Learning the language in the country where it is spoken

After a month in Italy, my Italian has improved greatly. Today I was listening again to a favourite audio book, La Provinciale by Alberto Moravia in  wonderful narration from Il Narratore. ( Moravia strikes me as a modern and Italian version of Balzac in his rich use of language) Whereas I understood about 60-80% of it before, fading in and out in my ability to follow, I now understand most of it, effortlessly. What happened?

I did not speak that much Italian in the month that I was in the country. I was with my wife. Many of the people at the hotels where we stayed spoke English. I listened a lot,  particularly in the car, as we drove. I read the paper every day. I did some work on LingQ, and I spoke where I could.

But something changed. Italian became familiar to me. I felt more and more a part of it. Hearing it, reading it, and speaking it became more natural. It was part of my daily life.  I felt more comfortable with Italian, closer to it. Many pleasant and interesting memories are associated with Italian, people, landscapes, food, coffee, wine,  cities, life etc.. This has changed my emotional relationship to Italian and has turned a switch in my brain, somehow.

I achieved somewhat the same with two weeks in Portugal, but not as much. However, I did not achieve any kind of breakthrough on my first visit  two week visit to Portugal, two years ago. That is because I did not have enough fluency in the language before going. I believe that if you want to take advantage of a visit to a country to learn the language, you need to develop a certain level of competence in the language before going. Then you can really achieve a breakthrough while there.

There are so many Northern Europeans who visit southern Europe. I cannot understand why more of them don’t learn the local language. But I think a lot of work needs to be done before going there, mostly listening and reading, otherwise there is a danger of just withdrawing into the expat shell and never venturing out of it. And I cannot imagine spending months and months in Southern Europe without speaking the local language. What a waste!

Now I have to plan my next trip, to Russia!


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