Growing up without any school exchange or study abroad opportunities, I didn’t realize what I had missed until I moved to Europe. It seems almost everyone I meet here has spent a period of their studies in a foreign country — and many even in mine, the United States.
But even if your teenage years are a distant memory, it’s never too late to consider an extended stay abroad program, and to reap the benefits of studying a foreign language. The six stories below reveal how different approaches to studying abroad resulted in very different experiences. Some enrolled in the European exchange program Erasmus, while others packed their bags and relied on their own resourcefulness to build a life abroad. At the end of each anecdote, the raconteurs divulge little life lessons that have stayed with them ever since.
Giulia: Italian in Paris
When I was 23 years old, I decided I wanted to learn proper French. “Enough with those silly grammar rules,” I said to myself; I wanted to speak the real verlan!
I decided to move to Paris on my own to avoid the shameful fate of only speaking your native language in a foreign country. I was a poor student and booked the cheapest hotel possible in Pigalle, close to Place de Clichy. Even though I had studied French at school, I immediately realized that I was woefully underprepared, barely able to say “bonjour” and “comment ça va?” — the most basic things were out of my reach.
The situation changed, however, when I discovered that I wasn’t alone in my hotel room. A black rat was mulling around peacefully, weaving his way through the hotel furniture. Knowing that I had to get rid it, I summoned all my courage and called the slumbering concierge in the middle of the night. With the telephone in one hand and a French dictionary in the other, I screamed, “Monsieur, Monsieur, aidez-moi! Il y a une souris dans ma chambre !” (Sir, sir, help me! There’s a rat in my room!). When the concierge arrived armed with a broom, I screamed again, “Non! NON! NE LE TUEZ PAS !!!!” (No, no, don’t kill him!). He was perplexed by my apparent change of heart, but his momentary confusion afforded the rat the opportunity to escape through a hole in the wall. Everyone, including the rat, was happy with the outcome.
In times of need, we’re more resourceful than we think.
Kat: German in Toronto
When I was 15, I applied for a government-funded exchange program to the USA. I didn’t get the scholarship, and began to cycle through possible reasons for this in my head: perhaps it was because my grades weren’t up to scratch, or because I was a bit anti-establishment back in those days. Or perhaps it was simply because there were other candidates with nicer smiles. Whatever the reason, I took it a bit personally. Looking back now though, being rejected was the best thing that could have happened to me — in the end, I decided to move to Canada after high school, entirely on my own. I applied for a job, bought a phone plan, found an apartment, called tax officials and figured out how cup measurements convert to grams when I wanted to bake a cake — all on my own, and all in a second language. It was tough, but having to organize every single aspect of my life without help from anyone ultimately propelled me to fluency in English (and, of course, to evolve as a person).
Don’t let the fact that you’re not actually studying abroad spoil the fun of studying abroad! Missing out on a scholarship or a place in an Erasmus program shouldn’t keep you from going abroad. It’s one of the best things you can do — both for your language education, and for your personal evolution.
Cristina: Spanish in Italy (Viterbo)
I went to a little town in Italy through Erasmus and studied there for 10 months. I quickly realized that I couldn’t learn the language on my own: I needed friends and experiences and music and food — all the things that actually made me want to learn the language. Just being there wouldn’t cut it. I asked my roommates for movie and music recommendations. Ana from Slovenia was so passionate about Italian music, that she became my main reference (even though she wasn’t Italian). I learned an incredible amount from her; we still sing Parole, parole every time we meet, even after all these years. I also started listening to the golden oldies, like Lucio Battisti, the incredible Mina, Adriano Celentano and Paolo Conte. For me, listening to real-life Italian and watching mob and neorealist movies with other Erasmus friends, was the best way to learn the language.
Teamwork makes the dream work — let others enlighten your way. Don’t be shy, ask for help when needed, and be humble enough to learn from others.
