understand Italian conversations

How to understand Italian conversations: learn more words

When you try to understand Italian conversations, it’s often a jump into the void. You think you’re going to make it, but then something’s not quite right. And you’re not really sure why because you’ve been studying for ages now.

Listening is probably the most difficult skill. Words flow one after the other and you either catch them or lose them. You don’t have the time to rewind, replay, and re-listen. Unless you’re listening to a radio show or watching a movie, of course. But, generally speaking, you either catch it or miss it.

This is why you need to be equipped with the right tools, and the most important one is… knowing Italian words.

Sure, knowing what the conversation is about helps, but not as much as knowing the words in that conversation. And paying attention, for sure, helps a lot with understanding, but again… not as much as knowing words.

Researchers agree that the more words you know, the more you can understand. To be even more exact, the more auditory vocabulary you have, the more you can understand. What does that mean? It means that you not only need to know a lot of Italian words, but you need to know how they sound too.

If you only know the written form of a word, you will more likely find a lot of miscomprehensions. The sounds of your first language can interfere with your understanding and if you don’t know how Italian words sound, you won’t be able to catch them even after listening to the same passage over and over again.

So, make sure you learn how Italian words sound when you learn them. You’ll be more likely to catch them when you hear them.

Understand Italian conversations

Ok, knowing more words help you understand more. But what else?

There are also a couple of more features of vocabulary that play a role, although not as big as size: depth and fluency.

By vocabulary depth, we mean knowing not only the form and meaning of a word but also knowing collocations with that word and knowing how to use it. So, knowing individual word items helps you understand better

By vocabulary fluency, we mean the ability to quickly recall the meaning and the form of a word. Researchers found that if you can quickly call to mind form and meaning of words, you’ll get to understand better.

But if you feel like you don’t know your words so well, don’t worry about it. In this case, quantity wins over quality and you can still get the chance to follow your conversations.

How can you learn more Italian words?

I talked about extensive reading in the previous article. Well, that is an excellent tool to improve your Italian vocabulary, also because you can get to learn collocations thanks to it. And don’t forget to listen to the audio version of your graded reader. Remember to learn how words sound too.

Also, by doing this you’ll get to boost your vocabulary fluency, which means… more understanding.

And it’s not just that, you will get to see where words begin and where they end in continuous speech. And this will help you when you try and understand Italian conversations, where words blend together quite a lot.

How many words do you need to know?

Now, big question: how many words do you need to understand a conversation in Italian?

Sadly, we don’t have any research talking about how many Italian words but we have an estimate made by professor Paul Nation about how many words you need to watch a movie in a foreign language.

So, take these words with a grain of salt, please. A lot has yet to be done so that we can have more information on the Italian language. I just wanted to give you a general overview of how much you – more or less – need to know.

Keep in mind that, if you’re watching a video, you’ll need to know fewer words compared to when you read. This is because you can rely on images from time to time.

Generally speaking, if you want to understand a movie, you need to know at least 3000 words, but it would be better to know around 6000 words.

I really hope that someone will soon address this issue and give us a proper answer. Until then, keep reading and listening a lot to improve your vocabulary. It will help you understand your Italian conversations better.

To sum up

  • If you know more words, you understand more when you listen.
  • Knowing how to use a word contributes to your understanding.
  • Being able to recall a word quickly helps too.
  • But quantity wins over quality.
  • Reading and listening a lot help you improve your vocabulary.
  • There’s no specific research telling us how many Italian words are necessary to understand conversations and movies.
  • Generally speaking, to understand a movie in another language, we need to know around 6000 words.
Understand Italian conversations


Carney, N. (2020). Understanding why L2 listeners have trouble comprehending known vocabulary in speech . OASIS Summary of Carney, N. (2020) in TESOL Quarterly. https://oasis-database.org/concern/summaries/5t34sj769?locale=en

Durbahn, M., Rodgers, M. & Peters, E. (2019). The positive relationship between words known in a video and the comprehension of that video. OASIS Summary of Durbahn, M., Rodgers, M. & Peters, E. (2019) in System. https://oasis-database.org/concern/summaries/df65v7966?locale=en

Ke, Zh. & Wang, Y. (2022). Exploring the relationship between aural decoding and listening comprehension among L2 learners of English. OASIS Summary of Ke, Zh. & Wang, Y. (2021) in Language Teaching Research. https://oasis-database.org/concern/summaries/2r36tz00n?locale=en

Li, Yang, and Xian Zhang. 2019. “L2 Vocabulary Knowledge and L2 Listening Comprehension: A Structural Equation Model”. Canadian Journal of Applied Linguistics 22 (1):85-102. https://journals.lib.unb.ca/index.php/CJAL/article/view/25837.

Nation Paul, What do you need to know to learn a foreign language? School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies Victoria University of Wellington New Zealand, 2014

Wallace, M.P. (2020). Individual differences in second language listening: Examining the role of knowledge, metacognitive awareness, memory, and attention. OASIS Summary of Wallace, M.P. (2020) in Language Learning. https://oasis-database.org/concern/summaries/8336h2068?locale=en

Zhang, S. & Zhang, X. (2020). The role of vocabulary knowledge in L2 reading and listening comprehension. OASIS Summary of Zhang, S. & Zhang, X. (2020) in Language Teaching Research. https://oasis-database.org/concern/summaries/s1784k899?locale=en

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