A case for Grammar

Grammar: why you need it to help you learn a language, #learnItalian, Via Optimae,

(or how learning one sentence can help you create endless others) 

Read advice about learning a language nowadays, and you're likely to hear that you should abandon your grammar books and instead simply immerse yourself— move to the country if you have to, but get a lot of input and pick up words and eventually sentences, in context, like a child learning their native language.

I think immersion is a valuable tool, and I'm all for getting over your shyness and communicating with native speakers straight away BUT I believe in immersion AND grammar.

Phrases & Context:
Suppose you hear in a bar/caffè: 

Vorrei un cappuccino. 
I would like a cappuccino.

You could deduce from context the meaning, and you could even memorize and repeat the phrase yourself....but, by also understanding a bit of the grammar behind it, you can adapt and change the sentence as needed to express thousands upon thousands of related concepts and ideas, and create your own unique sentences that you've never heard before.

Grammar helps you understand the different parts of a sentence, and how the different parts interact and affect each other to change the meaning.

Knowing grammar, I am able to break the sentence down as follows:

VORREI (the verb "volere" conjugated in the 1st person singular conditional tense: means "I would like")
UN (indefinite masculine article— gender corresponds with noun it modifies: means "a")
CAPPUCCINO (singular, masculine noun: means "delicious coffee-based drink with foamed milk")

Knowing this, I can modify the sentence to communicate a variety of things.

Changing 'the who':
For example, I can change who does an action by changing the person of the verb's conjugation. I know how to change the person, because I know that in Italian, the root of the verb stays the same, and I add different endings.

For the conditional tense, those endings are as follows:

(io) vorrei
(tu) vorresti
(lui) vorrebbe
(noi) vorremmo
(voi) vorreste
(loro) vorrebbero

Immediately, I am able to say six different sentences:

(1) Vorrei un cappuccino.
I would like a cappuccino.
(2) Vorresti un cappuccino. 
You would like a cappuccino.
(3) Vorrebbe un cappuccino. 
He/She/You (formal) would like a cappuccino.
(4) Vorremmo un cappuccino. 
We would like a cappuccino.
(5) Vorreste un cappuccino. 
You all would like a cappuccino.
(6) Vorrebbero un cappuccino. 
They would like a cappuccino.

And that's just by knowing one tense— the conditional… 

Other tenses:
If I've learned other tenses, I can expand what I'm saying even more.

For example, I can talk about what will be wanted in the Future:

volere— to want, simple future tense:
(io) vorrò I will want
(tu) vorrai you will want
(lui) vorrà he will want  
(noi) vorremo we will want
(voi) vorrete you (all) will want
(loro) vorranno they will want

So, that's another six sentences!

(1) Vorrò un cappuccino.
I will want a cappuccino.
(2) Vorrai un cappuccino.
You will want a cappuccino.
(3) Vorrà un cappuccino. 
He/She/You (formal) will want a cappuccino.
(4) Vorremo un cappuccino. 
We will want a cappuccino.
(5) Vorrete un cappuccino. 
You all will want a cappuccino.
(6) Vorranno un cappuccino. 
They will want a cappuccino.

I could even combine them:

Vorrei un cappuccino adesso, e vorrò un cappuccino domani.
I would like a cappuccino now, and I will want a cappuccino tomorrow.

And there are plenty of other tenses to choose from!

Present: Voglio— I want
Imperfect Past: Volevo— I wanted
Past Perfect: Avevo voluto— I had wanted

Changing 'the object':
And that's just changing the verb, what if we change the object of the verb?

In this case, the object of the verb is un cappuccino— "a cappuccino".

I can change the indefinite article un-"a" to the definite article il- "the" 

(1) Vorrei il cappuccino.
I would like the cappuccino. 

Now, I'm able to talk about a specific cappuccino. (Maybe there are two drinks on the counter, and I'm saying I would like the cappuccino, not the tea.)

Or, maybe I'm feeling especially gluttonous and would like multiple cappuccinos.

If I've studied grammar and know how to make a noun plural, then I can easily change the article to any number due (two), tre (three), etc. and change cappuccino from singular, to plural: cappuccini

Vorrei un cappuccino.
I would like a cappuccino. 
Vorrei due cappuccini.
I would like two cappuccinos. 
Vorrei tre cappuccini.
I would like three cappuccinos. 
Vorrei duemila tredici cappuccini.
I would like two thousand and thirteen cappuccinos.  

And that's of course, if we only want to talk about cappuccinos.  If you know other masculine nouns, you can simply swap them out:

Vorrei un succo d'arancia.
I would like an orange juice.
Vorrei un cane.
I would like a dog.  

If you know how to modify the article, you can say you'd like a feminine noun quite easily too:

Vorrei una collana.
I would like a necklace.
Vorrei una coperta.
I would like a blanket.

Wanting an action:
Knowing a bit more about the verb volere, I know that instead of wanting an object, I can also "want to do something."  

In English, we say "I want to go" but thanks to my grammar studies I know the equivalent in Italian is the version of the verb that ends in -ARE, -ERE, or -IRE, also known as the infinitive.

So now, I can put practically any infinitive verb after the conjugated verb volere

Vorrei andare.
I would like to go.
Vorrei nuotare.
I would like to swim.
Vorrei leggere.
I would like to read.

Adding it all up:
Now that's a lot of sentences!  Thanks to grammar, one thing I might have overheard in a bar can now be used as a basis for creating tons of my own, unique sentences.  Not only can I look for opportunities to use my new sentences, but my knowledge of grammar can also help me make sense of new things I overhear from native speakers, too.

—Vorrei sciare.
I would like ???

"Well, I know it's a verb… because it ends in -ARE and there are no articles or anything to suggest it's a noun.. but what does it mean??"

—Cosa vuol dire "sciare"
What does "sciare" mean?

(The other person mimes skiing)

"Ahh, sciare means to ski…, I know how to say "I like + verb"… it's:"

—Ah! Sì..Mi piace sciare.
Ah! Yes...I like to ski.

See? Grammar is fun!
So, instead of looking at each grammar point as some dull lesson to be suffered through, or skipped entirely for "something more useful"— it should be thought of as another transformation to apply to the sentences you already know.  Then, you can look for (or even create) opportunities to use what you've learned...

"Ahh, the imperfect past tense! Now I can tell Giovanni about how I wanted a cappuccino, but then changed my mind!"

Volevo un cappuccino, ma adesso voglio un tè.
I wanted a cappuccino, but now I want a tea.

Eventually, with enough practice and immersion, you will no longer think in conjugations, tenses, articles, and gender agreement.  The right way to say it will just "sound natural..."

…but until then— use grammar!

Put it into practice:
Take the basic components of Vorrei un cappuccino and see if you can transform it based on each of the following grammar points:

   (1) Indefinite Articles(How to say "A/AN")
   (2) Definite Articles (singular)(How to say "THE")
   (3) Pluralization, (How to make singular nouns plural)
   (4) Definite Articles (plural), ("THE" for more than one thing)
   (5) The Partitive Article, (How to say "some")

  (1) How Italian verbs work(Intro to verbs & grammar terms)
  (5) La negazione - Negation 
  (6) Ogni quanto? Quante volte? (Adverbs of frequency)
  (7) C'è & Ci sono (There is & There are) 

Buono studio!
Alex on

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Vuoi is the present tense, 2nd person of 'volere', means: You want/Do you want?
far parte, means: to be a part of
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Frasi celebri su Via Optimae

Frasi celebri su Via Optimae
Acque del sud (To Have and Have Not) original: "You know how to whistle, don't you, Steve? You just put your lips together and… blow."