Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Tavola or Tavolo – Reflection on Missed Years of Language Learning

Front cover of Il Grande Libro pre ScolareIl Grande Libro pre Scolare with TavolaIl Grande Libro pre Scolare with Tavolo
Il Grande Libro pre Scolare - Vado in Prima cover and two sample page showing "tavola" and "tavolo".


We spent a long weekend with our friends and their 4-year-old who is just starting to read in Italian. To encourage him, his parents surround him with books and games to help. One book I picked up was called “Il Grande Libro pre Scolare”. I couldn’t resist flipping through it and seeing if I could get through some of the puzzles and games. In the section with pictures and words (broken into syllables), I saw an image of a table set for eating and just an empty table, demonstrating the words tavola and tavolo, respectively.

At that point, it kind of hit me how as an adult we struggle to learn languages because of the “missed” years of learning that this 4-year-old is getting with books like this. I’ve struggled countless times to remember is it tavola (with an A) or tavolo (with an O)? They both mean table, but which one you use depends on context. Seeing the set table for tavola and the “un-set” or plain table for tavolo is a great visual cue that I didn’t think about until seeing this book.

Mini lesson

In Italian, both tavolo and tavola can be translated as "table" in English, but they are used in different contexts.

Tavola (feminine, plural: tavole) is used when referring to a table that is set for a meal. For example, "Bambini, a tavola! La polenta è pronta!" translates to "Kids, (come) to the table! The polenta is ready!" - this is Bergamo after all. "Tavola" can also refer to a plank, board, chart, figure, or panel. “Tavola” is also used to refer to a snowboard because a “board” or “wooden plank” is called a “tavola”.

Tavolo (masculine, plural: tavoli) is the generic word for table, referring to the piece of furniture found in homes and offices. For example, a big table is called "un grande tavolo" and a small table is called "un piccolo tavolo" or "tavolino", literally “little table” or a really big table "tavolone". "Tavolo" is also used when reserving a table at a restaurant or referring to table service.

So, the difference between "tavola" and "tavolo" lies in the context in which they are used. While both words can mean "table", "tavolo" is used more generally, while "tavola" is used specifically for a table set for a meal or a plank of wood. 


Tavola usage

____ a tavola OR tavola  a ____
  • tutti a tavola!
  • mettersi a tavola
  • posti a tavola
  • tavola a vela

____ da tavola OR tavola da ____
    • vino/olive/uva da tavola
    • biancheria da tavola
    • trionfo da tavola
    • tavola da surf
    • tavola da stiro

    La tavola OR tavola _____
      • la buona tavola
      • prepare la tavola
      • Tavola rotonda
      • tavola calda
      • tavola periodica
      • tavola pitagorica

      ____ in tavola:
      • mettere/cambiare le carte in tavola
      • portare in tavola

      Tavolo usage

      Il tavolo OR tavolo ____
      • sotto il tavolo
      • prendere il tavolo
      • tavolo operatorio
      • tavolo negoziale
      • tavolo verde

      ____ da tavolo OR tavolo da ____
      • apparecchi da tavolo
      • tennis da tavolo
      • lampada da tavolo
      • gioco da tavolo
      • tavolo da pranzo
      • tavolo da ping-pong
      • tavolo da gioco
      • tavolo da disegno
      • tavolo da surf

      tavolo di ____:
      • Tavolo di lavoro
      • giro di tavolo
      • tavolo di comando

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