Heidelberg castle, mysteriously surrounded by fog
After living in Heidelberg
for a couple of weeks I noticed that most Germans only see two categories of German proficiency. Either you speak German perfectly, or you don't speak it at all. So as soon as I say anything in German they assumed I belonged in the first category and started speaking at mind-blowing speed and sometimes in a local dialect. When in fact I was somewhere in between, I could understand and speak it as long as it was spoken slowly and well articulated. I also noticed that the hardest thing to understand were the short sentences. When somebody tells you a story you have the time to adjust to their way of talking, you get the context of the story, and because of the context you can understand words that you otherwise wouldn't be able to understand, but when somebody comes up to you and says a single sentence, it is over before you know it and you're just kind of standing there, staring at them and saying "Wie bitte?"
Speaking Dutch as my native language definitely helps, since the vocabulary is often very similar.
Every time I didn't know how to say a german word, I just "germanized" the Dutch words for it, and that worked in maybe 60% of the cases. (In the other 40% the word doesn't exist at ALL in German and people look at you as if you had lost your mind) There are also many "false friends" where you think you understand a German word because it's similar to the Dutch one, but it actually has a different meaning. (For example, the Dutch word for "lake" is "meer" and for "sea" "zee" but in German it's the other way around "lake" is "See" and "sea" is "Meer" stuff like this happens all the time)
With the other exchange students I spoke English or German depending on the situation, usually German when we felt like good students adapting to Germany, then English when the German didn't go fast enough and you needed to get a point across, and then late in the evening when people were relaxing or drunk it usually went back to German because nobody cared about the mistakes they made anymore :)
Sometimes even mixing languages in the middle of sentences, not really the ideal way to learn a language but it happens subcounsiously.
Once an American student asked me "So, have you been to das military base?" with "das" being the only German word in the entire sentence, he didn't even realize it :-D
(There is a huge american military base just outside of Heidelberg, since Baden-Würtemberg -the German state where Heidelberg is located- was in the US-controlled part of Germany after WWII)
Another thing about living in a country where you need to learn the language is that you never feel like you're making any progress at all, it's pretty frustrating, it's only when some Belgian friends came visit me that they told me that my German had improved a lot. Also, I wish I could have stayed longer, since I think I need at least a year to have really picked up the language. Ah well, I can always move back there some day :)