Monday, 19 September 2011

It felt very surreal today attending the introductory class for Italian. In the past I would always look at language students in awe and think, 'gosh, I wish I had the will power to be one of them'. How naive I was. I put so much time and dedication into science, a subject which though interesting does not produce such immediately exciting and useful results for the average person. Languages on the other hand, though often difficult and frustrating, act as a key to another culture, another world.

So often people are under the firm belief they know a culture from having spent a long time in that place or hanging out with locals... But in what language do they speak? Most likely they use the lingua franca English. This is a grave error if you want to understand deeply a culture. Otherwise it greatly hinders your chances of getting the maximum choice of people to talk to, not everyone speaks English. Plus you get the bonus of having a whole new world of literature and film open to you.

Given the enjoyment factor and the exciting possibilities of using of a language, I feel I was very very wrong, like many British people. Language learning takes a lot of effort and commitment, but the enjoyable type, for the simple reason that progress is noticed on many levels of your social and academic life. Learning a language you might feel as if you are becoming a better person, as it teaches you a lot about other cultures and can assist greatly in providing confidence.

Honestly, I can see a long and difficult year ahead of me, I am not going to lie. The most important factor however is that I can foresee myself enjoying just about every minute of it, minus the exams and essay deadlines.

Aside from this... My lovely new flatmate and myself are now the proud owners of a couch available via couchsurfing. Within an hour of registering it I got six requests, it seems as if I am not going to be able to say yes to everyone, though we are likely to have a visitor every so often. I am the proud winner of the title 'president of the Italian society' this year. I now need to start collaborating with other societies and organising events.

Like last year, but even more ferociously I aim to fulfil my goals this year. I am doing a part-time year, which should give me enough time to balance work and play. I am desperately seeking a job to support myself, I was sure they would be in abundance but it seems quite to the contrary. I am planning on taking part with the Italian play again, but also jumping board for the french play. Aside from this there is the french and language society, and I have my own society to run. I am quite urgent to join a sports or music society, though despair at how much it costs. The fencing society is relatively inexpensive, though it costs a lot if you want to avoid having to perspire into the sweaty helmet and kit many other people have used each week. The equitation society is extortionate, the same goes for the dance societies. I really don't want to have to return to the gym as the only method for keeping fit, but right now it seems the only option. Edinburgh doesn't even seem to have enough bikes to go around.

When will I find the time to study? I better do considering I have promised myself to continue the same satisfying practice of completing and handing in coursework a week before the deadline or more, then walking around the library smugly the night before feeling rather happy with myself. I won't miss a single lecture (last year I missed one because I fell asleep at home and never woke up), I will complete exercises before they are requested and give myself enough time to read and attempt to analyse literature pieces. What a beautiful thing, to move away from factual analysis and return to the creative world of fiction!

Friday, 16 September 2011

A summer in Europe

No, there were no promised constant updates of my adventures language learning. I am not as techie as Benny the Irish polygot (, however much I would like to be. Documenting language learning can make it so much fun, especially when one can watch one's progress.

In actual fact, I did a lot this summer to complement and enhance my academic studies. Having studied ancient Rome and history of art as outside courses, I went to revisit many of Rome's ancient ruins, churches and Florence's galleries. Being in Italy of course I could just walk past architectural marvels everyday. A week in Athens and the surrounding areas gave me a taste of the ancient grand tour, whilst staying in Italy for all the summer allowed me to quickly build vocabulary and become more confident at speaking and listening comprehension. Attending the istituto italiano for a month in Florence was a great way for me to study more in depth the grammatical difficulties of the language, besides practising it in day to day life. The 2 week but more intensive Centre international de Antibes was a great starter for learning French. Being a definite elementary level in the language, it enabled me to learn at racing speed. Thank goodness it is so similar to Italian.

With regards to the two schools, whilst the Italiano Istituto was well located and the teachers were kind I would say that the Centre International de Antibes was more professionally run...

The Istituto Italiano

First of all with regards to this school, I got to study for free. Thanks to the Italian institute in Edinburgh the entirety of the course fee was paid for. I did the classic course, four hours a day five days a week. The day I arrived alongside the other new students, we were asked to do a test in both oral and grammar to assess our level. To my surprise, I was in the superior class in the entire school, C1 level. That said, the class was definitely of mixed levels. Whilst one or two had very little prior knowledge of the subjunctive (like myself at the time), others were very confident at using every conjugation. Quickly our levels became more alike, as we reviewed the more difficult aspects of the language for 'stranieri', like verbi pronominali and il congiuntivo. Aside from the very interesting speaking class on dialects and languages, I would say the main fault of the speaking classes was the lack of interesting material. If there is an interesting topic I can speak about it a lot, but debating about single parents or recycling really was not such a stimulating subject. The grammar classes on the other hand were very useful, given that I now feel I can use the past, imperfect and present forms of subjunctive, when I think about it at least!

My one real issue with the school, the false advertising. The website boasts a wide array of free extra curricular activities and cheap additional courses. I would have loved to study Italian literature and cooking but these course prices were ludicrous. There were trips to Assisi and Siena, both of which cost in the vicinity of 90 euros, again crazy when I did the same excursions with public transport for less than 20 and fit more into my day. I decided to go on a tour of the best gelaterias in the city, which turned out to be a joke. We visited three icecream parlours, which I guess had all paid commissions to the school, one of which was the widespread GROM chain, which as good as it is, can not really be considered local. My favourite ice cream parlours were not visited. I would recommended the gelateria neri and fiorentina, cheap considering normal Florentine prices.

