I found this article in the BBC a few months ago about the fact that few people in the UK can speak a second language. This is probably true in the US as well, since we have similar education systems, etc. When I was growing up in school, we had three choices for languages: Spanish, German and French. I took German for 2 years, but I wasn’t very good at it. I can still remember a little bit (now I wish I knew more; it is an interesting language), but really I can’t even speak a bit.
Of course the same problem happens in Japan and Korea: children grow up learning English or some other language, but usually forget.
My high school was unusual becuase we had a class on Mandarin Chinese, and since I didn’t do well in German, I changed my class to be Chinese. I learned a lot, and can still speak a little, but I still didn’t learn enough. Only as an adult did I really start to learn any language seriously (Japanese of course), and that was because I studied in college for 2 years, and then met my wife after that.1
But the most important point about the article is this: it’s really helpful to be functional in a language; you don’t always have to be fluent. Functional means you can do basic things, have basic conversations, etc. Fluent of course is fluent. Fluency takes many tens of thousands of hours, but at least if you’re functional at a language, you can still have fun with it.
Right now, I am functional in Japanese, and getting functional in Korean. I probably will never be fluent in Japanese, but that’s ok. I can definitely travel around Tokyo, read signs and books, find what I need or talk with local people (including my in-laws), and that gives me a feeling of satisfaction. Instead of depending on English translations, I am free to move about and do what I want. I hope to do the same with Korean as well.
So, anyhow, don’t worry about being fluent in a language. Have fun and be functional instead. You can be very functional if you want to, but have fun doing it.
1 I also learned Thai and Vietnamese in college. I learned Vietnamese 2 years, and could speak pretty good for a while, though I’ve totally forgotten now. It helped when I was in Vietnam though.