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1. Change your phone and Facebook languages to your chosen language.
It seems like an obvious thing to do but not many people I’ve met have actually ACTUALLY done this. And it only takes a week or so to adjust to. The longer the period of time you use these daily lifelines, the more vocabulary you pick up naturally and the more you become exposed to small excerpts of your languages. Just make sure you know your way around both of these before making the change as for a short period afterwards it can be pretty easy to make mistakes. When I first did it, I ended up deleting some of my messages and also forwarding myself some old emails. Be sure to know how to change the language back if you get stuck! Also: some phones allow you to use three typing dictionaries at once and can also detect which language you’re typing in. This is well worth checking out in order to avoid awkward situations and getting lost in translation when messaging in your other language!
2. Join a local gym or club.
Or if there aren’t these things on offer, perhaps spending a little more time in public would have the same effect. Either way, regularly put yourself in a position where you have to listen to the native language being spoken and you will find that after a while your listening skills will improve. I joined a gym and spend most of my time there listening in on other people’s gossip like there’s no tomorrow. Sure, I have no idea who ‘Maria’ is but I could sure tell you a thing or two about her; At least, her according to the two very descriptive old biddies who lurk near the rowing machines.
Basically, get out on your own and spend time forcibly ‘immersing’ yourself. You don’t want your Year Abroad to pass as fast as it does (and it does) and realise at the end you should have made the most of it more, instead resorting to shoddy listening exercises and the creepy Google translate readers.
3. Get Spotify.
That is, regular Spotify (it’s free and so for students = yay). Okay so I didn’t download it for learning purposes initially but now I use it almost every day and the fact that the advertisements are in Italian just adds that tiny bit more of language immersion to my day. Not that they aren’t repetitive and get really annoying really soon, but I now know how to describe ‘the perfect gift’ in Italian amongst other (rather cringey) things. On top of the miracle of managing to be grateful for actually NOT having Premium (ish), it suggests playlists of what’s popular in your country. This feature has A: aided me in my overcoming my hatred for euro-pop (as covered in my last post) and B: opened my eyes to more Italian (and French) artists to listen to.
4. Buy a book in your new language that you’ve already read in English.
This is a tough one and it’s one that involves a lot of perseverance. Ideally pick something not too complicated and that you’ve either already read in English or seen the film of either just once of repetitively. If you have the means to, try acquiring the English version as well so you can refer to it when you get particularly stuck.
The most notable difficulty with reading a foreign book is vocabulary; you can make guesses as to who is saying what and which tense is being used but if you don’t know the meaning of the verbs, adjectives or nouns being employed then it gets pretty stressful. When I first tried this I had a dictionary by my side and looked up every new word I came across. After what felt like a laborious and not at all enjoyable few hours I found myself at the grand sum of thirteen pages. After that I scrapped the dictionary and attempted to just circle words I did not know for later reference and move on if I could get the gist of the plot, even from memory. I ended up getting a better idea of the French past historic and other complex tenses doing this, later adding to my vocab when I went back to my many question mark-covered pages.
5. Watch dubbed/subtitled films and TV.
Less arduous than reading, watching something in another language is useful for your listening skills as well as helpful with vocab. I’ve found the best way is to watch a dubbed film with subtitles in the same language, so you can read what you’re hearing for clarity, thus avoiding having to rewind in order to catch that word, decipher the accent or understand the tense. Plus a film or TV episode is a set amount of time and easy to fit into even the busiest of schedules. Even if that schedule consists of, in true Italian Year Abroad style, eating gelato in a piazza and people-watching/scrutinising through dark sunglasses.
6. Do a language tandem.
A language tandem is where you meet up with someone who speaks the language you are trying to improve but who wants to improve the language that you already speak. It’s a great way of meeting new people and getting to know them outside of erasmus events and practising your one-to-one conversational skills. A tandem can work by meeting once or twice a week and will be equally divided into half the time per week spent on conversation in one language and half in the other. It’s a good way of getting help with any specific language enquiries you have, especially if you don’t know many people who are fluent in the language you’re studying or don’t have many opportunities to sit down and have something properly explained to you.
I have had two tandem partners and they both have been really fun to get to know and learn from. One was only here for first semester but taught me more about cultural traditions in my first few weeks in Padova while the other is actually one of my Italian neighbours who wants to improve her English. I found this tandem particularly helpful as I got the chance to explain English grammar and culture IN Italian and received a lot of vocabulary help; she even looked over some uni work I had and helped me understand it!
Definitely sign up for a tandem partner and if your erasmus university does not offer this, mention it to people you get to know while you’re there and even advertise in your university buildings and I’m sure you will find someone – people are so keen to learn English that I’ve actually been asked while in a club TWICE to be a tandem partner once a person has learnt that I’m English. This leads me onto my next point…
7. Do not give up the English game too soon.
Really, I have genuinely had two people here in Italy ask me IN A CLUB to be their tandem partners for learning English. Both of whom I had only just met and soon after, who I had no intention of ever meeting again. It took me a while but I soon learnt to not have “Sono inglese” as one of my first few opening lines when meeting people. Not only due to weird situations like this but also for the pure fact that when people realise they are speaking to a native English speaker, they automatically start speaking English back at you. This is something I really hated in the beginning. I was so excited when people stopped noticing how my somewhat questionable Italian accent screamed either ENGLISH or TOURIST and finally started replying to me in the language I was so desperately trying to use; this new development of people wanting to use me as a language tutor just took the biscuit (or biscotti, in this case). From this point on me and my French housemate started playing a game where we would swap glances and know immediately to assume each others’ identities, me getting to practise either Italian or French and her, English or Italian. Perfetto!
8. Take notes (and revise) in your new language.
This is incredibly hard to adjust to at first. For me, going to a lecture and understanding nothing wasn’t exactly new but this time, I understood so little at first that I didn’t even know whether I knew nothing or not. Confusing, eh? Well this is something you should certainly pursue. Your exams will be in the language they are taught in and so you might as well and start trying now so it’s not as stressful later. A good starter for the more committed erasmus student would be to even record lectures and later read them back. A less committed person (aka me) would record their lectures and then never use the files ever again in her life. But it’s worth a try if you’re really struggling at first and if it’s particularly important to you to understand everything.
9. Live with people who speak the language you are studying.
Now this is something that you may want to spend some time deciding on. If you’re going away with friends perhaps it would be better (from a non-language-acquisition viewpoint) to live with them so you can really share the experience with them and get to take it back to uni with you in your fourth year. But if this is the case you have to make extra effort with the previous points in this post as it’s easy to slip back into the comfort zone of always speaking in English. Living in a place where you are at least subjected to other languages means that even the most halfhearted language student can get her daily dose of new vocab and verb conjugation, however little she speaks Italian.
For my part, I know I haven’t been making enough effort to speak in our ‘house language’ of Italian but it is a lot more daunting to start attempting than it sounds. Initially you feel pretentious, inaccurate and silly, but then you realise that everyone else in the house is already speaking their second (or third) languages and learn to just not care about the million mistakes you’re making and just try. I would most definitely recommend living in accommodation where everyone speaks the language you are learning as this really makes a far greater impact on your learning than you realise. And not only do you get (effectively) free language lessons you also make great new friends and learn about loads of different foreign traditions, foods and cultures in general. Such fun!
The UoB Linguist Magazine
Guild of Students,
University of Birmingham