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Rooks Reflects: Language barrier is not major when studying abroad

I began learning German at the beginning of elementary school, a little from my parents, who both spoke the language, and some from the magnet school I attended, which had daily German classes included in the curriculum. Despite the many years I’ve spent trying to attain fluency, I’m still nowhere close. Before I left to study abroad in Germany for five months, I was able to carry conversations and hold my own in surface level interactions, but I was terrified of how my lack of efficiency would affect the way I lived my life. 

When I arrived in the city in March, my fears immediately dissipated. According to The History of English, 56% of German people speak English as a second language, and due to the early age at which the language is taught in schools, many people speak it fluently. I’ve never found myself in trouble or with a clouded understanding of a situation due to my German comprehension, because if all else fails, the people I interact with are more than likely English speakers. 

I’m able to fulfill most language requirements of my daily life in German, such as interacting with supermarket employees or ordering dinner at a restaurant. However, I could also easily complete all of these tasks in English. In fact, on more than one occasion, I have tried to speak to a stranger in German and upon hearing my accent and less-than-perfect pronunciation, they automatically respond in English. 

I am often frustrated by this aspect of language immersion in which I am put in a situation I know I can handle and want to use as practice, but part of the international experience is understanding that German people often speak my native language at a higher level than I speak theirs, and they would rather save time than watch me stumble through the interaction. 

This frustration is balanced out by the comfort of being a native English speaker. According to the City of Leipzig website, approximately 10% of the student population at Universität Leipzig is composed of foreign exchange students. This high number of fellow exchange students made it easy for me to find a group of friends whose combined best language was English. Although all of us are studying abroad to practice our German, we spend our days in class working on the language and would prefer to not stress about grammar and vocabulary when we hang out, which makes English the default. 

I often have to remind myself that although they all speak incredible English, my friends from Italy or Poland are still speaking a second language. Hearing my two Italian friends speak to each other in their mother language is a good reminder that getting to converse in your native language is such a comfort, and I am grateful to be able to unwind in that way. 

As an American living outside of the states, there is no way to avoid elements of cultural immersion. However, it is also remarkably easy to live abroad without knowledge of a foreign language. Statista reports English is the language most-spoken worldwide, which creates extra privilege for a native English speaker like myself when living and traveling in foreign countries. 

According to Promova, 29% of Americans learn basic words and phrases of a country they plan on visiting. I’ve done a considerable amount of travel in surrounding countries and have met a lot of Americans who were traveling without any knowledge of the local languages, but they were all able to survive and get around by speaking in English. However, it is often obvious that the local citizens would prefer for visitors to at least make an attempt at learning a foreign language. 

My observations in this area have turned into one of the lessons of gratitude I’ve accumulated during my study abroad experience. However, it has also inspired me to continue practicing my second language so someday I can step out of my comfort zone and learn what it’s like to completely communicate in a language that isn’t my first. 

Sophia Rooksberry is an incoming junior studying journalism. Please note that the views and opinions of the columnists do not reflect those of The Post. Want to talk more about it? Let Sophia know by tweeting her @sophiarooks_

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