Fluency: Do You Need to Go Abroad?

Interpreting the meaning of the word fluent is like trying to interpret art. Everyone has their own definition of what they think being fluent in a language is. You may look at a painting and think one thing, but the person next to you may see something else. The same thing goes for people’s expectations of your “fluency” in a language. When people ask me if I’m fluent in a language, I usually ask them what their definition is first. Two responses I have gotten are: “If you don’t make any mistakes and speak like a native” and “If you can say whatever you want to without having to think much”.

Unfortunately, a lot of people fall under the first category. In my experience, those are the people who usually say that a person isn’t fluent in a language until they go abroad; that going abroad will automatically make them fluent. Sometimes, going abroad isn’t even enough. I still encounter people who say that I am almost fluent in a language, whatever that means! Although I usually answer people based on their definition of fluency, there are two ways I determine if I am fluent in a language: 1. I ask a trusted native speaker that I know will not say that I’m fluent just to be nice. 2. My goal is to be conversational (talking about a wide range of topics that I’d normally talk about), so if I can talk about subjects that come up in daily life that aren’t super complicated or that I’m not interested in (ex. politics), I am happy with where I am. This means that you don’t have to speak perfectly nor do you need to sound like a native, although you should work on your accent as much as possible.

Not everyone shares my definition of fluency or goal in learning a foreign language, but for those who do, there are people out there who have become fluent in a foreign language without studying in the country where that language is spoken.

Benny Lewis is known as the Irish polyglot. He is the mastermind behind the website Fluent in 3 Months, which I have been following for years. He claims to be able to speak a language fluently after studying it for three months. While there is a lot of controversy that I have seen because of this, he can still seem to hold a conversation with someone after just a short amount of time. He has been an inspiration to many and has shown that you can study a language outside of the country where it is spoken and become fluent.

Grace, known as Ryuzaki1311 on YouTube, does not claim to be fluent in Japanese. However, she has gained a lot of attention for her high level in Japanese at a young age, which she attained by self-study. Now she is studying abroad in Japan, but you can see from her videos that she spoke well before leaving England.

Moses McCormick, also known as laoshu505000, is a well-known polyglot, who has learned languages as difficult as Polish in three months! People have taken notice to this and have even interviewed him about it. A lot of his videos are of him “leveling up” or practicing languages that he is learning or can speak with native speakers that he encounters when he goes out. Many, if not all, of these videos have taken place in the United States.

With today’s technology and language exchange websites, it is possible to become conversationally fluent in a language without leaving your home country. Before going abroad, I felt confident in my Spanish and French language skills, which actually worked in my favor. Going abroad will not automatically make you fluent in a language, especially if you are in a program where everyone shares your native language. Becoming fluent takes a lot of work and discipline, whether you immerse yourself at home or in the country where the language is spoken.

What is your definition of fluency in a language? Have you been able to attain that goal without studying abroad?

Balancing School and Travel

Every college student is Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. There’s the side that likes to binge-watch Netflix or funny videos on YouTube. They seem carefree and you almost wonder how they pass class, because you never see them doing their work. That’s when you see the other side: the student that stays up from anywhere between 2-4 in the morning, scrambling to finish their assignment, paper, etc. This is a stressful way to live, and pretty unhealthy if you aren’t getting enough sleep or eating the right things. With this lifestyle, it makes it a lot harder to travel.

This past weekend, I traveled to a city two hours away to give a talk at a conference. I had almost no time to do any work because I had been going to sessions almost every half hour. However, I knew that I wouldn’t want to do my work the day I got back from the trip, because I would be tired from traveling and hearing more talks. To spare myself lots of stress, I planned ahead and did what assignments I could during the previous week. This technique has always helped me when traveling.

When I was in Madrid, I traveled literally every weekend. I would leave on Thursday and get back Sunday. Sometimes I would just do a day trip, but I was still traveling. I would always get my homework done before leaving. Some of my classmates would bring their homework with them on trips, but I know that I would never be able to get it done on a trip, nor would I enjoy my trip if I spent it doing homework. If you are busy during the week, I would suggest doing the little, easier, quicker assignments first. Whenever you are already in homework mode, doing your other homework, get a little bit ahead by doing an assignment that is due when you come back from your trip. If you keep doing a little bit at a time, you may be surprised at how much you get done. If you decide to do all of your homework at once, that can be draining but then you won’t have to worry about any homework.

What kind of student are you? Do you ever work ahead? Share your homework tips below!

Meeting People Abroad

When looking at websites that offered study abroad advice, I noticed that students who had studied overseas were presented with the question: What do you wish you had done that you didn’t do? The answers I read were surprisingly very similar and not at all what I had expected. Students didn’t say that they wished that they had traveled more, or that they wish they would have bought more souvenirs. The biggest regret I had read about was that many students wished that they would have had the courage to talk to people locally and make friends.

