Language Learning: Advice from a Brit Abroad
In this years’ first Italian article, Hannah grapples with the challenges and pressures of learning a new language. Learning from eavesdropping and chatty taxi drivers are all part of an exchange year!
Like many others, the realisation that I would spend the next academic year speaking a language that wasn’t my own suddenly left me feeling very far away from the comfort of Queen’s Building. Armed with the few phrases that I could remember from my second year of studying Italian (‘I went to the cinema with my friends’ and ‘I am English’), I was endeavouring to get myself to my new university city of Ferrara – an hour and forty-minute train journey south of my current location. Unbeknown to me, I had been sold a Frecciarossa train ticket (imagine the British Airways of Italian interrailing). I should have realised that I was not their typical customer when I slumped down in an ergonomic leather seat, surrounded by a carriage full of commuters, with a load that can only be compared to that of a Year 9 embarking on DofE.
Needless to say, the Google Translate app has taken pride of place on my Home Screen. Despite what your GCSE French teacher may have told you, there’s no shame in it
Now, I’m not one to normally encourage eavesdropping, but in the context of language learning, it is absolutely essential. I spent that train journey frantically jotting down whatever new words I could decipher from the tannoy and commuters’ business calls. Needless to say, the Google Translate app has taken pride of place on my Home Screen. Despite what your GCSE French teacher may have told you, there’s no shame in it. The act of listening, researching and then writing new words in a vocabulary list is an excellent way to expand your understanding. The key is to learn vocabulary in context; note how the word was used in a sentence, or where you were when you heard it. That way, the new vocabulary will be neurologically tied to the memory of the encounter.
Unfortunately, there is no shortcut to becoming comfortable conversing in a new language. My first real-life speaking practice came in the form of an exceptionally chatty taxi driver. Speeding over the cobbles, he informed me of how Americans had murdered pizza with the addition of ketchup and criticised how a poorly parked Vespa had obstructed the road. His remarks about how brave I was to learn Italian didn’t exactly fill me with confidence. He did, however, extend an olive branch in teaching me the proverb “sbagliando si impara”, meaning “you learn from your mistakes“. Getting things wrong is inevitable. You may even be laughed at. Sometimes humiliation is the key to avoiding a repeat offence. It is the ability to fail forwards and act upon subsequent corrections that leads to true progress.
When learning a language, beware of the f-word: fluency
That being said, receiving corrections every time you open your mouth leaves a lot of students disheartened. When learning a language, beware of the f-word: fluency. Despite grand claims of students returning to Exeter speaking like fully-fledged natives, for the most part, it’s not a reality. The goal should always be communication – idioms and impeccable grammar are not the be-all and end-all. With that in mind, I wholeheartedly advise throwing caution to the wind when striking up a conversation. The beauty of this is that you never know what topic is going to arise, forcing you to adapt to any lexical field that you may find yourself in. When in doubt, there is always the possibility of leaning on British culture as a conversational crutch. Regardless of cultural barriers, I have always found a common ground in discussing Peaky Blinders or trying to locate where I live in the UK relative to football clubs.
So many attempts to practice speaking are derailed at the slightest whisper of a British accent, so when met with the unavoidable English reply, persevere! Remember that learning a language doesn’t happen overnight, so enjoy the process and take the small wins along the way.
Edited by Ryan Gerrett