Advanced search

How long did it take you to become "fluent" in the language of your new country?

(20 Posts)
eslteacher Sun 10-Jul-11 17:38:32


For those who have moved to a non-English speaking country, and who are spending a signficant portion of their lives among speakers of this language, what has your experience been in terms of getting to the point where you are fully comfortable with this language, like as comfortable as you are with English?

My situation: I came to France on my own two years ago (age 26) wanting to experience living in another country, learning a language etc while I was still in a position to be able to do this, ie before getting pesky things like mortgages, children and husbands that would tie me to the UK ;-)

I had taken French GCSE at school, but to be honest I think it was completely useless. All I could remember from it were the words for items in my pencil case, and a couple of very basic verbs and conjugations like "have" "am" "go". etc. I therefore spent 6 months before I came doing as much self-study as I could using the fantastic Michel Thomas CDs, and some books etc. So I was at the point upon arrival where I had some vocabulary and knew the grammar of the language, but zero experience of actually having conversations in the language or understanding native speakers speaking at a normal speed. Needless to say I pretty much didn't understand anything I heard for the first few months.

Anyway working as an English teacher didn't exactly afford me much practice speaking French, and I also didn't really know too many French people I could practice with. The life-saver was meeting my (French) boyfriend, who spoke excellent English but encouraged me to speak French with him sometimes nonetheless. Through him, I've obviously spent an increasing amount of time in the company of other French people, ie his friends and family. A lot of his friends have now become good friends of mine too.

So gradually over the last couple of years, my French has got to the point where I am fluent enough to have normal conversations with people without really having to work too hard. Films and television are still difficult but usually I get about 70% of what I'm watching/hearing. The thing that remains really difficult however is being in big groups of French people all talking fast, making jokes, cultural references often with the background noise or music of a bar or restaurant. I still find these situations incredibly difficult and tiring. Usually at least once a week I find myself in this type of situation, at a restaurant with 6 or 7 friends for example, and whilst it is slowly getting better I'm kind of disappointed that its still so difficult to follow these big group conversations, much less be able to contribute a lot myself. To be honest I find it kind of depressing when everyone else is laughing and I either missed the joke through a momentary lack of concentration, or either heard it but didn't understand it. And it happens fairly often.

When will this get better/easier? Can anyone else share their experiences or words of wisdom? Should I already be able to do this after 2 years in country?

Portofino Sun 10-Jul-11 19:12:50

I live in Belgium and still struggle after 5 years. It doesn't help that there are 2 languages. I think if I worked mainly with French speakers my french would have improved more than it has. I can get by but am no means fluent. And I am still a beginner at Dutch.

NerfHerder Sun 10-Jul-11 19:20:35

Have a friend that moved to Denmark, he is fluent now, so much so he thinks in Danish rather than English... he's been there 10 years. My MIL lived in France for 20 years and thought in french too (probably after 4 years or so)

UsingMainlySpells Sun 10-Jul-11 19:25:24

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

CoteDAzur Sun 10-Jul-11 19:26:53

I came to France over 10 years ago and immediately found myself in a Francophone group of friends. While they all spoke English individually, together they would understandably speak only French.

For the first three months, I understood nothing. Then I could understand but couldn't speak much until about the 6th month of my stay. After 6 months, I slowly started speaking, but only one-on-one with a patient friend. It was almost a year after my arrival that I could easily converse in French, even in a group.

Cultural references take some getting used to, and especially galling is French people's annoying "slang" of made-up words of backwards-spelling, like "meuf" for "femme" etc. They think this is funny hmm

UsingMainlySpells Sun 10-Jul-11 19:31:08

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

LeMousquetaireAnonyme Sun 10-Jul-11 19:32:02

You are doing really well after just 2 years.
I am french, DH is british, I lived in the UK for 7 years. I am fluent but they are still some jokes I don't get because I don't have the references, and I will never get them unless there is reruns of shows from his childhood. (watching "father ted" and "balckader" did help).
The worst bit is that now, I am so englicised that I don't get the french jokes because I left france in 1998 (serial expat) so I missed all the cultural references from then on and I have no idea who or what they are talking about unless it is big (I know who is nicolas wink).
I have been in romania for 3 years and I am nowhere near fluent (I can read and understand but not talk), I lived in japan for 3 years and same; I could get by for day to day life but not understand TV or even read (I was working in english though not in japanese).

I worked for 3 years in japan in english my english was quite good when I arrived but only reading and writing, I couldn't understand CNN. It took me about a year to understand the 80 % of the news. When I move to the UK, set back again because of the NI accent, I would say about a year and a bit to get there (without getting any jokes). So now, 13 years later, I do get most jokes (not that I find them all funny) and I have build up my references of past events, people, TV programs; but I still don't get all of the words play and some childhood things will forever evades me.

UsingMainlySpells Sun 10-Jul-11 19:32:18

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

JoleneJoleneJoleneJoleeene Sun 10-Jul-11 19:34:27

9 months, but had studied French post a level before I went. I even started speaking to my mum in French without realising once. Getting a French boyfriend improved my fluency ( and slang vocabulary) massively.

