There's no better way to learn a language than by immersing yourself in a place where it's the mother tongue. But before you sign up to an overseas language school, heed these hard-won lessons
Bilingual people are meant to have an easier time of it when learning a new language. Or at least, that's what I was always told. But embarking on four weeks of learning Italian in Tuscany's Lucca, I realised I was in for a very rude awakening. Thinking of joining an overseas language school? Here are 5 lessons I learned along the way...
1. You'll feel like a fool for the first few days (but you're probably doing better than you think)
As soon as I stepped into the school on my first day, only Italian was allowed. I was led to my interview where they decided which class I belonged to. It didn't take long, and I was placed as a firm beginner. The first week went by in a flurry of frantic arm gestures and very small victories. I felt like I was back in primary school, cajoled into offering answers as I sank further and further back in my chair.
As the days went on, however, I gained some confidence and momentum. I gradually got used to certain expressions, certain words, and I was bumped up to the early intermediates for my second week. So I can't have been that
2. You'll make unlikely new friends
People have their own reasons for learning a new language, but some of them probably started out with the same insecurities and sense of dread as you.
I was fresh out of college and although I made some friends my own age, my main group of confidants turned out to be a bit more unexpected. There was a retired headmaster who had decided to relocate to the Tuscan hills; a self-proclaimed vagabond who had spent her sixty years travelling the world, and had now made it her month's mission to get said headmaster to ditch the elbow patches and to occasionally untuck his shirt; and a man and his dog who were passing through on their way home to Australia.
There's no telling who you'll be sharing your classes with, but learning about their stories and their journeys will enrich your own. They will also be useful practise partners, and will give you constant support and encouragement.
3. Don't take it personally if you're answered in English
It's a daunting experience when you first try out your new coffee-ordering skills on a real person. Don't worry, you'll find plenty of people willing to humour you as you clunk together strings of half-formed words. But you'll also come across impatient ones, and others who are just plain busy. Keep in mind that whilst you're at liberty to spend your day perfecting your sentence structure, some might not feel obliged to assist you in your endeavours.
But there's no need to abandon all attempts! Always start a conversation in your new language where you can – the more you challenge yourself, the quicker you'll learn. Once people realise what you're doing, they can be very complimentary – which always makes it worth it.
4. You'll be tired all the time
Some people can absorb languages like a new sponge. But for the rest of us, it's hard work! You'll be worked and re-worked until you're one big knot of verbs and tenses.
Enrolling in a school for a certain amount of time can put you in a bit of a limbo – you're stuck between feeling quite settled, and a prodding urge to explore as much as you can. Occasionally it's important to push through, jump in on new experiences, and crash later. But it's equally important to learn when you need some time to recuperate. This is a great opportunity to perfect the art of the afternoon nap.
5. Be prepared to feel a bit lonely
New place, new people, new routine. These are the things that excite us most when we're about to set off for the sunset. But they're also the things that can stand in our way as we try to find out feet.
Some schools operate on a 9am-1pm basis, with private lessons held after lunch. Most offer some form of activity or excursion later in the afternoon, but all of them might not appeal to you. When this is the case, you might find yourself with a lot of time to spare.
While you're almost certain to make new friends, they might have their own thing going on from time to time, so you could find yourself at a bit of a loss – especially in the early days. Keep yourself from dithering by drawing up a list of things to see nearby, and ask around for tips on what to do and where to go.
Also, learn to pace yourself: don't do everything in one weekend. Get to know your camera – you never know when you'll next be able to give such intimate attention to a place and its customs. If all else fails, go sit in the park or café or square, take a book, write some postcards, or go over some of your homework. Main image: Female student during Spanish class (Shutterstock)