. The vocabulary of the early reading passages and texts is strictly controlled for difficulty. Vocabulary is expanded as quickly as possible, since the acquisition of vocabulary is considered more important that grammatical skill. Translation reappears in this approach as a respectable classroom procedure related to comprehension of the written text.

You really need to try to target your reading comprehension here through expanded uses of vocabulary and just being fluent (talking to yourself, reading more books, etc). That alone won't help though.

Grammar too is key to this. When your brain translates, you are simply translating each word directly into your L1 (native language). With grammar, your brain can fill in key holes, such as where to put the commas, where to punctuate, where to add more words like articles (i.e the, a) and more. Practice with both is usually best for you. Of course, you need to reading, watching movies, doing something where you have to translate what the speaker/author/actor is saying to basically practice translating these sentences properly.

This has been said plenty of times: practice! The more you practice (like through writing and reading), the better the knowledge will stay in your long-term memory! Immersion (i.e being in a country that primarily speaks the language you are learning) is also a great way to translate properly as you are literally stuck with people fluent in the language you want to acquire and may even assist you in learning.

  • When reading Italian texts, do you recommend any particular technique? As in, do I read the Italian straight, first, and then try translating it? Or do I say the words out loud? Or am I overthinking it?
    – Marco
    Commented Apr 9, 2017 at 22:10
  • @Marco You're overthinking. Just choose one that you use a lot and/or prefer and stick with that Commented Apr 12, 2017 at 14:00

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