One of the most prominent myths in language learning is that you have to go to the country to successfully learn it. This is so untrue!! I have always said that it depends on your attitude not your latitude and moving to the country may not help at all in some cases.
This topic will be demonstrated in detail over the coming months, because my next three month mission begins on Tuesday in the wrong country, and I genuinely believe I’ll learn the language faster than I would in the country that actually speaks that language, and perhaps even arrive in the country in January for the first time speaking the language fluently, so I can focus my time there entirely on cultural exploration. More on this very soon!
In the mean time, an Fi3M reader is going to echo my thoughts on this today. Samuel from Samueltravels discovered my site, had a read through the Speak from day 1 package and, applying some of my advice, actually learned more Italian in London than he did in Italy. This post describes his thoughts on that. Over to you Samuel!
I think my first and largest regret in Italy was that I hadn’t learned more of its language before arriving.
It was a year earlier that I’d come up with the idea to go there. A dream that I concocted during the summer, where I found myself stranded near Auschwitz with my bicycle, 40 euros, and no shoes. Given that I did indeed wanted to go home, and that I was unable to see another solution in achieving this, I decided that I would just have to cycle back to London. What then proceeded was one of them grand ol’ tales of the road, and it was during those many hours sat on that saddle that a bigger idea for a bigger adventure took hold of me;
To go to Italy the next summer with whatever money I could find, and to go there and cycle ALL of it, with the aim of mastering its language and also its world-famous cucina by learning recipes from Italian Mamas that I would meet upon the way.
Now I’m in Italy, realising this idea that I’d fantasised about.
However there was a whole year that passed between deciding I would go to Italy and actually being here now. A whole year that I could’ve spent learning the language. A whole year that if I’d spent studying the language at home, I believe I could’ve been fluent in before arriving. Yes, fluent. So why the hell did I arrive in Italy managing to do little more than express simple concepts?
Because I’m an idiot. That’s the simple answer. I had that typical English mentality where you think, ‘alright, go to another country for a few months, come back fluent, badabing, badaboom’. A lot of us here unfortunately have this idea where we just think going to another country means you automatically learn the language; that it’s easy there, and that it’s impossible here.
Well as Benny has mentioned many times, there are hundreds of thousands of examples in the world of this not being this case, from expats living for 20 years in Thailand and still not knowing more than a few phrases, to the girl (Nikki) from just a few posts ago who was still struggling with French after more than a year of living there.
By no means at all am I trying to have a go at any of these people, but instead I am just trying to underline that being in a place won’t give you the language; it will require an effort, you’ll need to push your boundaries, it will be frustrating at times, and it will always be like this no matter where you are.
But learning it will also be greatly gratifying and rewarding, and for me it’s been a challenging experience that I’ve enjoyed thoroughly (almost) all the way through.
Why not learn it from home intensively?
While the other good news is that if learning a language is difficult no matter where you are, it means you may as well learn it no matter where you are. There isn’t this massive advantage of being in the country always, instead what there is, and what there always will be, is an effort; an effort that you have to make and commit to. One that you can make anywhere.
One of the biggest mistakes I made in the last year was not realising how much I could’ve been learning at home in London. Or at least until it was too late.
I’d been faffing around with a grammar book and a bit of rosetta stone here and there throughout the year, but I couldn’t say a word, read anything, and I hadn’t bothered listening to the language at all so it all still just sounded like gobbledy-goop.
I found Benny’s book a month before heading off, it finally gave me the motivation to up my game, and I have been applying his philosophy and tips from that moment since. A week later I was going out with an Italian girl that I met through doing language exchanges (though a week later we’d broken up… latin love affairs) and I was finally speaking the language and getting to understand a slither of it.
I watched films everyday in Italian in my free time, and I perused the grammar gently during spare moments on trains and stuff. Yes, I know I still did say earlier that I didn’t really understand anything when I arrived in Italy, but it’s only that understanding really takes quite a lot of time; I still felt I made incredible progress during those few weeks before, and at that point I was beginning to hear the words… I just wished I’d started doing it earlier.
