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by Erica Fischer on Jan 8, 2010

Foreign Exchange Student Experience

I spend much of my time in Germany wishing the official language was Spanish so that I could communicate. Spanish was the only language offered at my high school, and I had studied it for 3 years before embarking on a journey to Germany. At age 16, I was awarded the Congress-Bundestag Exchange scholarship. No German skills were required for the scholarship. Thanks to a volunteer tutor, I arrived in Germany knowing several key nouns and verbs and a smattering of basic adjectives. I was very confused and continually curious.

Living in a foreign culture and being immersed in a language is frequently cited as the best way to learn a language. In fact, it is the best way to acquire a language and over time (see language acquisition versus language learning). I did indeed acquire the German language in just three months. Upon my arrival in Germany, I was enrolled at the local Gymnasium (that is the term for the college bound school track.) I gradually discerned that the local school system had never developed rules or expectations for exchange students. The secretaries allowed me to switch classes at my whim. I eventually exploited this loophole to my linguistic advantage. I enrolled in a 7th grade German class, where my classmates were amazed at my ability to parse sentences. I took a 13th grade English class to give myself a break from the poor teaching and monotony of the 10th grade grammar and vocabulary-based English course. I skipped all my math exams as I had no idea what the instructor was covering; it turned out they were in the thick of calculus studies. I loved Chemistry, my favorite subject in the states and the introductory class was essentially a review for me. The organic Chemistry instructor denied me entry fearing I’d already missed too much by the time I learned the course existed. I dropped physics after sitting through several sessions in which I couldn’t even determine the general theme of the class.
School took up a great deal of my day, but it was only a good language acquisition opportunity for me after I rearranged my schedule to give my brain a chance to acquire the language with familiar topics. I recall fondly the topics I learned in my Chemistry class and I was in fact able to learn new skills due to my comfort and ability to understand a good deal of the content. When you are presenting lessons to students, be certain that you present material in a way that allows students to make sense of a good deal of the content. Only with comprehension will language acquisition occur.
Looking back, I am amazed at my ability to acquire so much, so quickly. Within three months of my arrival, I was conversing on a wide variety of topics. I could have taken advantage of so many more opportunities if I’d been wiser. I wish I’d visited the local library each afternoon to read children’s books. I wish I’d volunteered in a first grade classroom to see what they were learning and listen to story time. I am grateful I wasn’t shy to enroll in classes for which I was too old or too knowledgeable. German is not an easy language, but with enough exposure, you too can acquire everything you need to enjoy fascinating conversations with native speakers.
Elementary in Spanish
Erica Fischer
Erica is the founder and CEO of Calico Spanish. Her passion for teaching her own children to speak Spanish led her to create Calico Spanish. Our mission is to give all children the opportunity to learn to speak real Spanish for life.

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