Facing the challenges of learning a new language abroad

Gemma Sturt, Università degli Studi di Firenze (IT)

They say that all things worth having don’t come without hard work, and this has never been more true in the case of studying abroad in a second language.

Coping with learning Italian on the go and developing my communication skills have been the most fundamental aspects of my experience studying abroad and easily the biggest hurdles I’ve had to overcome as a Erasmus science student trying to get to grips with living and studying in my second (tentative) language.

When I moved out to Italy last August I immediately found talking in Italian quite challenging, partially because I hadn’t been able to develop a totally solid foundation before I left and also due to the large difference in learning style between Chemistry (my degree) and that associated with learning a new language. I decided to come over to Florence early to attend daily Italian classes in the weeks running up to the start of my courses, which I have to say helped me immeasurably. I’d recommend doing something similar to anyone wanting to start from a strong position at the beginning of the semester.

If all else fails getting the point across between the Italian/Spanish/English, a quick game of charades never goes amiss…



Despite my efforts to hit the ground running I really struggled at first with things like setting up a bank account and dealing with the corresponding paperwork (in Italian) or getting to know some people from my lectures. Slowly but surely over time things did get a lot easier and I was surprised at how quickly you can get the gist of things when practising the language 24/7 – the sense of pride that comes with that, knowing that you’ve made that little bit of progress, is immense. It’s a great feeling becoming more comfortable chatting to people and actively trying to contribute something to a discussion, or even something as small as realising you haven’t had to ask someone repeat something for the third time today (only the second! An improvement!).

However between the moments of triumph it can be disheartening feeling like you’re not making as much progress as you’d like, or that your day-to-day development isn’t immediately obvious (developing my Italian was very much a ‘two steps forwards, one step backwards’ process). Moreover, language barriers can be very isolating particularly with regards to social life and in group situations when feeling confident enough to contribute to discussion might not always be easy, especially in seminars and when chatting to native-speakers.

Feelings of frustration and demoralization were things I confronted by speaking to other UoM students from my  year also studying abroad in their second language – sharing these experiences really helped me to gain some perspective that ours was a huge undertaking and generally we were doing well to cope with things. One friend shared her suggestion with me to rehearse some phrases beforehand in order to tell stories or memories which I thought was a great idea, as it helps to get confidence up and easily share something about yourself in order to connect with people. I have to admit often I was more worried that I wouldn’t be able to make friends due to the language barrier than actually understand my lectures.

Muddling my way through my first practical Chemistry class in broken Italian – we managed in the end!

However, despite my initial concerns, I found that people are generally very accommodating and understanding and others tend to quickly catch on that you’re an international student. I wouldn’t worry too much about appearing unsociable in the case that you can’t understand or contribute due to the fast pace of discussion, as people know you’re still learning and will probably try to translate, explain or at the very least slow down. When making casual conversation in order to practice the language and improve, my advice would be to give up on translating whole phrases with google translate (it’s the worst) and use instead a word-for-word context dictionary like reverso.com.

Even better, when finding yourself searching for missing vocabulary, avoid looking things up at all and instead explain the meaning of the word in the target language and ask for the correct phrasing afterwards. I’ve realised this helps to keep the flow of conversation smoother and actually makes it easier to remember new vocab too.

I’d further recommend practicing speaking as much as possible and in as many different contexts that you can – chat to people in public, live with local students if given the choice – and to actively seek out these opportunities. In Florence we have regular language exchange evenings organised by the university and “aperi-tandem” events (aperitivo where you can exchange languages in tandem schemes) organised by both university societies and the expat community. Whilst it is really important to talk to other students in the target language, insist that you actually end up doing it! Outside of this context of a tandem scheme it can be quite easy to fall into a trap of spending half your time chatting in English with students who want to improve their own second language – if people ask to learn it’s okay to reciprocate by teaching a few phrases, however make sure you’re predominantly getting your own language practice in too.

A moment caught on film at an Aperitandem earlier in the year

With regards to lectures and revising in your second language (as a non-languages student) I’ve cultivated a few techniques over the year that have made note-taking and revision much more manageable, as studying as you would in English is almost impossible and especially difficult at the beginning. In the first few weeks I found trying to listen, translate, understand and take notes all at the same time during lectures totally overwhelming, but luckily I got a useful piece of advice to ask to see written notes from other people in your class – particularly when lecture slides aren’t made available – and ask if they’ll let you grab a photocopy. At the start I tried listening back to a tape recorder again and again which was much more time consuming and actually very difficult to understand. I would also really recommend asking older students who have previously taken the exams about what areas are important to revise and see if they can give you any revision material or further guidance.

In an ideal world I would have taken down all of my notes in Italian from the outset, however this was never entirely realistic and my revision notes have instead become a blurred mixture of both Italian and English. Over time I’ve gained more confidence and nearly always work in my second language as I do think it’s important to learn and revise in the same context in which you’ll eventually be examined.

Drowning exam sorrows with gelato

Studying for a science degree in a second language has been incredibly frustrating at times but is without a doubt one of the most rewarding and self-affirming experiences I’ve ever had. Stumbling over basic tasks and struggling to communicate with those around you will always be difficult things to deal with, but most importantly I’ve learned to let things go when I’m tired and take a break to chat in English with friends back home. The best way forwards is to recuperate your strength and restart off on a better footing by relaxing into things as much as possible, laughing off your mistakes and being willing to make a huge fool of yourself – and believe me you will feel (even if you don’t always look) like a total idiot at least once nearly every day. But despite the initial embarrassment, what better way is there to learn than failing your way forwards? As the Italians say, you have to show people that you ‘know your chickens’ – after all, that you know what you’re up against and you’re prepared to give things a go.


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