Ed: English in Valladolid
After finishing university in Southampton, I undertook a TEFL course in Zamora, Spain. I found a job pretty quickly in Spain’s former capital, Valladolid. I knew nothing of the city aside from its approximate geographical location and that it had a mediocre football team. When I arrived, I was immediately thrust into Spanish life. I had no contact to other English speakers outside work. I spent the weekends sitting sheepishly on the edge of circles of conversation, pondering whether there was any way to dodge this novel and wholly awkward kissing ritual with which people greeted one another. After six months, I had begun to come to terms with the language and culture, stumbling through conversations with enough self-effacing slapstick to engender friendships, and only thinking twice before planting pecks of appropriate pressure on female cheeks.
Then a friend threw a party at his flat and in rolled a motley crew of fellow foreigners. This came as something of a shock — I thought I was the only foreigner in the village. When I asked what the hell they thought they were doing there, they looked at me quizzically and replied, “Erasmus, of course.” I can’t quite believe it now, but I honestly had no idea what they were referring to — Erasmus, lamentably, just isn’t a thing in England — but as I listened to their stories, I became intensely envious. I exorcized this envy through imitation. Despite working full-time, I pretended to be Erasmus for the next twelve months. I stayed out late, woke up late, studied Spanish in books and bars, and got wrapped up in self-congratulatory discussions of how we were flattening frontiers just by being alive in that place and at that time. It was at once vacuous and hedonistic, and also enormously formative and influential. But that’s how one’s youth should be, shouldn’t it?
Taking the journey from complete stranger to familiar local in a new country will afford you a pleasant mix of humility and confidence.
Sarah: Brazilian in London
Erasmus doesn’t exist in Brazil, but many people participate in some kind of exchange program — either one year in high school, or a work-and-travel package. I chose to go to London to study English and work part-time. It was my first time traveling alone and my first time in Europe, and I was rather prone to the typical errors of an inexperienced traveler. I didn’t have any idea about how the tube stations in London were laid out, nor how far Zone 4 was, but decided to go to my host family by public transport anyway. The house was located in Wood Green, North London, a very residential area. I got out of the underground confident that I would be just five minutes away from my final destination. Big mistake. I found myself in the middle of a sea of British houses, not a single living soul to ask for directions, lugging a 30 kg suitcase, and a good ten years before mobile phone ubiquity. Just as desperation kicked in, I bumped into another human being, and proceeded to torture him with my Neanderthal English. After 10 minutes of me struggling to understand his hard north London accent, he took pity on me and simply offered to give me a lift to the house. I could not have been more grateful.
Better to ask the way than go astray. Don’t be afraid to embarrass yourself when you are not sure of what people are talking about. This is how we all learn languages.
Marion: French in Berlin
When I moved to Berlin for my Erasmus year, I quickly realized I should have made more of an effort to find accommodation. As part of the l’auberge espagnole generation, I was convinced that I would immediately meet 3 or 4 erudite and delightful flatmates and find a wonderful apartment in Berlin’s coolest Kiez. Unfortunately, this doesn’t just happen organically, and everyone else had sensibly sealed the deal on a flat prior to arriving. On my second day in the Hauptstadt, I found myself stuck in front of the computer screen, reviewing every single flatshare ad. My French accent served me well and, after only two viewings, two German guys offered me the opportunity to move into a beautiful flat with them.
The following year was one of the most amazing times of my life, full of adventures and discoveries, but also, sometimes, pain and heartache. The frustration of not being able to talk freely and understand an entire conversation was sometimes hard to take. My flatmates didn’t make any effort to talk slowly or simply, asserting that I had to learn: “Aber du musst lernen”, they would say. They were both from Thüringen in East Germany, and had grown up together. Do the calculation: friends forever (secret language) + from a village in the East (strong regional accent) + flatshare (jokes, alcohol, everybody talking excitedly) = a whole lot of confusion. I felt completely lost at the beginning, but I persevered, even if it sometimes meant swallowing my pride. I’m now fluent in German and Thüringisch! And I take some malicious delight in dropping an argotic term into the middle a conversation with German natives, just for the pleasure of hearing the question, “What does that mean?!”
Take it easy and don’t be discouraged when it gets difficult and frustrating. You become fluent in a language only by practising and being patient. The pleasure that you get from being able to express yourself in a foreign language — making a joke or wielding some slang in the middle of a conversation — makes every effort worthwhile.
Illustrations by Pintachan