The positives, the school was located in the centre right next to the duomo. The staff spoke ONLY in Italian providing a handy immersion and the teachers were very kind. The class sizes were perfect for the first two weeks, 6 people in the class but for the last two weeks rose to 12, too many for an expensive language course I think. The school provided the text books and the notepads, another helping hand. Florence, however touristy it is, is a very beautiful and culturally rich city. Not only that, it is perfect for a central base to explore Tuscany and surrounding areas like Liguria, Umbria, Lazio. One of my favourite days of the summer was spent in the Chianti region with my boyfriend, we went to Monteriggioni and Siena. Monteriggioni is an obscenely cute little medieval hill town, crowned with towers with have unfortunately been damaged. It is less touristy than many other towns like this in Tuscany and surrounded by the famous green rolling Tuscan hills, dotted with vineyards and little idealic farm houses. It is also mentioned by Dante in his Divine Comedy:-

'As with circling round
Of turrets, Monteriggioni crowns his walls;
E’en thus the shore, encompassing the abyss,
Was turreted with giants, half their length
Uprearing, horrible, whom Jove from heaven
Yet threatens, when his muttering thunder rolls.'

After our little mission to Monteriggioni we continued to Siena, city of panforte, the annual horse races (the Palio), and home to a wealth of art and beautiful winding streets. We ate good and cheap pizza whilst enjoying the local atmosphere.

I would love to write in detail about everything I did in detail, but there really is no time. I spent three and a half months away without really writing very much, it was weird, but I felt like neglecting English partially for a bit. Instead I arrived yesterday at Edinburgh airport, and felt a somewhat pleasure in hearing English. I quite like my language really.

Centre International d'Antibes

Issue before I even got there; I booked the trains to arrive there from Italy a day too early and a day too late, due to wrong information from the school. The secretary seemed very angry and said my accommodation was not available then. I rescheduled my trains with the idea in my head I would miss lessons, when I got there it turned out I wouldn't, and they refunded my for the trouble. I was doing the intensive course and the complication was that not enough people signed up to do the intensive weekend courses, so at the last minute they cancelled, and with that my accommodation! I suppose the service at the school after that more than made up for it.

My course was intensive, for two weeks. 30 hours of lessons a week made the structure of the day very much like school, studying from 9-4, though the lunch break was big. Like at the istituto italiano, we did a test on the first day, though unlike the istituto italiano the school took the trouble of taking us on a tour of the city in a coach. My level came out very mixed, due to Italian, I came out at level A2/B1 for the grammar exam, for the oral exam it was a different story. I felt like a rabbit in headlights and barely said anything in response to the little french I could understand, and having just come from Italy, I used too much Italian when speaking french. I got a level A1 for oral! I studied at the port for over three hours in the morning, and walked up the hill to the chateau in the afternoon for a two hour class. The morning classes for the first week were very very good. There were only 5 people in the class including myself, and the teacher provided interesting and various activities. She encouraged oral contribution even from people like myself who had never spoken in Italian before. For the first three days I still felt like that bunny caught in headlights, but after that it became a lot easier and I started to feel more confident that I could learn the language, plus I could understand a lot more. The afternoon classes were absolutely superb, I had the most amazing language teacher ever and the classes were VERY small, 3 people for the first week and only 2 for the second week. We never did the same exercise twice, we played games and I never once felt like I was being rushed. Whilst struggling to speak, the teacher put herself in a relaxed position which made it feel like we were having a slumber party and I was telling stories and gossip to an excited audience. Although the quality of the morning qualities decreased in the second class, the problems being a class of 12 people that was too big considering our level, and a teacher with an old fashioned teaching idea which drove all of us crazy. She was the complete contraire to the wonderful afternoon teacher, she looked impatient for you to finish and often interrupted, she provided activities way too high for our level and constantly handed out lifeless work sheets which we could have done in our own time. That said, by the end my French was still so much better than it was when I started. I feel now confident to form full sentences, use comparatives and express myself even if I didn't know the right word. I came away with an unofficial A2 certificate, though the teacher assured me I was more than capable of receiving that certificate.

Antibes was not my favourite place on earth, but it served as a warm and comfortable place to study. Breakfasts each morning were extroadinary, warm from the oven croissants and pain au chocolats with good coffee. The nearby hill town Saint Paul De Vence was absolutely beautiful, and the sea was very tempting.

My accommodation was another story however. Castel Arabel, affiliated with the school and offering cheap accommodation to students, was very beautiful as a building with a nice clean pool. Horror stories quickly leaked out however. There was a rat sighted several times in the very dirty kitchen and many reports of theft in bedrooms. Two girls were robbed of all money, passports and valuables one night whilst sleeping, the scary aspect is that these things were right next to their heads. It is a shame given the nice location of the place and the atmosphere. Evenings were always enjoyable, meeting friends on the terraces and speaking in English, Italian and a splash of French.

Summer is over, I am back in Scotland and preparing to start university. It has been a very useful and fun experience though. I miss the heat, the language, the landscapes and the food. I became addicted to peaches there... Yesterday I bought one here and it was just not the same. Tomorrow I will buy a bike and tonight I will order all my books. The temperatures are around 12 degrees celcius which is way too cold considering I was recently in Italy where the temperatures were always above 30. It is raining to, I haven't seen rain for a long while.

I have a feeling I will post more here soon. Cold weather makes me want to write, I suppose this is a positive thing, as I absolutely must be ready to start hardcore essay writing again soon.