Before I set out on this year abroad I had several ideas of how the language learning process would take place. Firstly I thought that I would just ‘pick up’ Italian – I thought it was impossible for me to spend a year living here and not be fluent by the end of it. I was totally wrong. It is true that you’ll pick up certain things (you would absolutely learn how to order food and coffee) and that you’ll likely learn to understand parts of the language, but I think it was silly of me to assume that I would be able to speak it well without putting in any effort. On average I have ~25 hours of lectures a week, all in Italian, and since I’ve been here for about 5 months (of lectures, about 8 months in total) I think I’ve racked up a massive amount of listening hours, and it is true that I can understand almost everything said in lectures without much difficulty (although a lot of it is specialist terms rather than everyday speech), but unfortunately listening does not transfer directly into speaking without some effort. It’s exactly the same case for reading and writing; I have no trouble reading my lecture notes in Italian – but I would definitely not be able to transfer that to writing.
The second thing that I was totally wrong about is the amount of Italian I would actually speak whilst here. I thought I would speak Italian with everyone here and never speak English, but the problem is that if you are English or fluent in English, it is so much harder to communicate in any other language because usually English is the one common language OR people want to use you to practise their English. I assumed all the Erasmus students would have the same level of Italian and we would all speak it to one another – but I was surprised to find out that since some courses here are in English, some of the Erasmus students have never taken Italian lessons and are starting to learn the language now.
The important thing to remember is that learning a language is not about the time you put in, but about what you do in that time. There are some Italian people here who have studied English for 8+ years and still struggle to communicate effectively and some who have studied it for less but speak it more fluently because they have been more motivated to learn it. You will definitely learn a language faster by being in the country it’s spoken but only if you use your time and resources effectively. Language Tandems are a great way to discover what parts of the language you need to practise and you can offer your language in return. If you have Netflix, it will often change to the Netflix in your current location – meaning there will be many more shows in your target language. There are also a large amount of books available (although you may have to start with children’s books) and so many people to talk to! When I first arrived a girl from my course spoke to me in English straight away because she said people are always much more grateful if you speak to them in their own language rather than making them struggle to speak yours. Never be scared to speak to people in your target language because they will understand that you are only learning and are likely to be very patient with you.
Don’t be fooled into thinking you will simply ‘pick up’ a language with minimum effort just because you are in a country it is spoken; effort is still required, but the learning process will happen faster if you make the most of the resources around you. Also, don’t be disheartened if you think nothing is improving, it’s likely that it still is and you’ll suddenly realise that you understood the episode of the foreign TV series you were watching where a month or 2 ago you could barely understand a word. Also remember that learning a language will happen at different rates for different people so you can’t compare your progress to others.