Why moving to a country doesn’t guarantee that you’ll learn the language

As a native speaker of English, I have now lived in Milan, Italy for just over three months and no, I am not fluent in Italian. Far from it. I will go into some more detail about reasons why I have failed to pick up the language so far but to start, let me tell you what it’s like living in a country where you can’t speak the native language.

My preparation before the move to Milan

Moving to Italy from Dublin wasn’t a last-minute decision but it wasn’t something I had planned a year in advance either. So, I was in my final year of college while working as much as I could to save as much as I could. I didn’t have a lot of free time and I felt like there was certainly better things that I could spend my money on instead of Italian lessons; like the flight to Italy for example.

The best option I thought I had was watching YouTube videos on the basics and trying to use some apps that could teach me a few necessary phrases. I tried to practice the pronunciation of key phrases like “buona giornata” and “ci vediamo domani”, good day and see you tomorrow in English. I also did my best to cram in some Duolingo practice when I could (Duolingo is the app I chose to stick with to help me improve). That was about it.

When I got here I was really unprepared for everyday situations in which communication is vital. I didn’t know how to ask people for directions, how to talk to my porter, how to understand people in general. A lot of the time you can tell what people are trying to say just from their tone and the context, but when I started to have these encounters I would freeze and immediately think “Oh my God, they’re speaking Italian, what do I do??”.

How I’m doing after 3 months

Over time, I’ve become a little more relaxed and now I can pick up a few words and then do my best to fill in the blanks in my head to at least try and comprehend the situation. It’s still not easy though.

What I will say is while it may not be the best thing to do, living somewhere you don’t speak the main language is definitely possible. Not long into my journey of living in Milan I picked up some key words that I always look out for. I have become more accustomed to hearing people speak and while everyone hasn’t slowed down while talking, words no longer seem to be all jumbled up together to me.

The majority of the time, if I know I’m going to have an encounter with someone, I will prepare myself beforehand. I’ll practice sentences and then check online to see if they make sense. I also take note of any words that I think may come up as predicting conversation can help.

For example, this morning I went to the barbershop. This wasn’t my first time getting a haircut in Italy so I kind of knew what to say. This time around, I was much more confident and didn’t need to whip out Google Translate mid-conversation. I said, “Vorrei un piccolo taglio in cima con le forbici e un taglio corto ai lati.” This could be very bad English but as far as I know it says, “I would like a small cut on top with scissors and a short cut at the sides.” Regardless of how correct it is (and I’m sure there must be a better way of asking), the barber knew what I meant and proceeded to cut my hair how I like it.

The first time I went it was more like me uttering a few words until he kind of got the picture and did what he could. Along with everything else in the world, with time I improved and was more capable of speaking Italian to the barber. That’s how my learning experience is going. Every time I need to do something or speak with someone, I pick up a little bit more.

Reasons why I’m not better

Well, as I mentioned in the previous section, I use Google Translate a lot to find words and phrases that I need. While this does help me pick up words, sometimes they go in one ear and straight out the other. It’s not a way to really learn Italian but more so to get by.

I have taken some Italian classes and I do get the opportunity to try and speak Italian to some of my friends, however, the work I do is all about using English. Natives of Italy speak English to me and I reciprocate. My work colleagues are also English speakers, albeit as a second language, but nevertheless that’s how we communicate. So while I have been living here for three months, Italian hasn’t been essential to my successful living.

Another reason why I’m not as good a speaker as I could be is because of the frequency with which I use Italian. I generally don’t use the language at work and when I’m at home with my girlfriend, we would rather have a conversation in English than in Italian as it would probably be easier for us to use gestures to understand each other.

What this means for me

I am lucky as a foreign person in the country as I have a job where I can communicate with everyone I work with well and I have a girlfriend that I come home to and spend free time with. I have also been introduced to many Italians through work and some of them do like to hear me speak Italian and try to help me when they can.

It’s not the same for others. I have seen groups on Facebook where English speakers all communicate and organise meet-ups or nights out. While I have a girlfriend and Italian friends, many others find it difficult to break out of the English bubble or whatever language they speak. I have seen many people who are from England, America, Australia and Ireland that all stick together as an English speaking group and really fail to become part of the world around them. The same can be said for groups of Sri Lankans or Filipinos that all stick together and never find the need to speak Italian.

From the very get go, despite not having a lot of Italian, I was determined to not be afraid of conversation and putting myself in situations where I need to speak Italian. I would definitely prefer to be living in a country where I can understand the majority of people and that’s what my aim is here. A slow process it may be, but one I am going to continue nonetheless.

Advice I would give others

Learning a foreign language from scratch doesn’t happen automatically when you move to a place where the locals speak that language. It also doesn’t happen through reading books although that does help. Languages are learnt through speech, practice and trial and error. Yes, living somewhere that uses your desired language helps but only because it gives you a greater opportunity to practice using it.

Italian isn’t a necessity for me as of right now and due to this I practice it less than I should. That being said, I have had to ask for something in a supermarket, give instructions to a hairdresser, give directions to a taxi driver etc. In each case, the first time is the worst and every time afterwards is always better. I find that I learn the most when I have to use the language as the locals would. It may not necessarily be conversation yet but I’m building myself up to that.

My best piece of advice, think about the everyday language you use in English or whatever language you prefer to use and then think to yourself, if I need to say that to someone in Italy for example, how do I go about that. You can prepare yourself for some instances and then from then on, it’s all about improving your pronunciation and gradually building up your vocabulary and understanding of the language. The more you use it, the more words will become phrases and phrases will become sentences etc.

I hope this article was insightful and helped you understand my predicament. I hope anyone looking to move to a country where you don’t speak the language can take something from this and find it helpful in some way. Good luck to all the learners out there and wish me luck too.

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