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Why a year abroad might not take you quite so far from home

9th February 2011

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Erasmus schemes claim to give students the best chance to learn a new language. However, an increasing number of students are returning to Leeds dissatisfied and questioning the cultural exchange the Erasmus scheme claims to offer.

 ‘It is the best chance you will ever get to learn a language and experience a new culture’, replied study abroad coordinator Burkhard Hauder, when asked why anyone should go on an Erasmus year. However, after hearing some students’ talk about their experiences, it can be questioned the extent to which the Erasmus year really offers the cultural exchange it promises.

Erasmus is a scheme which enables students who do not study foreign languages to study for a year in another European country as part of their degree. Learning a new language is one of the main attractions for many who apply and it is an essential part of discovering a new culture.

‘In short, I'm choosing to do the Erasmus year mainly for the purpose of learning Spanish’, said Second Year English Literature student Laura Valdez, who is going to Valencia this September; one of Leeds’ most recently acquired European links.

‘Being honest I am not particularly choosing to do an Erasmus year because I wish to study English in a different environment. It is rather that I am keen to learn the language and study at a Spanish university!’

Students are strongly advised to obtain at least a basic grasp of the language of the country they chose before they leave, with many choosing to do language electives and signing up to courses such as the EILC (European Intensive Learning Course). However, upon arrival in their new destinations, students are increasingly finding that developing a language and integrating into a new culture is becoming more of a challenge due to the structure of the Erasmus scheme.

Although the overall mark may not count towards a final degree, Erasmus students are required to obtain a number of credits at their host universities to pass the year. For students who study English Literature this often requires attending classes which are taught in English. Recalling his time in the University of Lille, fourth year English and Philosophy student Patrick Ibbotson commented:

‘I found this quite frustrating. Being in a French city I was keen to learn French and found it strange being taught something I could learn at Leeds.’ Despite this aspect, others have found the University to be an opportunity to integrate with other students who share similar interests:

‘Although the majority of my classes were in English they were the place where I met most of my German friends,’ said Phoebe Phillips who studied in Munich.

Undoubtedly, meeting people who speak the language is the best way to practice speaking. The Erasmus Student Network (ESN) identified housing to be one of most enabling factors in allowing students to experience a new place and encourage students to live with speakers from the host country.

‘I would recommend living with native speakers to any Erasmus student. I lived with some French students during my year and it was the best way to learn the language and experience a French style of life.’ Said David Hayes, who also studied at Lille.


In many European cities students search for places to live individually as opposed to pre-assigned groups and this is usually not done through estate agents. In Venice, for example, it is along the walls surrounding the student Campo Santa Margarita where notices advertising available spare rooms are put up. Students can expect to find adverts with messages like ‘Cercando per una ragazza. Un appartamento con otto altri studenti italiani. Affitto 260 euros per mese, fumando va bene. Chiama questo numero.’ (Searching for a girl. An apartment with eight other Italian students. Rent 260 euros a month. Smokers ok. Call this number.) For many, this is a liberating process for those who want to live with speakers from the country as it opens the door for newcomers to enter into an environment of native speakers.

However, considering that most Erasmus students arrive with only basic language skills, engaging with such a process can be intimidating and difficult. One Third Year History of Art student, who is currently studying in Venice, said: ‘finding a place to live was hell on earth. Took me a month. I'd advise anyone to get something on the internet before they come, or to come over months before to sort it out. I ended up living with two other English students.’

They continued: ‘My Italian is terrible. I did a module at Leeds, and then an EILC in Perugia over summer, but it still isn't good. I can understand what people are saying in general and I can get by fine in post offices and restaurants etc, but having a proper conversation with someone is nigh on impossible.’

Living with speakers from the the same language of their own can easily cut students off, and can have an alienating effect. A 2010 feedback report has recently revealed that ‘too many Erasmus students all living together’ and ‘having to live with people from their own country’ are among the top criticisms of Erasmus students studying at the University of Leeds. Burkhard said he recently received a complaint from a German student who found living with other Germans made ‘learning English and integrating in Leeds near impossible’ on her year abroad.

On her year abroad in Murcia, fourth year student Natalia Fricker lived with Erasmus students but found going out to be one of the best ways of meeting Spanish speakers - ‘it was in bars and clubs where I was able to speak Spanish most,’ she said. Nightlife can be an integral part of practising a language as it is a more relaxed environment where many students find it much easier to meet people and make friends from the country. For many Erasmus students there is a focus on socialising but this does not always help integrating with native speakers. ‘Erasmus is not what I expected. I expected it to be a hotpot of intellectual stimulation but the majority of Erasmus students who came here just seem to want to get pissed every night’, said Catherine. In response to this approach, Burkhard Hauder commented, ‘I don’t like some people’s attitude, we have had some people who treat it like a long pub crawl which disappoints me as it undermines the year abroad.’

Going out with other Erasmus students can again make it difficult to experience a new culture, particularly as the common language spoken among international students is often English. It can be difficult to avoid however, and many social events have tapped into an Erasmus market which is geared towards attracting international students. Andreea Filelfo is a student-night organiser in Milan and works for ‘Erasmusmilano’: ‘I organise events for international students at least two nights a week. So many Erasmus students just want to go out in their groups which makes Erasmus nights very popular.’ Erasmus has become a buzzword which groups students together and consequently has the effects of preventing the cultural integration which the scheme promotes itself to give.

This is something which Leeds is not excluded from.

‘I guess Erasmus students hang around together a lot partly because of how the university deals with their being here, i.e treating them as a specific student body of its own, very much like people of the same year/department/programme’ said Erik Belfrage, an international student who spent his First Year at Leeds on an international floor in Charles Morris where he found it difficult to make English friends. ‘I am thinking of Eldon on Tuesdays (a popular international night) for example or, perhaps more evidently, student halls where International Students are pushed together. In other words, the Erasmus group is to a certain extent institutionalised and departmentalised in Leeds.’ Experiences seem to suggest that Erasmus does not guarantee the immersion into another culture and the learning of a language which it promotes. Yet students should not be deterred from applying, as there have been many cases where Erasmus students have had one of the best years of their lives:

‘I did have an amazing Erasmus experience in Murcia, it is really easy to hang out with and have fun with Erasmus students but I had to consciously work hard at improving my Spanish and take every opportunity to get to know local people and that was far more rewarding’, said Natalia.

This September 233 Leeds students will be going on an Erasmus year. Those determined to learn a language and experience the full extent of another culture have to accept that these benefits are not offered on a plate but must instead be actively pursued. While some may see this as a drawback of Erasmus others could embrace it as part of the challenge.

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