Learning Italian Ab Initio
Why did you decide to learn Italian ab initio?
Learning a language comes naturally to very few people. I struggle with my mother tongue at the best of times, so what on Earth would possess me to base something as important as a university degree on my non-existent linguistic abilities?
I can put this down to one thing – personally experiencing the wonders of a diverse culture. You gain something that can’t be learnt from books. It’s this passion that halfway through my gap year drove me to go through the hassle of turning down my place on a French and History course and reapply to French and ab initio Italian.
What are the challenges of learning a language ab initio?
Before I turned up to my first lecture I didn’t even know that cappuccino wasn’t an English word (oh the shame!). For the next two years I struggled through the toils of another grammar and lexicon. Although, to a certain extent, my previous knowledge of French helped, academically learning a language has never suited me.
I guess I was lucky in that I had already gone through this ordeal when learning French. I can’t say my experience with secondary school language lessons left much of a positive impression on me, but I discovered it was ENTIRELY worth it when you finally got the chance to immerse yourself in life on the continent. It was this that got me through my university exams and helped me secure the grades needed to apply for a 9-month study placement at Ca’ Foscari Universita’ di Venezia.
Tell us about your year abroad!
I arrived one evening, in stifling heat on the eerily serene, moonlit streets of my new home. I had no return ticket and once again my life in the aging suitcase trundling besides me. Venice stood before me, a muddle of unknown passageways, unmoving boats and strangers.
I won’t lie; I could barely speak the language. I mumbled a few short sentences that I’d been lovingly crafting during the 2-hour flight into Marco Polo airport. After they’d been used up and I’d registered the pitying looks from my new housemates I switched to English, until that too proved fruitless. The rest of the walk to the apartment went along to the sound of my housemates rapidly conferring to each other in incomprehensible Italian.
However, after the initial confusion, perched on the side of a painfully gorgeous canal, the sun-setting as my Italian tandem partner and I enjoyed a spritz… that moment, and thousands more like it during the year, made all the effort worth it.
I would not say that the choice to go to a different country, far from your comfort zone, is for everyone. But I have never heard of anyone saying they regret it. Far from it, in fact.
How did your language skills change on the year abroad?
Some of my Erasmus friends had gone one step further. As it was not a requirement of their UK course, they had never spoken a word of Italian before arriving in Venice. They did find it hard work but all of them have come back with the ability to hold a conversation. Equally, at the other end of the spectrum, the ones who had learnt Italian since secondary school are all near fluent.
I did not come back fluent, but my drastically improved linguistic confidence, new friendships and general life experience made it arguably the best choice I have ever made. That is, aside from always saying yes to gelato!
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