3.4 Communication strategies

Whilst it is useful for students to concentrate on a core of key language for any given topic, it is impossible to predict all the linguistic elements they might meet when reading and listening to authentic Italian, or which they themselves might need to use.

For this reason, the student will need to develop communication strategies as part of the teaching and learning process, which will greatly increase their ability to cope successfully with unknown words.

There are two main types of strategy: those that relate to understanding (reading and listening) and those that relate to production (speaking and writing).

Strategies for understanding

Ignoring words which are not needed

Many tasks contain words which are not essential for an understanding of the main points of the text. What is important in the text is often presented more than once, in different ways: the student may not understand a point in one form of words and understand it fully in another.

Using the visual and verbal context

The skilled reader can find many clues about the purpose and content of a text from a study of the layout, the title, the length, the typeface and any related pictures.

When reading and listening, students can learn to infer the meaning of new words from the verbal context. For example, someone who did not know the word camion might be able, after some appropriate practice, to deduce from the following context that it is some sort of vehicle: L'autista del camion ha perso il controllo per lo scoppio di una gomma.

Making use of grammatical markers and categories

Another aid to the drawing of correct inferences is for students to bear in mind that there are regularities in the real world which make it possible to anticipate what people may say or write about it. The ability to predict occurrences in the real world makes it possible to anticipate words, and their meaning, in a given context. This is one reason why it is important for an Italian course to develop awareness and understanding of countries and communities where Italian is spoken.

For example, the student who knows that the l'Epifania del Signore is the 6 January will be able to deduce from giorno 5 gennaio, vigilia dell'Epifania that vigilia means 'the eve of' or 'the day before'.

Using common patterns within Italian

Students should be able to recognise familiar patterns which link nouns and adjectives and verbs and nouns, eg the verb creare and the noun creazione.

Knowledge of the following patterns of word formation in Italian can help to understand a text:

  • -ino/-ina and -etto/-etta endings used to form diminutives (eg mamma – mammina, pensiero – pensierino, camera – cameretta)
  • -one suffix used to form augmentatives (eg libro – librone, bacio– bacione)
  • -mente suffix used to form adverbs (eg felice – felicemente, lento – lentamente)
  • ri- prefix (eg leggere – rileggere, creare – ricreare)
  • -eria endings (eg pizza – pizzeria, biglietto –biglietteria)
  • s- and in- prefixes (eg fortunato – sfortunato, sicuro – insicuro)
  • -abile ending applied to verbs (eg conservare– conservabile, portare - portabile)
  • -zione endings applied to verbs (eg produrre – produzione, animare – animazione)
  • -oso/a ending applied to nouns (eg dolore – doloroso, nebbia – nebbioso, pericolo – pericoloso)
  • -tore/-trice ending applied to verbs to form nouns and adjectives (eg giocare – giocatore, lavorare – lavoratrice)
  • -izia, -ità and -ura endings applied to adjectives, nouns and verbs (eg pulire – pulizia, stagione – stagionalità, difficile – difficoltà, cotto – cottura)
  • compound words.

Using cognates and near-cognates

A few 'false friends' (eg camera, casino, libreria) make it necessary to use this strategy with care and in collaboration with the strategy of using the visual and verbal context above. However, for each 'false friend' there are very many 'good friends' of which anglophone learners of Italian can make good use. These fall into two main categories: cognates and near-cognates.


There are very many words which have exactly or almost exactly the same form, and essentially the same meaning, in Italian and in English (eg cinema, animale, centrale, principale, radio). When such words occur in context, students can be expected to understand them in English and Italian.


Students will also be expected to understand words which meet the above criteria but which differ somewhat in their written form in Italian, usually by the addition of one or more accents, a suffix and/or the omission/change of a letter (eg democrazia, teatro, necessario, onesto).

Using common patterns between Italian and English

There are thousands of words in Italian which, although not having exactly the same form as the English word, can easily be understood with the application of a few, simple rules. When words which can be understood using the rules below occur in context, students will be expected to understand them.


