How to Balance Two Languages on a Year Abroad

How to Balance Two Languages on a Year Abroad

This article was written by Harriet Barter, published on 25th September 2014 and has been read 3562 times.

Harriet Barter studies Spanish and Italian at the University of Exeter and is currently on a year abroad in Italy. Here she discusses the challenges of balancing two languages (at two levels) on a year abroad. For more of Harriet's adventures, check out her blog.

If you’re a student of two or more languages at varying levels then you’ll be likely to be faced with the year abroad dilemma – where to go? Do you split? Do you give up on the new language and go with what you know? Do you dedicate the whole year to your weaker language?

When it came round to planning my year abroad, I was torn between wanting to go to Spain where they speak a language I have been studying for years, or braving the depths of the unknown in Italy where they speak a language I took up ab initio (beginners) just two years ago when beginning my university studies. Living and working somewhere I knew I could understand and be understood, or throwing myself into the deep end in a concerted attempt to bring my Italian up to the level of my more cemented and hard earned Spanish. Never one for the easy option, I am currently one month into a six-month work placement in Italy, soon to be followed by a semester studying at the Università degli Studi di Ferrara, Italy.


My justification in the end was quite simple; the gap between the levels of my two languages pushed me towards spending the whole year working on my Italian. With only two academic years of study under my belt I didn’t feel half a year would be sufficient and somehow managed to convince myself a work placement in Italy would be a good idea.


Flashback a mere two years to the poor fresher I was, wondering what I had got myself into when my first Italian lesson consisted of going round the class repeating, “my name is Harriet and I am a student from England, what’s your name?” Ironically, the fellow beginner answering my question I had known throughout all of secondary school, so whether I understood or not was irrelevant because I already knew said information. How I got from that classroom to this office desk I will never know. Two years ago the only Italian words I knew were either types of pasta or coffee.


So taking a work placement in a language you began learning at university, is it a good idea?

In a word, yes!

Venture outside of your comfort zone, that’s where the good stuff is. Ten years of study and a lot of weeks spent in Spain, I’d say I was ready to work in a Spanish office, yet two years and no weeks spent in Italy, I suddenly work in an Italian office. One month into my Italian internship and I’m not going to lie, it is a bit of an uphill battle. Obviously it’s difficult, obviously there is a lot I don’t understand and obviously there are a lot of questions; Word Reference is open in a tab at all times. However the advantage of throwing yourself into the deep end of an ab initio language-geared year abroad is that there is so much room for improvement. Since coming here I have come to realise how much scope there is for me to improve my Italian. Even though it’s difficult, it was so rewarding when my Italian flatmates told me they’d noticed my improvement after less than four weeks.


And after just a month’s work, I surprisingly already have a few pieces of advice I wish I had known before I arrived.

1. Do not compare!

Studying a language ab intio, the chances are you most probably study/have studied another language at a higher level (in my case Spanish) and therefore have experience with said language and culture.


I recently read a post on Third Year Abroad about comparison being the “thief of joy” and I couldn’t agree more. Although this article was geared towards comparing your year abroad experience to that of others, I think this is also applicable on a personal level; you should not compare previous experiences abroad with your current year abroad, especially if you’re in a totally different country.


Personally, I think I have been making life a lot harder for myself. As you’ll notice I’ve mentioned Spain a lot in this post and this is exactly the problem; comparison. Compared to Italy, Spain is my comfort zone. I’ve spent a lot of time there speaking the language and absorbing the culture and for this reason, the whole time I’ve been in Italy I have been making comparisons between the two, up to the point where I end up getting frustrated at Italy and sometimes wanting to be in Spain. Most of the time it’s “eurgh, I would understand so much more of this TV programme if I were in Spain” or “I wouldn’t have messed that up at work had it been explained in Spanish.”


No two experiences will be the same and you have to accept that. Yes, there will be interesting similarities and differences between the two, but when you realise the words ‘Spain’ and ‘Spanish’ appear in every other sentence in Italy, it’s probably time to reign it in. Having an open mind is key.

2. Study

It’s probably the absolute last thing you want to do when you’re just getting into your year abroad, especially if you’re not studying and were thinking that you’d got away from all the textbooks for a year. However, another piece of advice I would give, something that it has taken me only a couple of weeks to realise, is that just being here is not enough. Yes, I work in an Italian office and yes, I live with Italian students, but grammar and new words don’t just seep into your brain and stay there forever, unfortunately.

With an ab inito language, you just won’t have the experience nor strong basis that you would with an advanced language and new things just need to be consolidated and cemented just a little bit more. Since arriving, I have invested in a great big new shiny Italian grammar book and think (hope!) that a few study stints here and there will work miracles for the speed and precision with which I improve.

3. Speak speak speak!

This is the most fun, but also probably the hardest part that most definitely does not come out of a textbook. Just talk as much as you can. I know it’s easier said than done but get out there and meet people; fellow Erasmus students, work colleagues, friends of friends, find a tandem partner, join a club, etc. Especially if you’re working, make the effort to get involved in Erasmus as it can be harder to meet people your own age when you’re working full time.


But the more you speak the better! Granted it can be tricky and can also end in a bit of a headache, but there is no better feeling than realising you’ve made new friends without speaking a single word of English. That’s what the year abroad is all about, right?

4. Just say yes

And finally, the number one golden rule; say yes, sì, ja, sí, oui…to every opportunity (so long as you’re not putting yourself in danger). You never know who you may meet, what you may do, and the stories you’ll have to tell after you said yes to buying a swimming hat and signing up to Italian Aqua Zumba.


Sometimes it’s tempting to stay in your room and get lost on the internet or in a film, but try to make the effort to go out. I formed new friendships by speaking not only with natives, but speaking Spanish with Italians and Italian with Spaniards, and even revisiting that rusty old pre-GCSE French with a few French and Germans - and all that was on a night I had 95% decided I wasn’t going out.


Trust me, you’ll be flying, and you know that headache that comes after a severe lack of English? Most definitely worth it.

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