This year I got married, it was an amazing day and can’t stop staring at the shiny ring now sitting on my finger! After our special day, we were lucky enough to have a wonderful two week honeymoon travelling around the south of Italy. We couldn’t wait!
Although, the idea of sipping a cold Italian beer in the sun was exciting, it wasn’t the main motivation for me. It was about the language. As you know by now, I love languages. I love studying them, I love teaching and generally being surrounded by them. So, this trip was going to be a special one for me.
I have been learning Italian now for around 7 years (on and off). That is where my love of languages began. Spending hours on my daily commute listening to podcasts to show off to my then girlfriend (now wife!). Arriving in Rome and listening to an old couple on the bus talk about what they are having for dinner. Ordering my first meal in a restaurant. I loved every second of it.
But, this time was going to be very different. I have been focusing entirely on Italian for the last two years. Managing to push my abilities into the upper intermediate zone. Almost brushing the advanced level. (I can almost smell it!)
So, today I will share my thoughts on the differences I noticed from my first time travelling to my most recent adventure in Italy. How travelling, and using the languages, changes from elementary to upper intermediate level.
When we talk about language levels we usually use the CEFR. Which stands for “Common European Framework of Reference for Languages”. A mouthful I know! This guideline splits language learning into 3 groups. Basic users (A), Independent users (B) and Proficient users (C). Each group is then further divided into a lower and higher section (1 and 2). That means that everyone ranges from A1 (Beginner) to C2 (Mastery).
The reason that I really like this system is because it is universal. There are a set of achievements for each level that describe what you need to be able to do, so if you can do it, you’ve reached that level. Easy peasey!
In this discussion, I am going to be talking about A2 (Elementary) and B2 (Upper intermediate).
“Elementary” my dear Watson!
For me, the A2 level is what I call “Travel Fluency“. You can understand frequently used expressions and phrases on important subjects. You can also have simple conversations about the bare necessities. Personal information, shopping or directions; for example.
This is when I know simple sentence structures and can form basic sentences using different vocabulary. Not just repeating memorised phrases, like I do at the beginning.
I can’t remember every word, and it is sometimes difficult to get my point across, but I can survive!
My “Vantage” point
The B2 level is a little different. Rather than only surviving, you can actually live. Things become a little more comfortable. While you still forget words, it doesn’t cause too much stress. You can muddle through and have a decent conversation about almost any topic.
Especially when they go off script. As a beginner, it is impossible to keep up when the other person doesn’t follow the expected responses. But at this level you can generally figure it out.
I would say that B2 is also the first level when I can watch TV without subtitles and actually enjoy the show. Not focusing on only hearing the sounds and figuring out each word, but actually following the story and having fun.
I call this level “Conversational Fluency“. You can chat about anything, even with a little trouble, but life is good.
Travelling at A2 – Survival
When I travel I am normally at the beginner level. After a couple of months of podcasts, language exchanges and apps, I am ready to go. This was the same for my trip to Rome, Paris, Munich and Reykjavik (in Italian, French, German and Icelandic).
The main thing I noticed from all these experiences was nervousness. I’m not a naturally confident person or a complete introvert! I sometimes find it difficult to talk to people and get out of my comfort zone. So, doing this in a new language is a struggle and, until recently, this caused me to waste these opportunities and not speak. I was so afraid they wouldn’t understand me when we arrived at the hotel, I ended up checking in in English. Then I spent the rest of the day wishing I had done it in my target language.
How I overcame it
Then I came to a realisation. It’s ok! Nobody is expecting me to know everything, except myself. I am being my own worst enemy. Even though it is only at a basic level, I am speaking the language. People can understand me. Even if they decide to reply in English… but that’s a different story all together.
After this little Eureka moment (with cartoon light bulb above my head and everything),travelling got even better for me! I had the conversations I’d been missing out on, all be it they were simple, but I managed to our Icelandic tour guide about how I was surprised everyone spoke English to each other. Or explaining to the staff in a German bakery about Strudel being the same in English.
I wasn’t exactly setting the world on fire, but I was doing the most important thing. Communicating! Making a connection with people that I wouldn’t have been able to do without their language. Especially in Germany, where nobody spoke English in the little villages near the Black Forest.
Perfection is NOT the aim of the game
Another change I have made over time is to forget about being perfect. When I am travelling, perfection is not why I am there. I am not trying to pass a test. I am trying to meet people and get the most out of every opportunity. So, I focus on communication. Trying to be a flexible as possible to keep the conversation moving.
Saying something very unnatural that they understand is ok. It’s better than standing silent because I have forgotten the “right” word. When you enter a conversation you only have the words you know. And most of those seem to disappear as soon as you open your mouth. So rather than reaching for the dictionary, or switching to English, it’s better to just do it. Get stuck in and try your best. I am always surprised by how much I learn during these conversations. The effort is well worth it, I promise!