Problems with learning in the country itself
But now here in Italy, my life has since been pretty crazy. And by that I don’t mean crazy in the way the drunk girl at the pool party goes ‘hey look how crazy I am, woooooooo!’ and jumps into the pool with all her clothes on. I mean actually pretty hectic, I never know what I am doing, where I am going, or where I will sleep.
During my journeying it wasn’t uncommon to find myself being chased by stray dogs at 2 in the morning in a small town, before finally pedalling away, and ending up being so tired that I just passed out on a bench. Now the life I chose out here is obviously an extreme example, but my point here is – no matter what you do – when you move to a new country, your life will be different, it will take time to adjust, to understand the new place you’re in, and to make friends; it will be a bit hectic for you too.
You know what was great about learning Italian back in London (apart from my bed and lack of vicious dogs)? That it was my city and that my life was there.
My schedule meant I had a routine, I could fit language learning into my life, and I could arrange meetings with people from other countries to learn their language.
While also back at home, I was the boss, these other people were the foreigners, and so everyone wanted to know me. It’s the other way round here. In fact no Italians really had time for me when I first got here because I couldn’t say anything, and I actually ended up learning all of my Italian off a Filipino lady.
In travel mode, it’s hard to get into a routine
Just because there’s a ton of natives here doesn’t mean they all want to speak to you and that you will speak to all of them. Not that anyone was rude, I had a really great time, and I wouldn’t want to put anyone off going and approaching people in other countries for conversations… I’m just saying I think I actually would’ve found it easier at home to find people to speak to, as Italian expats in London were easier to properly befriend than Italians in Italy.
Also the way I’ve always been moving and travelling in Italy has been a bit of a nuisance to language learning attempts. Through doing this I’m always meeting different people and having the same ol’ conversations filled with formalities. If you want to learn a language it’s about building relationships, not moving, for it’s in these relationships with people that you have more intimate conversations, and higher levels of speaking will then be demanded and learned.
And in London I had the opportunity to build these relationships, and I’m sure as Benny will show starting next week, it would’ve also been possible in any other place.
Out here in Italy I’m constantly trying to find new people that will speak to me, and as a result, learning this language has been a real effort, as in an active effort that I’ve constantly had to pursue.
The language has never been given to me simply because I’m here, I’m always running after it. I really can’t emphasise this enough, natives haven’t just been falling out of the sky going ‘here boy, have this slice of Italian knowledge’, I have to hunt and pin them down and force myself to speak with them. You could do this anywhere; Italy isn’t teaching me Italian, I’m teaching myself Italian.
“But what about all the English you don’t speak because you’re immersed in Italy and its language” you might say.
Well, actually all my progress has been without blocking off my English. I unfortunately have ended up having to speak it far too much here, probably more than I’ve spoken Italian.
Of course I’m sure my progress would be even faster if I’d managed to cut it off, but I had to work here initially, and the thing is about getting a job in another country when you first arrive is that it’s probably going to be in your language since that is the only skill you are really bringing.
Additionally my cycling is now over and I’m back in Milan to work, and part of the deal in which I’m getting free rent and food in this penthouse in the city centre is that I speak English (I know, woe is me right?). So one point here is that another country doesn’t automatically give you an immersion experience (I know Italy definitely hasn’t for me), that even if you go somewhere else, English can be really hard to avoid (or at least you’ll have to avoid it at great cost/penthouse accommodations) and you’ll still have to be searching for ways to get speaking in their language.
But an even more important point we can take from this, is that all the progress I’ve made has been without ever having blocked off my native language. So that means you can learn your language at home, while you are still speaking your native language all the time.
In fact, given how much time I’ve been spending speaking English, I don’t see any reason why you couldn’t be speaking Italian as good as (and if not better than) I am after the same amount of time studying it from your country (3/4 months). In my opinion, what’s more important than blocking off your language completely is consistency; making real friends who speak the language you want to learn, and making the language a regular part of your life.
Dedicate your free time to learning the language, to being near the language. That’s what I do here, and that’s why I’m really starting to get into learning it now, finally. I’m surrounded by English here, where I live, where I work, but I make an effort to go out and find Italian.
So go out and find your language. Rather than expect the country to teach you the language, you have to take it upon yourself to teach yourself the language, no matter where you are.
If you’re curious, here is what my Italian sounds like now, 3 months into learning it:
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This article was written by Benny Lewis
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