Sam Stevenson looks back on his year abroad in Italy and the struggles he faced mastering the language during his time away.

As language students, just how realistic is it to achieve fluency on our year abroad? Is it too ambitious; an unreachable aim? No doubt, it very much depends on the person. However, I’d like to look at some of the things holding us back on our quest to sound like native speakers.

But first of all, I’d like to ask: what does ‘fluency’ really mean?

Fluency is the capacity to comprehend the most delicate nuances of communication; to have full command of idiomatic and colloquial vernacular; to develop and sustain coherent lines of argument; to differentiate the finer shades of meaning.

The European yardstick to quantify linguistic ability is known as *deep breath* the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages. (You probably deserve a language degree just getting that mouthful out.) This tier system of proficiency is divided into three letters: A, B and C. By this token, only someone who is level C can be classed as a ‘proficient user’ and, therefore, properly fluent.

These elements of linguistic mastery are all-too-often overlooked by British people who do not study modern languages. They are the kind of things that we, as indigenous speakers of English, take for granted.

To be honest, it bothers me when family and friends say things like: ‘you spent five months in Italy, you must be fluent!’ Or: ‘you went to Argentina, your Spanish is already fluent!’

Somehow, I don’t think they fully grasp the concept.

As a nation we are, in general, somewhat oblivious as to the realities of getting to grips with another language; we are infamously poor at knowing them. After all, we are British. Therefore, knowing languages is not exactly high on our list of priorities.

It is precisely this attitude, however, which gives us a bad reputation overseas.

In fact, according to a survey published by the European Commission, this notoriety abroad is fully justified. An alarming, yet perhaps unsurprising, 62% of Brits surveyed cannot speak any other language apart from English. Therefore, only a measly 38% speak at least one other language.

These figures demonstrate large swathes of the population haven’t got a clue what it takes to achieve fluency in a foreign tongue. What’s more, it’s supported by the considerable lack of young British people who study languages at A-level and university.

From this, you could say we are experiencing something of an intellectual-linguistic crisis. It seems as though a distinct sense of apathy is to blame.


But what does this mean for us, the language students of the nation, who want to immerse ourselves in linguistic and cultural aspects of life abroad?

Are we doomed to a similar fate? Will we be viewed by the outside world as equally reluctant to broaden our semantic horizons? Or, even worse, labelled as guilty of symptomatic British ignorance?

I certainly hope not.

What about the year-abroad experience? Surely, this is the best time to get our heads down, crack on and make some meaningful headway with our chosen academic disciplines. Surely, it will allow us to redeem ourselves a little and, in the process, save some face for our home nation.

However, this may be easier said than done.

Arguably, it’s all about the individual. You get out what you put in; you reap what you sow, right? Platitudes aside, it is definitely something to consider: if you don’t put in the hard-yards you can’t expect to come home fluent.

Now, I don’t pretend to speak for everyone in my department or, for that matter, everyone studying modern languages on the whole. However, I think a lot of them would agree with me when I say that truly immersing ourselves in our elected languages can be tough.

This is for a variety of reasons.

One of which: being British. This trait, instead of being advantageous – as it is for non-language students abroad – can be a significant hindrance. This is because people usually want to practice their English with you. They hear your accent and think: ‘great, I can try out my skills!’

From this respect, being born British is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it is great our mother-tongue is one of the most spoken in the world; on the other, it makes it difficult to learn a new language. And this can be frustrating for language students.

 the term ‘year-abroad’ is an ambiguous one. I mean, notwithstanding those of us who are studying two languages – we must split the year anyway – even those studying one are unlikely to spend an entire 12 months away.

Even in the workplace – where I’d hoped for an immersive experience – my colleagues would often address me in English. Additionally, in this setting, being a native English speaker was viewed as an accolade of sorts. Consequently, they made damn sure it was put to good use. My job, when I was away in Milan, comprised making numerous phone calls in English. Not quite the language exchange I’d initially envisaged, then.

The truth is, short of living in some far-off, remote village in the secluded countryside (where, without doubt, it’d be so insipid you’d want to gauge out your own eyeballs) you’d be hard-pushed to find yourself in an environment where English is totally absent.

Furthermore, the term ‘year-abroad’ is an ambiguous one. I mean, notwithstanding those of us who are studying two languages – we must split the year anyway – even those studying one are unlikely to spend an entire 12 months away.

Not to mention those who take a language ab initio*. Personally, I started learning Italian two years ago. Yet, after four months in Milan, I’m expected to be fluent.

On top of this, there is a tendency to form social cliques with other English-speaking students abroad. For example, a lot of the people I met at the language school I attended in Milan, although learning Italian like me, spoke very good English. Despite the international group we formed, we would often revert back to English as a basis for communication – a linguistic common-ground.

That’s not to say that some people won’t return to university fluent. Though, I suspect these individuals already had the predisposition to do so; as opposed to the ability somehow passing, by osmosis, into their brain. Plus, they are the kind of people who put in the necessary graft.

But anyway, fluent or not, we can’t really complain. All things considered, most of us had a great time.

Instead of worrying ourselves, it would be wise to look back on what was a year to remember.

*This, by the way, is highbrow uni-speak for ‘from scratch’. I don’t think I’ll ever understand what merits its use.

Cover photo: Nick Fewings on Unsplash 

  • retro

    From Birmingham to Buenos Aries, Milan to Valencia, Sam Stevenson's penchant for travel and world culture has defined his recent years. As a modern foreign languages graduate, he is always keen to visit and embrace new destinations. Along with writing, Sam has a strong passion for photography. He currently works as a freelance journalist and writer, contributing to various print and online publications. Find him tweeting @bySamStevenson and on Instagram @bySamStevenson

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