ERASMUS / How to make the most of it and does it really help?

Erasmus years are sold as complete linguistic immersion, which is 100% what they are: a year spent studying or working in at least one foreign country. It’s supposed to be your time to perfect your language/s all whilst having one of the best years of your life. But does this actually happen? Let’s look at the reality, you move to an incredibly beautiful and different city and you have a lot on your mind: actually living / functioning in a new country, perhaps finding a house if you didn’t do that before you moved, setting up a phone contract, settling into your new area, travelling and exploring this new country, resisting the urges of homesickness and establishing a new social circle new friends to mention just a few things. Oh, and then mastering a foreign language.

Year Abroads are, of course, very difficult and challenging times as I spoke about in my reality of Year Abroads blog post last year. But in amongst all the craziness, do we, students of Erasmus, have time to nail the grammar, vocabulary and accent of another language? Is it even possible? Excellent rhetorical questions which I may or may not actually answer in this blog.

For me, I have tried my hardest to immerse myself into Spanish life as to make “the most” (I use speech marks because what even is the most you can do?) of my year abroad. I feel as though my language skills are definitely improving having now been here for 6 months. So, what did I do /am I doing / and going to do to make sure I speak as much Spanish as possible?

  • Housemates – I chose to live with Spanish people instead of other Erasmus students. I wanted to make sure that I was at least speaking a couple sentences everyday.
  • Work Placement – I also chose a work placement instead of going to University. I found this actually helped me because I use Spanish a lot in my classes (when my students  do not understand anything I say) and with my colleagues to organise things.
  • Intercambios – When I first arrived in Spain, I made sure to go to language exchanges / intercambios. These were evenings normally in random bars around the city where you can practice Spanish with natives and meet some really friendly people. Check out Meet Up to find one in your city!
  • Spanish friends  – This one is probably one of the hardest. But finding Spanish friend / significant other is one of the best way to improve your language skills. Whether you meet them on a night out, from an intercambio, randomly at school / work, it’s so good to have regular practice with a native.
  • Persistence – This is a small one but make sure if a local is trying to speak to you in English, you just persist with the language you’re learning. A lot of locals will want to speak to you in English (which is super friendly and nice) but if you persist in speaking e.g. Spanish every time you go to a café/bar, that’s a lot of speaking practice in total.
  • Language School – Okay, this is a more expensive option but I have just enrolled myself in a languages school here in Sevilla to do an intensive Spanish course before I leave. I haven’t studied Spanish grammar all year so I’m doing it as a little top up. If you’re at university, they might even offer language courses. (Also, try and coerce them into putting you into the highest level possible, just like I did)
  • Books, films, TV – Take in as much media as you possibly can. Even though I have only managed to read 87 pages of the Boy in Striped Pyjamas in Spanish, it’s better than nothing. I have however managed to watch loads of Spanish films and I’m now getting into super weird Spanish TV series where they try and solve suspicious happenings.
  • Vocabulary Lists – Every time you look up a word on WordReference, take a screenshot. Every time you seen a new word written somewhere, make a note of it on your phone. At the end of the week, month, whatever – write them all down in a notebook and get learning.

But of course, every case is different. As diverse as people are comes even more diverse experiences. So, I wanted to speak to some of my friends (Thanks for your answers everyone) and ask whether Erasmus is improving their language abilities and what they do/did/are doing to improve their languages? Here’s what they said and the advice they had:

Paloma Badenhuizen, BA Modern Languages and European Studies, currently living in Coimbra:

Since moving to Portugal, I can 100% say it helps to be in your target country to fully learn and appreciate a language. My 2 years of Portuguese classes prior to this definitely didn’t prepare me for life in Portugal. Although I was uncertain in the beginning, being away a full year in one place has definitely boosted my language level. I didn’t and still don’t feel pressure to improve, because I really want to do it for myself. In my first semester I was rubbish at speaking Portuguese because of a lack of confidence, but now I’m really making an effort to speak at every opportunity, even if it’s just lunch with friends or at the supermarket. I absolutely recommend going away on Erasmus if you’re learning a language, because, although its a tough transition, its an incredible life experience.