Life presents many opportunities to cross paths with others, sometimes in crazy ways. It’s what you choose to do in that moment that will determine what will become of that encounter. Having gone through this myself, here is my advice on where you can meet people:

First I would suggest looking up language exchanges in the area. If there aren’t any, advertise that you would be interested in doing one! I have met plenty of nice and welcoming people from doing language exchanges. At first, it might have been strange because I did not know anyone, but after meeting up a few times, we became friends.

Consider joining a fitness class. The program I attended let American students sign up for fitness classes at the local university. I met a number of people because of taking hip-hop and Zumba classes. The great thing about doing this is that you already have something in common with everyone in the room, a love for the class you signed up for.

Also consider taking a local university class. It may seem intimidating, especially if you are not confident in your language abilities, but you will meet people who are willing to help you. I will admit that this can be scary at first because everyone seems to already have their own group of friends, but just start with something simple like, “Can I see your notes from the other day?” or, “Can I borrow a pen?”

Whether you consider yourself a Christian or not, I would suggest trying to attending a church. Some of the most welcoming people were those that I met from weekly Bible studies and going to church every Sunday. These people were very nice and cared about how my friends and I were doing and how we were adjusting to being away from home. I even met one of my good friends after accidentally locking myself in the bathroom!

After spending an extended amount of time somewhere, you start to form a routine. My friends and I would frequent restaurants and cafes that we enjoyed. In doing that, we became friends with the owners, and even got to talk to other customers at times.

One last thing I would recommend is to pay attention to your surroundings in general. You never know if you will be handed a flyer for an event that you would be interested in or if you will see a poster for something you would be interested in. You can even look up online what is going on in your area to find out more.

The truth is, you can meet people anywhere. Sometimes you will meet them in the grocery store and sometimes you will meet them in your hostel. It is confidence that you will need to be able to form friendships with others. While I cannot give you that confidence, I can tell you where you are likely to meet people. The suggestions that I mentioned come from my personal experience studying in Europe but there are so many other ways to meet people and make friends. If you have traveled before, where have you met people?

Staying Hydrated Overseas

Unhealthy habits come in many forms and everyone has one. Maybe you spend too much time on your phone. Maybe you find yourself eating ungodly amounts of junk food. Maybe you are working too much and not getting enough sleep. Some of these bad habits become stereotypes for college students. Even college students, most of the time, would agree with some of these points. For me, personally, I do not drink enough water. I do not like the taste of water, and yes, water has a taste. In addition to not liking water, I don’t really get thirsty. This was one thing I didn’t think would change when I was abroad, but I was wrong.

During my time in Spain, I realized Madrid was a lot more dry than I would have thought. Maybe it was the fact that I was traveling and walking around all the time, or maybe Madrid really is just dry. Regardless, it is a good idea to pack a refillable water bottle if you are planning on studying abroad anywhere. Water fountains are not as common in Europe as they are in the United States, and surprisingly, some places will not give you tap water, even if you order it. Besides, if you are out and about, you will want to have a water bottle with you. It will save on money that you may be spending on disposable water bottles.

Although Madrid was dry, my experience in Nantes was even more difficult. Like Madrid, Nantes did not always offer tap water as an option at restaurants and some servers would not give it to customers who ordered it. My friends and I would end up having to buy a bottle of water at restaurants, paying an unnecessary fee. On top of that, most of my friends and I had noticed that our host families did not drink a whole lot of water when we would eat with them. When mine would refill my glass, they would only give me half a glass, and the glasses were tiny. I felt awkward constantly refilling my own when my host parents only drank half a glass and wine.

I never thought that this would be an issue for me when going abroad, especially because I hardly drink anything. Even so, I wanted to pass this suggestion onto others who may be studying abroad in the future. I also wrote a post on other things that I would suggest packing. Trust me, it’s different from what study abroad websites will normally tell you to pack. Have you traveled somewhere and ran into this situation? What are some unconventional things you would suggest bringing with you?

Homesickness is Real

Isn’t it ironic how we are living in a time where we are encouraged to celebrate our differences, but when we share our thoughts with someone that doesn’t agree with us, they get offended? It is so easy to say the wrong thing and take someone on a guilt trip that they did not want to be a part of.

When you go abroad, many people will tell you how fortunate you are that you get this opportunity. They will say how they wish they had that chance. They will tell you to make the most of your time away. As someone who has gone through this myself, I can say that this is true. You will have a fantastic time full of memories that should last you a lifetime. Something those people fail to take into account is that studying abroad is like opening a bag of Skittles. It is a bag full of sweets that you will enjoy, but with that comes some flavors you will not like. You did not ask for them, but they are there and they are part of the experience, and unlike Skittles, you can’t give those bad moments away to other people. This is where homesickness comes in.

