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My Secret Trick to Learning a Language

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Bonus: It involves cocktails. 

It goes without saying that studying abroad—in any location—is challenging experience. However, for those studying in a country where the language spoken isn't their native tongue, it’s a completely different story.

Even though I have been studying Italian for two and a half years (and Spanish for eight), I still faced a massive culture shock when moving abroad. I can’t imagine how it must feel to spend your year abroad in a country where you don’t have even basic knowledge of the language, or where both the language and culture is so far from your own. 

As any languages student will know, the oral component when learning a language requires the most effort and is always the last to catch-up, compared to reading, writing and aural comprehension. This is one of the biggest frustrations. Even if you feel like you’re nailing the use of the dreaded subjunctive, indirect pronouns or the imperative voice, fluency always seems out of reach.

This is where the two key principles of language learning come into play: practice and perseverance.

From my own personal experience, I know that it can be really disheartening and demotivating when you feel like your language skills aren’t progressing as quickly as you’d like, especially in comparison to your peers.

At the start of my language course at the University of Granada, I felt really out of my depth and, to be honest, mediocre compared to my coursemates from Leeds who all seemed more fluent and confident with their Spanish than I was. This really got to me and couldn’t shake the feeling of not being quite good enough to have been placed in Granada.

However, as I became more settled into my environment and became more at ease with our amazing teachers, my attitude completely changed. I realized that I was only going to get as much out of the course as I put in, so, I made a conscious effort to contribute more in class and make the most out of the opportunity I had been given. It paid off. At the end of the course, I came out with a high grade, increased confidence and a huge sense of satisfaction.

Then I moved to Italy and felt like I was right back at square one again.

After three months fully immersed in all things Spanish, suddenly living in Italy and having to speak Italian on a daily basis (when I hadn’t spoken it for six months) was a massive shock to the system.

This wasn’t helped by the nature of my university study placement in Verona. Whereas my course in Granada involved lots of spoken language, in Verona I sit passively in lectures absorbing the words of my professors and there is no class participation. I felt frustrated and fed up, especially given the number of people who had told me: “I bet you’ll be fluent by the time you come home.”

Luckily, before leaving the UK, I received an email from the International Office about the tandem scheme run by the languages centre here at the University of Verona. This helpful scheme pairs Italian and international students together to practise speaking each other’s native language. Knowing that I would be in desperate need of help, I signed up.

Chatting in Italian over an Aperol spritz and complimentary snacks is so much more relaxed and enjoyable than talking with a teacher in a classroom.

This has been a huge help for not only improving my spoken language, but also providing an easy way for me to socialize in Italian, and find out more about my partner’s life and culture while helping them with their English. Although slightly nerve-wracking at first, chatting in Italian over an Aperol spritz and complimentary snacks is so much more relaxed and enjoyable than talking with a teacher in a classroom.

Practising with someone of your own age is great: you can talk about common shared interests, popular culture, or generally what you’ve been up, knowing that you won’t be penalized for making an error. You also pick up more conversational, colloquial aspects of the language, which helps you sound less like you’re speaking straight from a grammar textbook and more like a student living abroad.

I might not be fluent in Italian (and I doubt I ever will be), but, if my experience so far has taught me anything it’s that progress doesn’t happen in comfort zones. The initial step beyond these parameters might not be easy, but in the end, you’ll reap the reward.

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Published in Study Abroad Blogs
Katie Smith

Katie Smith is a 21-year-old student of Spanish and Italian at the University of Leeds. She is currently spending her year abroad on an Erasmus study placement at the University of Verona, Italy.

Website: https://www.instagram.com/katiemenna_/

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