Ayesha Hayat, BA History and Hispanic Studies, currently living in Sevilla:

Being at University, with all my modules and exams being taught in Spanish, I have had the opportunity to be immersed within my target language daily. Despite having language lectures taught in Spanish in my University in England, it took some time to become accustomed to the pace of the lectures taught in first semester. Indeed, I have felt the pressure to improve my target language both verbally and written, since one of the principal purposes of the year abroad for me is to gain a higher level. I have certainly gained greater confidence in terms of my oral skills whilst using them in university within seminars or with my friends, to having basic conversations whilst shopping.

As cliché as it may sound, in my opinion, the most effective way to improve your language skills and gain confidence in your target language is to put yourself outside of your comfort zone and make the most of the opportunity. Whether you have opted to study in a University or do a work placement it is necessary to branch out to locals and converse with them (this does not have to involve complex conversations regarding Brexit). However, the more oral practice you get by talking to the natives the better. This can also include reading newspapers or magazines, and simply improving your listening skills and taking note of colloquial phrases to aid your vocabulary.

Jessie Read, BA Modern Languages (French, Spanish and Catalan), currently living in Toulouse:

In my first semester in Spain, I felt my language skills improved a huge amount from working and living in a massive international flat where the main language was Spanish. Since I moved out really early I didn’t have any English friends for 3 months which helped me loads. Studying in France, I’m listening to a lot of French but don’t feel like my oral skills are improving nearly as much. In Spain, I spoke every day but in France I don’t speak so much except in class. To be honest, I think my spoken French improved more in Barcelona because of my French flatmates!

I would suggest to try and live with natives and get involved with activities with other people that aren’t just Erasmus students. It may seem difficult but you know you’ll still have English friends around if you need so it’s the best of both worlds.

Katherine Hamilton, BA Modern Languages (French, German and Spanish), currently living in Kassel:

The most important thing to remember is you won’t naturally improve your language if all you do is sit in your room all day, you have to make an effort to use the language whether that be with colleagues, students or locals. There are many times where I was too shy or just couldn’t think of the right words to have a proper conversation with a friendly local but it is very rewarding when you pluck up the courage.

Improving language is very important to me because many people don’t realise that being on a year abroad can actually be quite lonely, so being able to speak even just with a stranger can make the difference between feeling completely isolated and feeling more part of the community.

If you want to be constantly speaking your target language it’s best to choose a work placement not related to teaching English or translation, I found that sometimes I didn’t speak as much Spanish as I would have liked when I was teaching English.

My advice would be to go to language meet ups, live with a native, do things like going to the cinema/theatre.

Yasmin Ibison, BA Modern Languages (French and Spanish), currently living in Barcelona: 

I think there are so many variables within everyone’s ERASMUS experience that it really comes down to a variety of things – the people you meet or choose to make friends with, how motivated you are to use your languages daily, where you live regarding both accommodation and city and also just luck. Personally, I definitely feel my languages are improving but I’m conscious that I’m making an effort to surround myself with native speakers and it is tiring. Obviously it would be so much easier to just stick with English people but then the down-side is that my languages would not improve at all. I guess it’s about deciding what you want to get out of your year abroad; some people just want a holiday in the sun where they can relax/party but other people prioritise their languages (and both options are completely fine!). I’d say I’m somewhere in between – I obviously want to have fun but I try and make a conscious effort to improve language wise as well.

Verity Lee, BA English Literature and Hispanic Studies, currently living in Úbeda:

My language has definitely improved here but not to the extent I was expecting. In the first couple of weeks, I noticed a massive improvement in my confidence and willingness to speak Spanish and over time I’ve noticed that I pick things up a lot more quickly. Now that I speak Spanish regularly, certain things have just clicked whereas before, because I was dealing with mostly the theory of certain grammar points, they didn’t make perfect sense. It is really important for me to speak and practice Spanish but as so many of my colleagues and friends here speak English and also want to practice, there isn’t much pressure on me and it’s been easy to fall into just doing what’s familiar rather than forcing myself out of my comfort zone but again, as I’ve grown in confidence that has become easier and easier.

I speak Spanish most of the time at work and around my town as it’s pretty small and rural so English speakers are few and far between. However, I just wish I’d got over my initial fear and timidness sooner because I think that would have helped me a lot.

______________________________

Every person is different and every person wants different things from their Erasmus years. If, however, you’re very conscious of the fact that you want to improve your language skills, I hope this blog post has helped you!

See ya x

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