During my first year at my Italian university, I dropped my language degree course in English and Spanish after just three months.
Back then, in addition to studying English and Spanish at university, I was also studying at an art academy in Rome to become a professional cartoonist (cool, right?). As you may imagine, doing two packed courses at the same time was far from easy and, actually, pretty overwhelming.
To make things worse, as I came from an art specialized high school (because in Italy, when you start high school at 13 you need to pick a specific field to study, and it’s fairly nerve wracking if you’re multipassionate like me!), I was in a unfavourable position in comparison to my university fellows who came from language specialised high schools. Most of them already knew one or two languages in addition to their native language. And I knew…one! Or rather, I believed I knew one!
I had studied English at school so I had to know it. That’s what I thought, at least! However, unlike the Spanish course where they started from scratch, the English language course at uni was all delivered in English. You needed at least a B1/B2 level to be able to follow what was going on in the lectures. And I soon realised that my level was not really there!
I used to dread those English lectures. Every time, I would drag myself to the class while trying hard to suppress the feeling of anxiety and the tears in my eyes. I was feeling fearful, overwhelmed and clueless. Not surprisingly, I quit the course. I finally decided to study only what I loved most at that time: art.
But the Language Bug Wouldn’t Let Me Go…
Fast forward three years. I was a qualified cartoonist. Up until that point, I had been following my creative dreams, I connected with artists who I admired and created graphic novels and illustrations that I consistently shared online on art communities.Yet, I knew there was something missing.
I still had the language bug. I wanted to learn a language. Even two or three. I had always loved languages, after all. I wanted to discover other worlds and follow my artistic dreams abroad, where things looked so cool and exciting.
As you may guess, I went back to university. Same course. Same language choice (English and Spanish). Same English course that I dreaded… no more!
To my surprise, on my first day back there, I could understand what was going on. Actually, I could understand pretty much everything. Was this a dream? Nope! It was the result of the baby steps I had taken (unaware!) over those three years spent creating and sharing my art with the world. And I did it this by using English. Let me explain you how.
How I Learned English by Sharing My Art With the World
While hustling to get my artwork out into the world, I started to join artist communities online.
The first art community I joined was an American website called Deviant Art which was used by artists from all around the world. I soon realized that if I wanted to get my art known on there, I had to write my posts and the descriptions of my artworks in English. Everyone was using this language there, regardless their nationality.
So, I quickly dusted off my basic English skills and started to type. Word by word. Sentence by sentence. Paragraph by paragraph. Post by post. With lots of wordreference-DOT-com in the middle!
All this writing in English made me get the writing bug! At some point, I started blogging in English (as well as in Italian!). I wrote stories for graphic novels in English. I started a reflective journal. I was also reading a lot in English (mainly stories and graphic novels from other artists).
Plus, I eventually started to get commissions for art from English native speakers. So, I was also reading emails from my clients (yes, I managed to get English speaker clients!! YAY!) and writing to them in English. I was also receiving feedback on my art and I myself was giving feedback to other fellow artists (like, looong feedback!). We were also chatting online, exchanging ideas…and, basically, using English A LOT!
Up until that point, I hadn't actually had a real conversation in English, so I was not really a fluent speaker. Still, by sharing my art and appreciating other people’s art, I acquired a fairly wide variety of vocabulary and language registers that eventually allowed me to kick some serious butts in my English course once I went back to university!!
A Powerful New Insight — My “Excuse” to Use English
This experience provided me with a very powerful insight: if you want to develop your language skills, you must practice them from day 1, no matter what! You need to find any excuse to practise and use the language.
And art was my “excuse” to use English.
During my second year at university, when I joined the Erasmus programme and travelled to the UK, I used this “excuse” along with many others to speak to as many people as possible. I knew that only by speaking I could achieve fluency. So I did (and, so you should too, my friend! Really!!).
An Honest Disclosure about My “Bad” English
At this point, if you're wondering how good my artwork descriptions were back to my pre-uni learning period …well, my honest answer is: not great! If you go to my old Deviantart account, you’ll still find my first things written in English and they are full of mistakes. Still, I managed to use the language in a way to get my point across!
Communication (not perfection!) is what matters when speaking a language!
Before all grammar nerds and perfectionists out there set off on a quest to shoot me as I say this, let me clarify this point: I love grammar as it allows us to manipulate language and make it our own, but communication should be always prioritised over perfect grammar, especially when you are at the beginning of a learning journey and developing your confidence in using a new language.
Those artwork descriptions and posts full of mistakes are testament to my learning process. A testament to the the fact that if you want to learn a language you are bound to make mistakes in order to actually learn it. Those mistakes are in reality amazing stepping stones that will unravel your path to fluency.
So art taught me English, and it was also the key to unlocking my Spanish…
How I Danced My Way to Fluent Spanish
I won’t hide it. Language learning is a journey made of hard work, resilience and above all LOADS of practice, but if you mix it with what you love, the journey towards fluency gets way more fun! And as I became aware of this, I brought in what I love doing in my Spanish learning too.
I have been to Spain on holidays a few times, but I have never lived there for an extended period of time. Still, I am fluent in Spanish. I started to learn this language at university and at the end of my first university year I felt I knew it quite well. In theory.
I knew all the possible Spanish grammar rules, including any exceptions, and also the exceptions to the exceptions! But when I had to speak Spanish…I sounded like a broken record that got stuck all the time. I used to dread my conversation exams as I felt I could go into a conversation only if I had prepared in advance the topics to be discussed. Once again, I lacked practice. And, once again, art saved me.
As I was still working as a freelance artist while at uni, I started to join Spanish art communities. I started to hang out with Spanish folks online and, just like I did with English, while I was having fun appreciating other people's art, I was bring my Spanish level up. The turning point, however, came when I moved back to England to study for my teaching qualification.
Salsa Dancing — And Solo Karaoke Parties!
The best thing about most English towns is that they are a very multicultural. You have people from all around the world: China, France, India, Germany, Italy, Taiwan, Czech Republic and…Spain too, of course!
I happened to meet a bunch of Spanish folks, not only at work but also in my free time. I was mostly hanging out with Spanish people during my salsa classes. And, of course, every time I would meet them, I would speak in Spanish only (and yes, I was making mistakes but learned on the way!).
Between salsa dancing events and massive karaoke solo parties in the shower (singing, or rather shouting, latin songs like this one or this one, my Spanish speaking skills took off. I became increasingly fluent in Spanish too without even moving to Spain!
The Moral of the Story (AKA How to Learn a Language by Having Fun!)
If you could take away only one thing out of this story I hope it’s this: language learning requires consistent practice and is by default interdisciplinary; in order to learn a language, you must speak it, and in order to speak it, you've got to have different topics to talk about. So start with talking about what you love.
Let's celebrate fun and interesting language learning! The one that is built around your interests and passions, and allows you create incredible experiences that will not only develop your communication skills but will also give you the opportunity to share your gifts with like minded people from all around the world (and if you feel you want some actionable strategies to connect your passions and interests to your language learning, you can grab my free guide on my website where I take you step by step on your path towards fluency-land!).
My fluency in English and Spanish was a result of practicing these languages by doing things I love. Art brought me to languages and languages allowed me to share my artistic gifts (including some cool dancing moves!) with the world. Both art and languages set me on a incredible and rewarding lifelong learning path. Nowadays, I am grateful to have pursued both of these passions as I am now able teach learners from different countries to communicate in the language they love and share their ideas and gifts with the world.