Travelling at B2 – Living
My honeymoon was a completely new experience for me. After 2 years of hard work, I wasn’t sure whether it would be worth it. All those hours watching TV, speaking to Italians and reading articles. Would I actually improve? Would the holiday be better? The answer… of course! I nailed it!
Finally feeling confident
The main reason that I felt more comfortable this time was due to my confidence. But, that isn’t only related to my language level. My speaking confidence in a second language is something that I have slowly improved. Through many languages over a long period of time. Time and practice has helped me to feel comfortable being myself; in any language.
The reason that improving my level has helped my confidence can be summed up in one question. “You speak Italian?!”. I can’t tell you how many times I was asked this question during the trip. After speaking to them over the course of a meal or for a couple of minutes in a shop, it would suddenly appear. Usually it would happen when I’d say something that you don’t learn from a language course. “I want one of those, please” would be a very common phrase but saying “Ok, wait a second. I can’t resist that delicious looking pastry. I’ll take one of those, please” is rare.
This is the moment they realise they can have a conversation with you and not worry about it. The whole atmosphere changes. In a bar in Syracuse the change was incredible. The waitress came to take our order but wasn’t very interested. She didn’t really listen to what I was saying and just wanted to take our order and leave.
When she returned with the drink she also brought some food. We hadn’t ordered it, so she wanted to make sure we understood it was free with the drinks. As she explained the food to me and I talked to her about it, she stopped and asked the question. “You speak Italian?” (Parla italiano?” When I answered “Sì“, her face lit up. She told me all about how she loves England and London and can’t wait to visit again. Even coming back to the table for a second time to carry on talking to me. It was incredible!
Can you hear me?
From my previous trips, I noticed the most annoying thing about my language level was that I could remember the words and phrases and make myself understand. But, I could barely understand what people were saying back to me. I would miss words and even complete sentences. Having to ask them to repeat themselves over and over.
Maybe it is the Brit in me, but after I have asked someone to repeat themselves twice, I feel rude asking again. So, I would usually resort to guessing or changing the subject. Therefore, listening became my primary focus!
I have always found listening the hardest of all the language skills. Sometimes feeling like I am actually a little deaf. So, I spent hours watching TV, listening to the radio and transcribing audio to improve. Unfortunately, there was no instant change. I didn’t wake up one morning and all the sounds appeared in my mind. But, over time it all became clearer.
In my daily life, this meant I could watch TV without a huge amount of effort and enjoy the story. On holiday the effect was much more profound. I could understand people. I mean, really understand people. They would speak and I could hear what they are saying, understand the meaning well and respond. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a million times more comfortable than all my previous experiences.
Most people think conversation is hard because speaking is the most difficult skill. I agree that speaking is difficult. But, when you can’t hear the other half of the conversation it’s impossible. You can say anything you like, but without knowing the questions you can’t know the answer.
Surviving the unexpected
When you study, language is often kept in very specific situations; like the weather, days of the week and food. The crossover is minimal and you can focus on learning it. Real life isn’t so black and white. People are unpredictable creatures and rarely follow the plan. Which means their language will also be different than what you are expecting. Especially in completely unknown situations.
This came “crashing” home when we had a car accident in Sicily. I had never been in an accident before. The whole process was alien to me. We had no idea what to do. That’s when my brain went into overdrive. In this situation only I spoke Italian which meant I had to solve this problem. I spoke to everyone completely in Italian. The other guy, the rental company and the roadside assistance. I didn’t think I could do it but I did.
I didn’t know the name for any of the parts of the car. How to say “indicate” or “overtake”. But they understood me. The tow truck arrived and collected the car. We booked a cab to the airport and, after 8 hours, we had a new car to continue our journey.
I have never seen a course that teaches you the language for an Italian car accident. But, with my flexibility I managed to perform well in that situation. Solving the problem confidently.
After thinking about this long and hard, I have came to a conclusion about what level you need for travelling. Is elementary enough? Or do you need to strive for upper intermediate first? My answer… the level isn’t important. It is your goal that matters.
If you are going to a big European city and want some basic phrases then A2 will be enough for you. You will get around the city and be able to have a little chat with the locals and experience the authentic parts. It won’t always be easy, and sometimes you won’t know what to say, but you will do it. You will survive!
But, if you are looking for more detailed interaction then B1 or B2 might be better. To have detailed conversations or feel completely relaxed when you are travelling and be able to overcome any situation that comes your way.
The most important thing to remember is that, at any level, you CAN speak the language. You are already doing it! The only difference is if you want to do it better or your current abilities fit your needs. Travelling is an amazing adventure enriched by having the language with you. Even a couple of basic phrases will open doors for you that you didn’t know existed.
So, what do you think? What level do you need when you travel? Or do you think levels are even important? Let me know what you think in the comments below.
Until next time.
p.s. Why not check out my post about Where to start your language learning journey for more ideas on starting your language the right way. Moving through the beginner levels and on to fluency.