In my studies so far this year, I've run into several situations where a word can mean two completely different things, occasionally reflecting a difference in pronunciation, and the only real way to know this is by context.
Here are some of the Italian words that have been known, at times, to trip me up.
As a noun, piano means plan. This can refer to an abstract plan (like a schedule) or a concrete plan (like a blueprint), and related to this second type of plan, it also refers to a level or storey of a building. Eg: Il secondo piano.
But piano can also be used as an adjective to describe something that is flat, flush, or smooth. Eg: Il letto piano.
And if that's not confusing enough, piano is also used as an adverb to mean slowly, quietly, or gently. Eg: Andarci piano.
As a noun, secondo is a second, in the sense of time. Eg: Un secondo!
And as an adjective, it's easy to recognize that il secondo means the second, coming after the first and before the third. Eg: Questo è il secondo treno.
But did you know that secondo also means according to? When giving your opinion, you say secondo me, or when retelling someone else's words, you can say secondo il mio amico.
On first look, leggere is the verb to read in its infinitive form. Eg: Io non posso leggere qui.
However, this is also the plural, feminine form of the adjective leggero, meaning light, and in this form, the stress falls (predictably) on the penultimate syllable, as opposed to the penultimate syllable of the stem, as is the case with verbs. Eg: Queste scarpe sono leggere.
The noun porta means door, though it can also be used to describe a goal in sports, or a port in computing. Eg: Chi è in porta?
However, it's also the 3rd person present form of the verb portare, which can mean bring, take, or wear, which makes it really confusing when the object of the verb is an item of clothing! Eg: Lui porta una camicia.
Just to keep you on your toes, the noun porto describes a harbour or port. Or port as a type of wine. Eg: È il capitano del porto.
And just like its sister above, porto is also a conjugation of the verb portare, this time the 1st person present form. Eg: Porto un cappello.
But to complicate things even more, porto is also the past participle of another verb: porgere, which means to offer. So you can imagine how keeping your porta and porto straight could be a big task until you get more accustomed to context! Eg: Lei mi ha porto una mela.
Ahi ahi ahi!
I'm sure there will be plenty more of these — not that I'm looking forward to it, because I definitely am not. I've grown a little spoiled by the fact that such phenomena are much more rare in Spanish and Russian. (Except, of course, for slang!)
The key to dealing with words like this is, naturally, context. But following context is generally an advanced behavior in a language — something that is done by fluent speakers and beyond. So instead of seeing this as a painful detail to avoid, I'm going to treat it as an opportunity to get closer to my goals! As soon as I finish writing this, I'm going to go Google these tricky words and try to use context to determine their meanings in random search results.
What tricky little look-alike words have you encountered in the language you're studying?