I got homesick while I was abroad. I am not sure many people realized it, because I did not tell many people back home. I wanted everyone to know that I was having fun and making the most of my experience in Europe. While it was true, there were times when I would feel very homesick, but I would not tell anyone because I did not want them to think that I was ungrateful for this dream I was living out. It is so easy for people to say that they would make the most of their time abroad until they actually get to the point where they are in that situation. Not everyone realizes how much strength it takes to get up and leave everything they know and love to go away for an extended period of time. In the end, you are left feeling guilty for missing everyone.

It’s okay to feel homesick. Just don’t let it paralyze you.

Homesickness is natural, especially if you are close with your friends and family. The more you have to leave behind, the more you are going to miss those things. It is totally normal to want to share this once-in-a-lifetime experience with those you love and wish that they were there with you. That being said, do NOT let this feeling paralyze you. It is okay to acknowledge that it is there, and that some days will be worse than others. I guarantee there are other people in your shoes that feel the exact same way that you can talk to. However, that one semester you spend away will fly by. Time does not wait for anyone. Continue to live your life and make new memories. Live in the moment before you realize that it is too late, or else the only thing you will remember is how homesick you felt the whole time you were gone.

I did not have that experience but I know some people who did and it was such a shame to see their experience go to waste. Has anyone ever made you felt bad for being homesick? What were some things you did to combat homesickness?

Formality in Spain vs France

Growing up, the biggest and only problem I had in communicating with people is that I was shy. When it came to talking to people, I would simply address adults as Mr., Mrs., or Ms. and anyone who was a teenager or younger was addressed by their first name or nickname. Now that I am considered an adult, life has gotten to be more complicated. There is some confusion as to how to address others. Do I address other adults my age as Mr. or Mrs. or do I just say their name? Usually a tap on the shoulder or addressing the person by looking at them when speaking to them works. This is where I view other languages as more logical than English. In languages like Korean, Japanese, Spanish, and French, there are different levels of formality. However, those levels of formality do not always transfer culturally.

In class in the United States, I always referred to my language teachers formally, using the “usted” form in Spanish and the “vous” form in French. I view my professors or teachers are people who are older and wiser; people that I respect. Therefore, I used a higher form when speaking to them. My classmates, on the other hand, frequently used the informal way of speaking to someone to talk to my professors. Surprisingly, the professor would not correct them. It could be because we are studying a new language and they are more focused on if we get the grammar right. On the flip side, I have also had professors that have asked me to address them by their first name.

My experience abroad has been different, at least in the French classroom. I have seen the formal way, or “vous” always used between teachers and students even though the students may be way younger than the teacher. It surprised me that a teacher would refer to one student directly in a formal manner.

Although Spanish is a romance language like French, I was surprised to see that Spain did things quite differently from France. One cultural aspect that I had a hard time getting used to during my time in Madrid was addressing those above me informally. My host mother, who was in her 70s, asked me to address her like a friend. The staff at the agency and my professors all asked me to address them informally when speaking to them. Being raised in a culture where I had to be formal to everyone who was older than myself or in an authoritative position, I found it hard to address anyone as something other than formal.

My observations are solely based on my experiences when I went abroad. I hear that in Latin America, the situation is different from that of Spain. Has anyone else ever had this experience? If you have experienced anything similar to what I did, or even very different, please leave a comment below! I would love to hear about your experiences!

Don’t Miss the Moment

So many people are living yesterday or dreaming about tomorrow that they miss the now. They’re thinking about going abroad or when they went abroad. They’re both wonderful things but don’t miss the here and now because what was got you to this moment and what is now will get you to that future moment that you’re dreaming about, so embrace the here and now and live it to its fullest.

Whenever people ask me if I miss being abroad, I tell them that I do, but only a little bit. The joy I receive from spending time with my loved ones and being in a familiar place outweighs that negative feeling of missing the life I lived a year ago. I looked forward to being abroad in anticipation of what was going to be. Now that I’ve done it, I have fantastic memories. However I also have my life at this moment (friends, classes). The life that you live is going on. Remember that the life you’re living now is preparation for what will be. Enjoy the moment, including the painful ones because they are lessons. 

While I was away, I missed home very much. I missed my family, my friends, my school, and especially my significant other. Homesickness is real and I don’t like when people try to make those who feel homesick bad for feeling that way. Despite feeling homesick, I did not let that paralyze me to the point of not having fun and making Skype calls home every day for hours on end. I counted myself as fortunate to be able to travel around Europe and live the dream I had been wanting to live for years. I took advantage of my opportunity. It was worth it and I would never take that experience back. What I normally tell people when they ask me how I feel is, “I was happy in Europe and I am happy at home. I am happy wherever I am.” The last thing I want people to think is that I was unhappy going abroad.

Be happy wherever you are. Live the life you want to live with what you have around you. Count the blessings in your life. If times are tough, remember that they are just lessons for you to learn and without them, you would not be the person you are today. Without the good and bad moments in life, you would not have gotten to this point. Most importantly, do not spend your life wishing away the present moment for something you are excited for in the future. Embrace now. Live now.