The Secret to European Multilingualism: The Erasmus Program

When talking to people from the U.S. about foreign languages, this is a typical conversation I find myself engaging in.

“So, how many languages do you speak?”

“Five.”

“What?! Which ones?”

“Italian, English, French, German, and a little bit of Russian.”

“Oh man! I’m so jealous! I hate Europeans!”

I think this is hilarious, mainly for two reasons. First of all, I love the American expression “Oh man!” and I have decided to start using it regularly. However, due to misunderstanding the context it should be used in, I often use it to hilarious effect and thus have people bursting into laughter whenever I say it. Second, I think it’s funny being labeled as a “European” polyglot. 

Yes, most Europeans can speak multiple languages. But why? I think the reason is pretty self-explanatory. Living in Northern Italy, it takes me as much time to go to Munich, Germany (while crossing another country in between, Austria) as it would take a New Yorker to go visit a Washingtonian. It goes without saying that European countries are very small compared to the U.S., and this plays to our advantage. We need less time, and, most importantly, less money, to go from one country to another, which makes traveling much easier. As a consequence, we are more exposed to different cultures, and, thus, incentivized to learn different languages.   

At the same time, studying abroad is pretty common (and affordable) for Europeans. The Erasmus Program is by far the most popular exchange program in the EU. Established in the late 1980s, it enables students from within the EU to study, from one semester up to one academic year, at another EU institution. It also eases the transferring process and the accreditation of courses and exams taken abroad, while providing students with a low, yet beneficial, monthly stipend.

I asked some of my friends who studied abroad through the Erasmus Program to share their thoughts. First, I asked them to define their experience using only one word. Here’s what came out:

SLE Article

It doesn’t matter the destination – Spain, Germany, France, Poland or Holland – as everybody I know had an incredible experience.

What is interesting are the various reasons they decided to set out on this journey. “I wanted to experience a different lifestyle, I wanted to leave aside my routine in order to explore and face new challenges,” said Giada, who studied in Paris for five months. Matteo, who studied in Bilbao, Spain, for nine months, wanted “to unlock new doors for the future,” and he did, as now he’s fluent in Spanish, which he didn’t know before. For others who are truly ambitious and eager to explore, like my friends Valentina and Giulia, the Erasmus Program was a chance for them to immerse themselves in German culture, and to master their knowledge of the German language.  

When considering the key takeaways, words like “personal growth” and “independence” truly stand out. “This experience was eye-opening for me, it proved to me that the world is much bigger than the little village I come from,” said Andrea, who studied in Tilburg, Holland, and wanted to improve his English proficiency. “Besides, it left me with countless friends from all over the world, and the insatiable desire for discovery.”

What is really great about the Erasmus Program is the sense of community that bonds current exchange and returning students alike. For example, the Erasmus Student Network (ESN) is the biggest student association in Europe that aims to support and develop student exchange, and it is really successful at engaging both local and exchange students. The organization is mainly composed of “buddies,” who voluntarily help 190,000 exchange students every year by promoting their social and practical integration into their host communities, while also assisting homecoming students in their reintegration process.

In my opinion, studying abroad through the Erasmus Program is definitely one of the best opportunities that the university system can offer in Europe. The fact that it has become extremely popular among college students is also one of the reasons why most Europeans speak multiple languages.

Although there is yet to be an equivalent of the Erasmus Program in the U.S., if you’re really interested in studying abroad, never fear! There are also several programs for U.S. students that aim to overcome the financial and academic barriers to studying abroad, such as the ISEP Program, which connects almost 328 universities from 54 different countries, or the CIEE, which awards every year over $3 million in scholarships and grants for student to participate in nearly 200 study abroad programs in more than 60 different cities.

As the most diverse experiences can prove, it doesn’t really matter the destination. There’s a whole world of opportunity out there, so what are you waiting for?

A special thanks goes to my dearest friends Valentina, Giulia, Giada, Andrea, Patrizia, Silvia, Matteo, and my boyfriend Filippo for sharing photos and significant insights about their experiences as former Erasmus exchange students.   

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Sara Dal Lago

Sara Dal Lago

Sara is an Italian graduate student in Georgetown University’s Master in Public Relations and Corporate Communications. She loves traveling, cooking and… dictionaries! In fact, she speaks five foreign languages!

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