This post is for expats living in destinations where they don’t speak the language. It’s a unique challenge that affects every aspect of your life. English might be the language of the world, but when you get on the ground and out of the tourist destinations, English can only get you so far.
A couple of days ago, I was getting laser surgery to correct my vision. I was so scared as I walked into the operating theatre. I have a fear of not understanding the doctors, which is, ironically, the same fear my grandparents have in Australia and the reason why one grandchild always accompanies them to important appointments.
And then the doctor asked me if I wanted him to speak English and I was offended. Actually he just said “speak English?” which always sets off red flags with me. Red flags that lead me to think I speak better Italian than he does English.
No matter how confident you are with your language skills, nothing prepares you for a life using them. I was a cocky 18-year-old with more than a decade of Italian lessons behind me when I arrived. I thought I had it in the bag. In reality, I could barely catch the bus.
Another decade later and I don’t know if it ever gets any easier. You learn what you need to survive, to work, to do your shopping, to make small talk, but just when you think you’ve mastered the language, you have a really awkward conversation with a potential client where you’re grasping for the most basic of words and you’re back to square one.
My Italian skills have become an obsession. The be all and end all of my assimilation in this country. Muddling up words, tenses or phrases is synonymous with stupidity for me. Not being able to fully express my views is a personal failure. At the same time, I’ve become lazy. I don’t study the grammar anymore. I fall into language patterns that are wrong, but unshakeable. I can’t for the life of me learn the more complicated verb tenses. I speak and write like a first grader.
So what can you do? It’s an interesting question when taking language lessons isn’t an option. There’s no Italian language school near me. The onus is on me to improve my Italian or live with my husband telling me I’m getting worse everyday – not winning any awards for supportiveness there!
the daily fix
I’ve tried hundreds of ways to improve my Italian. Lessons with hubby (never, ever, again), reading Italian novels, watching Italian TV and online courses and the best advice I have is to study every day.
Think of it as exercise for the mind. I teach English on the side and I know which students study and which don’t. The ones who do their two hours of lessons every week and then ignore their notebooks for the next seven days.
It’s a fallacy that living in a country automatically makes you a master of its language. It makes you a master of being understood, but not necessarily speaking correctly. I’ve learnt over time that time makes no difference. You’re fooling yourself if you think you can just wait it out. You don’t necessarily get better. Your mistakes become more ingrained and harder to unlearn. You find it harder to remember the grammar basics and learn new ones too.
So instead, I’ve started forcing myself to sit down at the start of each day and practise my Italian grammar for 15 minutes. Grammar is my weak point, so I do an exercise and really focus on absorbing it. I take notes and at the end of each week, review them and repeat until it becomes as natural as breathing.
I don’t know if I’m reaping any rewards just yet. It’s too soon, but I do manage to get my femimine or masculine words right almost all of the time now. The key is to zero in on your weakness and work on that first and foremost.
When you reach a level where you’re fluent, but not really fluent, Italian books made for English speakers become a little redundant. One of my biggest challenges was finding resources that weren’t mind numbingly easy.
My solution was to shop local. Buy grammar books made for Italians (elementary school Italians of course). They’re easier to find, cheaper and better in the long run. Here are a few of my favourite resources:
– Loescher’s grammar archive. Great two page exercise on every element of the Italian grammar.
– Duolingo. It’s all the Italians talk about. I haven’t tried it, but it might be worth a whorl.
– Grammatica Italiana di base. My baby. A fantastic Italian grammar text book that explains everything in Italian with exercises and online revision.
– Sgrammaticando. I have a soft spot for this Youtube channel. The presenter seems sweet, if a little underprepared. Her explanations are in Italian and are great if you just can’t figure something out.
Do you have any suggestions for improving your language skills when living abroad? I’d love to hear them!