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?

Getting Sick Abroad

Getting sick abroad is not a guarantee. I had managed to come out of my first semester unscathed, and I was in a huge city. This semester, I am studying in a city that is six to seven times smaller than Madrid and I have gotten sick twice already. It could have been the change in weather or my lack of a winter jacket the one day I thought it was warm outside but actually was not. Either way, I ended up being sick somehow.

Pharmacies

Although McDonald’s and Subway has made it internationally, Rite Aid and CVS have not. I cannot find a typical drug store that I would easily find in the U.S. However, there are these giant green crosses that I see frequently and they are the number one identifier of a pharmacy. I have only been to the pharmacy a couple of times to buy motion sickness medication and throat lozenges.  However, I can tell you that the people who work there know what they are doing.  If you describe your symptoms to them, they will most likely be able to tell you what medication you need.

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Chalky lozenges that I thought were cough drops.

The medications in these pharmacies aren’t the same as the ones in the States, but they do have their international equivalents. Of course you will not be able to find everything without a doctor’s referral but there are plenty of medications you can buy without one. Getting sick abroad is terrible, not only because you are sick, but also because you are sick far away from home. If you take a daily medication and you are planning on going abroad for a few months, whether it is for a summer or a semester, I would highly recommend bringing enough so you do not run out while you are there.