The Three-Month Mark

Friday, 27 April 2012


Language is without doubt one of the most important things for a singer to get their head around. I’m sure that with a great ear you can learn pieces by rote and sound authentic, but there is something to be said for a true understanding of a language. I have sought, at different points over the past few years to deepen my understanding of languages that are relevant and important to singing. This journey has been one of the most amazing aspects of my development as a human being, let alone as a singer. Learning new languages is a complete joy; playing with syntax and re-learning how to express yourself and discovering new things about your ideas and personality as you talk to friends and colleagues in a language that isn’t your own. I’d recommend it to anyone.

Four years ago (and it still feels like yesterday), I made the mad decision to spend the third year of my undergraduate degree at the Università degli Studi di Milano. I didn’t speak any Italian, but had the growing awareness that if I really wanted to sing, I should at least be able to have a conversation in a second language (slight understatement).

So here is how it happened… Firstly, I went to the Italian Institute in Edinburgh and enquired about learning Italian in Italy; they have bursaries to the value of six-hundred pounds for any person wishing to study at language school there as a means to promote the language. (Italian is seen as a lesser spoken European language so there are funds to promote it). Thanks to the Italian Institute I took my first steps into Italy to live in Florence and took part in an intensive language course. Secondly, I arranged to spend 6 weeks au-pairing in Sicily immediately after my course finished in Tuscany. The family came from Milan, so I knew that I wouldn’t be learning too much Sicilian dialect! When I arrived in Sicily I was almost completely mute. Whilst in Florence me and the friends I was with had really pushed ourselves to learn as much grammar as possible and I had learnt so many rules and regulations and irregular verbs that I couldn’t really get any words out. Over six weeks with a family who didn’t speak a word of English, I began to make sentences and really converse in the language. Helped (or hindered?) by the fact that all day every day was spent on the beach, as it was too hot to do anything else. Communicating with the family for 6 weeks then prepared me for my third month, which I spent in Siena on a course run by the EU especially to prepare Erasmus students for study in a foreign language. Called an Erasmus Intensive Language Course (EILC). This was great fun as I met amazing students from what felt like every European country (Slovakia, Hungary, Finland, Spain, Portugal, France and Germany to name but a few!) I was fascinated by the differing opinions on everything from the Eurozone, to right-wing politics, to music and art. Following this was the small feat of going to Milan, living there, studying there and singing there. I absolutely loved the year and think it was invaluable.

Having become fluent (less so these days!) in Italian it slowly began to niggle that I couldn’t speak German and I was singing more and more German repertoire that required a better understanding of it. As long as two years ago I was talking to friends about moving to Germany to do a similar course to what I did in Italy.

So finally, in early February this year I got round to it. Luckily for me my lovely young man agreed to learn the language with me! We came here after a singing course called Bel Canto Bella Voce that I did in Vienna and we arrived in Berlin at the beginning of February to the most extended period of FREEZING weather I have ever experienced. -20 degrees for over a month! We enrolled in an intensive language course and spent almost 6 hours a day learning German to begin with, then as our funds slowly dwindled we found work and began learning on the job. I also enrolled in a second course and quickly progressed but was frustrated at how hard I found the grammar.

I have found German harder than Italian. Perhaps I am a bit older and more set in my ways; I am finding it harder to accept all the rules! I’ve also spent less time learning all the irregularities in the grammar. This is my fault. However, over the past few days I have suddenly had one of those wonderful moments where the sun comes out and everything becomes clear. I find, that at a certain point, I have to let go of a language. I remember it happening with Italian. Stop thinking and let it flow without fighting it or thinking of the grammar or the sentence structure. It will happen anyway as you practice. It sounds silly, but it’s like flying. It’s a skill that you have no control over, and it is so fun when you begin to be able to play with it.

It happens accumulatively. We become like babies with no vocabulary and ‘piano, piano’, we absorb more and more and become like a sponge. Three months seems to be the allotted time it takes me before I have a breakthrough. It was towards the end of my time in Siena when I suddenly felt like I had a grip on Italian, and the same is suddenly happening with German. It surprises me, as I thought it wasn’t going to happen!

It’s hard, it’s a challenge, but it’s so fun and so satisfying. Living abroad isn’t easy, and I do admit to spending some of my time craving home comforts, but it is one of the most rewarding and valuable things I have ever done.

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