MY LOVE AFFAIR WITH LANGUAGES // learning to speak like a local

collaborative post

Many moons ago I boarded a plane with my cousin bound for the other side of the world (that’s us – either side of the photo – at the Fontana di Trevi).

It wasn’t the first time I’d left New Zealand but my two previous overseas trips had both been to Australia, which didn’t really count because, well, it was ‘just’ Oz. It was different from home, but not different enough that I felt like I was properly overseas, and the only language barrier was when my Aussie cousin took the mickey out of my Kiwi accent.

But on this trip we were as far away from home as we could possibly go, first landing in Africa, then moving on to Europe.

One of the things I loved the most was that these countries looked, smelled and sounded so completely different from my own. It excited me to walk around and hear all the different languages, and it didn’t matter that I couldn’t understand what was being said around me. In fact, that’s kind of what fascinated me – all these people communicating so effortlessly while I was oblivious to every word.

I made it my mission to pick up little bit of the native language everywhere we went, and learn to speak like a local. In Kenya I learned Jambo was Swahili for ‘hello’; in Egypt, we discovered Shukran meant ‘thank you’ in Arabic.

It lit a real passion in me for linguistics, which reached a peak when we arrived in Rome. The language was so charming and so musical I could have listened to it all day. The rolling R’s, the lilting cadence, the conviction behind every syllable – even the simplest sentences took on a magical quality. I returned home utterly enraptured by the Italian language and determined to learn it.

I found an Italian language class local to me and absolutely loved it. Over the weeks the nonsensical sounds began to click in my brain. I began to recognise words, then understand entire sentences. It was exhilarating to learn a new skill, and I also felt rather smug that I could now converse a tiny bit – albeit very slowly and clunkily – with other people who knew Italian. That is, so long as the topic of conversation stayed within the realms of: ‘Hello, how are you?’ ‘Excuse me, where is the pharmacy?’ And, ‘Please pass me the salt.’

My lessons ended when I moved to Australia; I had planned to find another course, but life (and nightclubs) got in the way. Then I moved to London and got caught up in my new European lifestyle. I was travelling every couple of months, relishing all the new places I was seeing and continuing with my tradition of learning a few basic sentences in every local language. There was Dober Dan in Slovenia, Tack for thank you in Sweden, and Hallo in Iceland for, well, hello (that one was easy to master).

Then the kids came, and my exploring ground to a halt while they were really young. Now they’re eight and 10 I’ve resumed my travels – not as frequently as before, but I try to get away by myself at least once a year (have you read about my solo travels to Bruges, Grasse, Athens and Iceland?).

Not only has my passion for travelling been reignited, but my love for languages too. I’m desperate to pick up my lessons again, this time not stopping until I can speak good conversational Italian. However, my biggest obstacle is still time – OH works long hours so weekday evenings are out and we like to keep weekends for family time – so this time I’m looking for flexible courses I can squeeze in around my schedule of work, parenting and general life stuff.

I knew of Rosettastone.co.uk from way back when they used to send CD recordings out for you to learn at home. The modern course is all done online, with an hour of live online tutoring available each week. This course differs from others in that, rather than feeding you the translated English words, it uses images that correspond with the Italian words to help speed up your comprehension. With this course you pay for the number of months that you want to be able access the online tutorials.

Other courses, such as Languagetrainers.co.uk use the more traditional format of real-life tutors, but give you the option of face-to-face training with native speakers at home or in your office (saving you precious time travelling to and from classes), or – for even more convenience – via Skype video calls. This course requires you to buy blocks of training hours (the rate gets lower the more you buy), and you can reduce the price by sharing the lessons with additional students for a small surcharge, and splitting the total costs.

Another version is Babbel.com, which is slightly different again. This subscription-based course immerses you in authentic conversations in the language of your choice. The online format uses interactive dialogue boxes to test your knowledge and comprehension, reinforced by the voices of native speakers to help you perfect your pronunciation.

These days you don’t have to drag yourself to the local community centre to learn a language – there really is an option to suit every lifestyle and budget. So, hopefully, I’ll get the chance to restart my beloved Italian studies very soon… augurami buona fortuna! 

• read about my solo travels to Inspirational Iceland – where the temperatures are cold, but the welcome is warm

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