For the past two years, I have been taking classes in a language that is very useful for me to know for my research and international collaborations. In four semesters of taking this class 5 days/week, I have done a lot of homework, taken a lot of quizzes, and done a lot of reading, listening, and speaking. Then I went to a country in which this language is spoken. In fact, I am there right now.
I was nervous about going to this country for the first time since I took the language classes. What if I had made no more progress than I had been able to make previously on my own using books and CD's? What if my two years of language classes had made me an expert at doing homework assignments in a textbook but had left me unprepared to comprehend and communicate in this language in the real world? I have long been able to communicate at a basic level in this language, but this basic level has been deeply unsatisfying, hence my decision to take formal classes.
As soon as I got off the plane, I could tell the difference in my comprehension level, and this has been confirmed as I have spent more time here. My comprehension level is not 100%, but it might be somewhere near 80%, and that's a huge difference from the last time I was here.
My speaking abilities are not as good, but I knew that. Spending time here has helped a bit, and I am optimistic about improving with more time here (and more classes next year).
I have been having fun surprising people who don't expect me to speak the language, and have tried to convince a few people (strangers who started talking to me because it is obvious that I am a foreigner) that I am from a mid-sized provincial town in this country. I picked a town that city people have heard of but that is a place that someone who looks and dresses like me would be unlikely to be from. The response is always entertaining, then I laugh and explain, and then they laugh.
There are some rather conservative parts of this country, and in these places, the culture clash is more startling and less entertaining. In these places, men will shake the hands of my male colleagues but will not even look at me or speak to me, much less shake my hand. [Don't even bother with the 'You're probably imagining it' comments. I have been spending substantial amounts of time in this country nearly every year for the last 15 years and I have a significant dataset of unequivocal experiences, ranging from trivial to serious]. My language skills are of less use in those places, though it is still helpful to be able to understand what people are saying.
So, in answer to the question (which I asked myself) of whether two years of language study at a university can be useful, in my case the answer is definitely yes. I am sure I would learn more/faster if I were immersed in this language more, but it's hard enough making time to take the class. Based on my experiences on this trip, I am very happy with what I have learned in my classes and how useful the course experiences have been. In fact, I am about to send an email to my language instructor telling her exactly that.
Note: I am not sure of my internet access after today, so I will likely off the air for the rest of the week, returning some time next week. This is post #500, so maybe it's time to take a short break anyway.
2 years ago