  • Using cognates and near-cognates. Some nouns ending in -a or -o are spelt the same in both Italian and English, although the pronunciation differs: eg area, cinema, idea, radio
  • Abstract nouns ending in -ty in English often end in -tà in Italian eg ability - abilità, quality - qualità
  • Nouns ending in -ion in English often end in -ione in Italian eg creation - creazione, decision - decisione
  • Nouns ending in -nce and -ncy in English often end in -nza in Italian eg ambulance - ambulanza, emergency - emergenza

Nouns and adjectives

  • Nouns and adjectives ending in -id in English often end in -ido in Italian eg acid - acido, invalid - invalido
  • Nouns and adjectives ending in -ive in English often end in -ivo in Italian eg negative - negativo, positive - positivo
  • Nouns and adjectives ending in -ry preceded by a vowel in English often end in -rio Italian eg necessary - necessario, ordinary - ordinario
  • Nouns and adjectives ending in -al in English often end in -ale in Italian eg animal - animale, central - centrale
  • Nouns and adjectives ending in -te after a vowel in English often end in -to in Italian eg certificate - certificato, moderate - moderato
  • Nouns and adjectives ending in -or in English end in -ore in Italian eg editor - editore, motor - motore
  • Nouns and adjectives ending in -nt in English often end in -nte in Italian eg elegant - elegante, elephant - elefante


  • Adjectives ending in -ble in English often end in -bile in Italian eg incredible - incredibile, adorable - adorabile
  • Adjectives ending in -ic in English end in -ico in Italian eg aromatic - aromatico, scientific - scientifico


  • Verbs ending in -ate in English often end in -are in Italian eg to celebrate - celebrare, to communicate - comunicare
  • Verbs ending in -ise/ize or -yse/yze in English often end in -izzare in Italian eg to organise/ze - organizzare, to paralyse/ze - paralizzare
  • Verbs ending in -e (other than -ate and -ize) in English often end in -are in Italian eg to adore - adorare, to cause - causare
  • Verbs ending in -ify in English often end in -ificare in Italian eg to notify - notificare, to clarify - chiarificare
  • Verbs ending in two consonants in English often end in -are in Italian eg to confess - confessare, calm - calmare

Spelling changes

Other spelling changes can be noticed when we alter English to Italian. Please remember these are general guidelines and will not work all the time.

  • -bs- in English changes to -ss- in Italian when followed by a vowel eg absent - assente, absurd - assurdo
  • -bs- in English often changes to -s- in Italian when followed by a consonant eg to abstain - astenersi, abstract - astratto
  • -ct- in English changes to -tt- in Italian eg October - ottobre, actor - attore
  • -dm- in English changes to -mm- in Italian eg administration - amministrazione, to admire - ammirare
  • -dv- in English changes to -vv- in Italian eg adventure - avventura, advocate - avvocato
  • -ns- in English changes to -s- in Italian eg instant - istante, to transfer - trasferire
  • -ph- in English changes to -f- in Italian eg photo - foto, telephone - telefono
  • -pt- in English changes to -tt- in Italian eg optician - ottico, optimist - ottimista
  • -th- in English changes to -t- in Italian eg theatre - teatro, therapy - terapia
  • -x- in English changes to -ss- in Italian eg exam - esame, experience - esperienza
  • -y- in English changes to -i- in Italian except at the end of a word eg style - stile, stupidity - stupidità
  • -y- in English at the end of a word changes to -ia- in Italian eg geography - geografia, pharmacy - farmacia
  • -h- is not used in Italian except to maintain a hard -c or -g sound eg character - carattere, school - scuola, chemical - chimico, ghetto - ghetto

Strategies such as those outlined above will generally be more easily applied in reading than in listening, as reading offers more opportunities to slow down, look at unknown items at some leisure and study the context. However, the general strategies for understanding listed above can be used successfully in listening to Italian.

In order to hear accurately, students should have the relationship between the spoken and written language brought to their attention. Words which look the same in Italian and English may sound different and conversely, words with similar sounds may be written very differently in the two languages. For example, the Italian word certificato looks very similar to its English counterpart but is pronounced quite differently.


The use of dictionaries is not permitted in the examination, but should be encouraged in class. Students need to acquire good dictionary skills and to understand the limitations of dictionary use, eg choosing the wrong word from a list of definitions, confusion over parts of speech, the dangers of word-for-word translations. Successful strategies for dictionary use include:

  • understanding the meaning of terms and abbreviations used in a dictionary entry
  • recognising different parts of speech so as to be able to find the word required
  • recognising the word may be listed in a different form or may be required in a different form from the one given in the dictionary. Students wishing to find the meaning of chiedo must first work out that this is a verb form in order to look up the meaning of chiedere and conversely the infinitive chiedere found in the English-Italian section will need to be changed in order to express “I ask ....”
  • picking the correct word from a list of alternatives, if necessary checking back in the Italian-English part of the dictionary to find the word with the appropriate meaning. A candidate looking up the word “jog”, for example, may have to choose from: spinta, colpetto, andatura lenta, urtare, rinfrescare, spingere, fare footing, fare jogging. They must check these words in the Italian-English part of the dictionary to ensure they have the correct meaning in the context
  • recognising that word for word translation is often impossible eg expressions such as “to make fun of” (prendere in giro) or “to pull a fast one” (ingannare) cannot be translated literally.

