“So are you, like, fluent?” − Why doing a year abroad doesn’t mean you’ll come back fluent

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So are you, like, fluent?’ it’s a question that every languages student will have been asked at some point during their degree. Flying off to start my year abroad, I was hopeful that after that nine months I would be able to answer with a fairly confident ‘yes’. However, that is definitely not the case, and that’s okay.

What is ‘fluent’ anyway?

I would consider myself to be a fluent speaker of English. More than 99% of my life has been spent speaking, reading, and writing in English. But are there still words that crop up that I need to Google? Or idiomatic phrases that my mum might come out with that I’ve never even heard of? Absolutely. So if 22 years of immersion isn’t long enough for me to know every English word under the sun, then why would I set myself that same goal for my German during a nine month stint in Austria?

As an A-level student I was excited by the idea of going to university and graduating with a native-speaker level of German. I wasn’t entirely sure how it would happen, but I thought that my degree would be the chrysalis that would have me emerge as some kind of Goethe-esque butterfly four years later, and that my year abroad would play a big part in that. Polyglots like Benny Lewis speak highly of total immersion techniques in order to learn a language fluently and his blog Fluent in 3 Months is full of stories of people who have mastered a language in a really short space of time. Having read all of these posts, nine months seemed like loads of time to master a language, especially given that I’d already been speaking it for several years.

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What most people don’t realise, however, is that your year abroad won’t necessarily be an immersive experience and osmosis definitely doesn’t apply to language learning, regardless of whether you’re in the country or not. This is a particular problem if you’re in a university environment where English is the lingua franca at Erasmus events and native speakers will want to test out their (probably already perfect) English on you. Even my course at the University of Vienna, which was labelled as being ‘taught in German’, still featured readings for certain modules that were in English. A couple of months into my year in Austria I started to feel like a failure. I could see that my German was constantly improving, but definitely not at a rate that would have me passing as an Austrian by August. It was only towards the end of the year that I started to appreciate that my German was actually pretty good, but I was still getting frustrated that I still wasn’t expressing myself quite how I would in English.

I remember being absolutely terrified walking into my first German class of final year, expecting that everybody would have reached this holy grail of fluency and that I must have done my year abroad wrong. Luckily, this was not the case. My German definitely isn’t perfect, but neither is my English. Even though most of us are still making mistakes in our essays, our speeches or even when we’re just texting native speakers, it is completely okay. We should give ourselves a bit more credit for having lived abroad and survived all the trials that come with that, and not beat ourselves up about reading ‘hinterherhinken’ in a text in the last semester of final year and not having a clue what it means (incidentally it means ‘to trail behind’ which is ironic given the context, but it was one of many words I’ve come across this year that I’d never seen before).

The aim of this article definitely isn’t to paint a year abroad in a bad light; it’s a fantastic experience and I would recommend it to anybody. I did, however, want to debunk the myth that a year abroad will magically transform you into a native-standard speaker, because for me at least, that really wasn’t the case. Maybe there are people who came back feeling that they have mastered their respective language, and if that’s the case, then that’s fantastic. But if that’s not you, then that’s also completely fine.

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