5moreminutes Sun 10-Jul-11 19:35:56

I've lived exactly 4 years in Germany and had 2 of my babies here but am still years off being fluent. I spoke very little German when I arrived despite having been married to a German (who I met in the UK) for 3 years before we moved here.

We speak English at home and have English TV, which I am sure does not help but UK tv is better than German, is a home comfort, and I tell myself it helps keep the kids fluent in English! Also my German husband has never had much patience with me speaking halting German as his English is fluent and he is the type who would happily do something for you than teach you, he just doesn't have the patience with beginners. However where we live there are no English speaking expats (as in, in the immediate area - there are plenty in Munich, which is technically only an hour away, but it's a bit of a trek in with 3 small kids) so I speak German to all my neighbours, mums of the kids friends, kids friends themselves (mainly, though the ones who are at ours a lot pick up an amount and reply in German to things I say in English to my own kids) DH's family etc. I am mostly in my home environment and have only worked on a very part time basis since we moved here, and like you it has been in English teaching - in one job I was hired specifically to "immerse" the children in English and specifically asked to speak no German except to staff, and the other job is an evening class I teach where I also speak about 75% English.

My older 2 kids (nearly 6 and nearly 4) are absolutely bilingual, sounding like native speakers of both languages, but as I moved here at 32 years old without a basis in the language and don't have a natural flair for languages I accept I will never feel 100% natural in German... This does mean that although in our small village I have lots of "friends" I could rely on and call on for help in an emergency, and whom I chat to every day, real good quality friendships are lacking, and like you I am hopeless in a crowd with people talking at once and background noise. I also struggle when the conversation leaves my comfort zone - due to the nature of my life atm I am well within my comfort zone talking about anything baby, birth, and small child related in German, but when we meet up with DH's childless friends the conversation often loses me!

Then there's Bavarian dialect added into the mix - I don't have a hope, luckily most people will automatically speak High German to me as a foreigner, but in groups Bayrish often takes over, plus there are still locals who cannot speak High German and only speak Bayrish, with whom I am reduced back to smile and nod, smile and nod...

Sounds as if you're doing well 2 years in to me! My MIL is originally Croatian but studied German at school and married non Croatian speaking FIL, and they always spoke German at home (so sadly DH never had the chance to pick up what would have been his mother tongue), she once told me she switched to dreaming in German after 9 years! I think that's an indicator of feeling at home in the language...

HopeForTheBest Sun 10-Jul-11 20:28:23

It wasn't until I met some people whose English was pretty dreadful (and who had no interest in practising on me) that my German improved. I worked for a German company, so my work-related language was very good, but that consisted of a limited, repetitive vocabulary.

It took me ages, but I can now (after 15 years) speak fluently, can follow any conversation in pretty much any German dialect, read anything, watch anything and keep up with those multi-level round-the-table conversations even when it is loud.

I finally feel that I am myself in both English and German.

You are doing really well!
After two years, I could do the one-on-one conversations, but would have been hopelessly lost in a group conversations.
Meeting people who have similar interests (but don't or don't want to speak English) really helps, as you are very motivated to talk and explain things. Well, that was how it happened with me. And watching lots of tv, listening to radio etc.

My written German is still appalling though. Absolutely dreadful. I never really got past very basic grammar.
I never dream in German, though I do think in it if I am speaking it.

MrsSchadenfreude Mon 11-Jul-11 12:05:27

My German is reasonably fluent (recently assessed as C1 in a test on European languages standard), despite not having used it since I left Vienna in 1990 (where I spent a year). My Romanian was pretty fluent (assessed C2) after 3-4 years there but is now hopeless. My theory is that this is because I learned the language "late" in life (in my 30s). I've now been in France for nearly 2 years, and while I can get by quite happily, and hold a conversation, I wouldn't describe myself as fluent at all. I still miss a lot. Work is almost entirely anglophone, as are all of the people I know - the only conversational French I have is in shops or with neighbours.

I do pick up languages quickly - my Dutch was not bad when I lived in Belgium, and I can also get by in Russian, Spanish and Hebrew. I also read books like 501 verbs for fun!

eslteacher Mon 11-Jul-11 17:42:49

Thanks for sharing, and for the words of encouragement all.

Realisitically looking back at how much progress I've made since 2 years ago, I'm really pleased. It just wears me down being in social situations that I know I would be really enjoying/participating more in if they were only in my native langauge! Its kind of depressing not being able to be your full "self" among groups of people you're trying to build friendships with...

dollydoodledo Tue 12-Jul-11 05:38:38

I lived in Norway for 6 years and was pretty much fluent with speaking and reading, but I always felt as you described in social situations. I could say what I needed to say at work but always avoided situations which involved chatting (and I like a good chat!) and was nervous whenever the phone rang at work. With groups I sometimes just needed moments to 'zone out' as it got too tiring to concentrate on what everyone was saying all of the time. 3 years ago we moved to Sydney and it was so liberating to just be able to speak without subconsciously planning in my head. Now my partner wants us to move back there next year and I desperately do not want to go as I felt I lost some of myself with the language and don't love the country enough. I felt my Norwegian was as good as it was going to get with regards to major breakthroughs and further improvement would be small and over a long time. I feel I have lost a bit of myself through living in Norway for 6 years and having 3 children each 2 years apart and am just beginning to find 'myself' again through being able to speak English and am enjoying easy chats in the park. One of my arguments against going back is the language but it is hard to describe to other people the effect of living with a different language, you have hit the nail on the head about not being your full self. I also like my children speaking my mother tongue to me and not looking at me like I'm stupid when singing nursery songs in English! Guess it depends how much you love the country you're in ...