Strategies for production

Research and experience show that people who communicate effectively in a foreign language tend to make good use of systematic efficient verbal and non-verbal strategies to get meaning across, in spite of their imperfect command of the language.

Individual students may fail to learn – or forget – language items required by some tests, or they may wish to attempt to go beyond the demands of the specification in completing the task set. In these circumstances, the following strategies can prove useful. They fall into two main categories: non-verbal and verbal.

Non-verbal strategies

Pointing and demonstration

This may be accompanied by some appropriate language (eg 'Allora..''Cosa?' 'Mi fa male qui').

Expression and gesture

This may be accompanied, where appropriate, with sounds (eg 'Ahi!' which, with appropriate intonation, facial expression and gestures, can convey such attitudes and functions as pain, surprise, anger, fear, pleasure and admiration).


This can be accompanied by appropriate sounds and language and can sometimes help communication to be maintained when it might otherwise break down (eg 'Ti posso aiutare?' with a suitable mime if one has forgotten the words for the relevant action). This strategy has obvious limitations in a speaking test which is recorded and assessed on the basis of the recording.


This can be an efficient strategy with some tasks (especially written) and can convey both attitude and information (eg a diagram showing how to get from one point, such as a station, to another, for instance a home).

Verbal strategies

Using a word which refers to a similar item

Using a word which refers to a similar item to the one the speaker/writer wishes to refer to, but for which he/she has forgotten the word (eg fiore for rosa, camera for dormitorio). This is not always effective and its use would be assessed according to its effectiveness in a particular context.

Description of physical properties

This can be used to refer to something when the name has been forgotten (eg 'La frutta gialla…Acido... Quella cosa sul tavolo...'). The physical properties refer to colour, size, material, position and shape. The use of this strategy in an exam would be assessed according to its communicative effectiveness.

Requests for help

These may include requests for rewording (eg 'Come si dice......... in inglese?') and questions; which make no reference to English (eg 'Come si chiama questo in italiano?' 'Come si scrive?') as well as requests which may improve the student's chances of understanding (eg 'Puoi ripetere per favore?' 'Potresti parlare più lentamente?'). It is clearly preferable to use such requests for help than for communication to collapse and their use will be assessed according to the context. When requests for help with specific problems occur, the teacher should maintain the role of a sympathetic native speaker and help accordingly. The teacher should avoid taking over from the student and carrying out the tasks set.


This is when a student avoids the use of a form of which he/she is unsure (eg 'È necessario che io vada') by using a form he/she finds simpler (eg 'Devo andare'). When such simple forms are used correctly and appropriately they will be rewarded accordingly. Correct and appropriate use of more complex forms will also be rewarded.

A systematic use of simplified forms may reduce error, facilitate communication and increase fluency but, if overused, this strategy may result in learners failing to make full use of their capabilities.


This is where the student uses words and messages in acceptable Italian, avoiding the use of words which he/she has forgotten (eg 'Non ha un lavoro' for 'È disoccupato', 'è il padre di mia madre' for 'è il mio nonno'). When used well, this strategy communicates the message effectively to a sympathetic native speaker and such use in an exam would be assessed accordingly.

Reference to specific features

Reference to specific features (eg 'L'animale con le orecchie lunghe…') is often quite effective and its use would be assessed accordingly in an exam.

Reference to the function of an object

Reference to the function of an object and the actions that can be performed with it (eg 'La cosa che si usa per aprire una bottiglia...') is a commonly used strategy which is usually effective in communicative terms.

Another strategy sometimes used by language learners is word coinage, the creation of words based either on English or Italian words. This strategy usually produces words which do not exist in Italian or which, if they do exist, have a different meaning from the one intended. The use of this strategy is rarely effective in promoting communication and students would be well advised to use it only if all other strategies fail.

Another commonly used strategy is topic avoidance, when the student avoids or abandons a topic because of inability to deal with it. Use of this strategy in the exam will not allow the student to be given full credit. Use of it in a learning situation will reduce opportunities for the development or expansion of the student's repertoire. It is a strategy which should be discouraged. A basic condition for communication strategies to have a potential learning effect is that they are governed by achievement, rather than avoidance behaviour.

Evidence suggests that the availability of a range of strategies such as those outlined above, and flexibility in their use, represent an important advantage in overall communicative effectiveness. It also appears that the most effective strategies demand some linguistic proficiency and that the more proficient speakers are also better at using communication strategies effectively.

The development of such strategies cannot be seen as encouragement not to develop linguistic knowledge. Strategic competence is not a substitute for vocabulary learning, but a useful supplement. All language users make use of communication strategies, even in their first language, and really successful strategies usually pass unnoticed. They are an important part of the teaching and learning process.