JJ02 Sat 16-Jul-11 21:39:25

Hi I have lived here in France for 4 years, I had previously spent a year in France as a 19 yr old working. So to be fair when I came back 4 yrs ago I had a reasonable head start. After 4 yrs I'm pretty fluent, the difficulty comes when I have to read legal documents in french, and some other French like in books or magazines.
My reading ability is defiantly well below my speaking and comprehension. I have found that having children has made me make an effort to mix with other parents & to join the PTA etc and make me try to understand whats being discussed and join in.
I do sometimes think in French. I have owned a Bar and restaurant here and that too has helped immensely with the learning and listening.
When we came here we only had French TV which is DIRE but made us listen and try. Some times films are a little difficult as they speak so quickly but documentary and news reports are much easier to listen to. I just listen to the French people and try to remember their phrases and how they construct sentences, and I always ask for a definition if i don't understand when some one is speaking to me.
I think it sounds like you are doing really well after just two years. Good luck

frenchfancy Sun 17-Jul-11 12:03:36

I would say it took me 5 years before spending long evenings talking with groups in french stopped giving me a headache.

I think you are doing really well after 2 years. The only thing to do now is keep practicing. The more you do it the easier it will become.

fraktious Sun 17-Jul-11 12:25:35

I can't do it for more than an hour. Then I start to zone out and feel tired!

My DH also suffers from a lack of patience with beginners and doesn't understand how limiting language can be so we get trapped in the vicious cycle of trying to speak, failing to discuss anything ptoprrly, reverting to English and not wanting to bother again. He will also irritatingly try to speak for me in situations where I require moral support rather than linguistic help (usually dealing with admin).

I'm in my 3rd year now, having done merely a GCSE in French, work 90% in English and most of my meaningful friendships are with anglophones. My receptive skills are miles above my productive skills but I reckon that's more confidence than ability.

Tenebrist Sun 17-Jul-11 13:22:44

I moved to Germany straight after graduating and have been there for the past 20 years. I had minimal German skills when I arrived and two years later I took the Kleines Sprachdiplom run by Goethe Institute, approx. equivalent to A-Level). I went to quite a lot of language lessons in those first two years.

I've been a translator of art/arts texts for about 5 ears now and sometimes end up translating stuff even German native speakers find tricky - intellectual German is pretty unreadable and dense. My main weakness is that, having lived in Berlin the entire time, I have great problems with understanding southern German. We're going to the Austrian Alps on holiday this year and I'm hoping the locals will go into high German for me, or I'll be lost. Funnily enough, my German is now tinged with a Berlin accent so 'Southerners' think I'm a native speaker, because all 'Northerners' talk funny anyway - Berliners can still hear the English accent slightly, though.

And our ex-neighbour spoke thick Berlin dialect, combined with a mumble, which defeated me altogether. Crowded rooms with people talking over each other and loud background music will ALWAYS be a struggle.

redexpat Wed 27-Jul-11 21:19:10

I'm in Denmark. Foreigners have the right to 3 years free danish classes which has been a GODSEND. I tried to learn online before I moved but there was nothing. Tried to join a class at home - there was one in my home town but only for the over 50s and that was the only one in teh SW of England.

I've been here for four years. I'm generally better at reading at a higher level than speaking, but normal daily danish is fine. I'm still a bit clumsy and could express things better but I'm working on it. My Dr said I don't need a translator for when I give birth which is nice and I'm well chuffed! I still don't understand the jokes, but I think that's cultural rather than linguistic. I still struggle when there is a lot of background noise, and don't know when that will change.

pigpog Sun 31-Jul-11 19:40:12

I'm in Denmark too, and have been here for 6 years now. It's only within the last 2-3 years that I've felt comfortable speaking Danish, but I'd say I'm still far off being as comfortable as I am in English. I have a friend who's been here for 14 years and she says it's still not the same, so I don't know if it ever will be!

I tend to struggle with chitchat, really hate having friendly conversations with people as I never know what to say, how to say things, and things often come out wrong, or take painfully long to get out, so I tend not to bother. I know a lot of people tend to think I'm quite stuck up because of this, but that couldn't be further from the truth! I find it so tiring to have to keep up with everyone and also give input, so I tend to be very quiet, but if someone speaks to me I'm always happy to try.

I didn't have a translator either time I gave birth, and my Danish was appaling with DS1, everyone just spoke English to me. After DS2 I was admitted to hospital for a week with pancreatitis and found it so much easier being able to speak the language! Everyone says my Danish is great so I must be doing okay though!

Join the discussion

Registering is free, easy, and means you can join in the discussion, watch threads, get discounts, win prizes and lots more.

Register now »

Already registered? Log in with: