Name: Brandon R. Sepulvado
Location of Study:
Program of Study:
A brief personal bio:
I graduated from Centenary College of Louisiana in 2012 with a BA in philosophy and sociology. I am presently a PhD student in Notre Dame’s sociology department and just completed my master’s thesis. My academic interests center on social networks, culture, and social theory. My thesis examined how cultural tastes influence social network structure, and my dissertation work will extend this line of research by investigating polarization, particularly the processes through which cultural and social boundaries align. Central to these projects is a theoretical concern with how cultural tastes coevolve with social networks and how best to conceive boundaries.
Why this summer language abroad opportunity is important to me:
The SLA grant is important to me because it will help me achieve my educational and professional goals. While French social theory has always been influential in sociology, Gabriel Tarde receives much less attention than his thought deserves. Unfortunately, I have read the entirety of his works translated into English and need the ability to read French to study further his scholarly corpus. Additionally, I want to survey members of an American Indian tribe in southern Louisiana for my dissertation, and a considerable portion of the tribe speaks only French. The intensive language acquisition that the SLA grant encourages will enable me to gather a better sample of tribal members. Finally, a few of the top scholars of polarization and social networks work in France, and learning French will allow me to better communicate with these individuals.
What I hope to achieve as a result of this summer study abroad experience:
Growing up in Louisiana, I took French courses during high school and became quite proficient, even getting along quite well during a previous trip to Paris and Normandy. Unfortunately, I did not maintain my proficiency during undergrad. Thus, I hope not only to regain my previous level of comfort with the language, but also surpass my previous expertise. A more advanced understanding of French will permit me to read many more works of social theory that have not been translated into English. Also, spending a prolonged time in Paris at Alliance Française will help my pronunciation sound more natural and less hesitant. This will ensure my interactions with tribal members go smoothly during data collection for my dissertation and will help me make first impressions with my French colleagues that indicate competence and confidence. Finally, as an avid Francophile, I want to learn as much firsthand knowledge about the French peoples and culture as possible.
My specific learning goals for language and intercultural learning this summer:
At the end of the summer, I want to be able to speak naturally and fluidly with native French speakers, in such a way that will not make potential interviewees feel uncomfortable.
At the end of the summer, I want to have a sufficient knowledge of French that I will be able to utilize archives at Sciences Po that contain original manuscripts of Gabriel Tarde’s works.
At the end of the summer, I want to be able to discuss academic topics, such as classical sociological theory and social networks, with French scholars.
My plan for maximizing my international language learning experience:
The quickest way I will begin to maximize my experience is through events and outings planned by Alliance Française Paris Île-de-France. These events include museum tours, literature readings, cooking classes, and movies. I also have planned excursions to various sites of sociological relevance, such as Emile Durkheim’s grave, August Comte’s house, and Gabriel Tarde’s family home in Sarlat. The final way I plan to maximize my experience is to meet with scholars whose work I admire. For example, there is a group of researchers in Paris who are interested in Gabriel Tarde, and there is another individual with whom I hope to begin a paper on culture and social networks.
Reflective Journal Entry 1:
I arrived in Paris earlier this morning. When exiting the airport, I was shocked that everyone automatically spoke to me in English. I did not even have a chance to attempt a French conversation until I arrived at my apartment. My original flight was cancelled due to a strike in Dublin (my connecting city), and I had to arrange at the last minute a flat for the couple of days before I can move into my main apartment. The individual renting me the apartment was unable to give me the keys in person, so she left them with the door person. The woman holding the keys was very nice and did not speak any English; I had no option but to get through this conversation in French! I stumbled around, searching for vocabulary words I had forgotten, but was nonetheless able to get my point across and the keys. Getting around takes some planning because I do not have internet on my cell phone. I have to plan my transportation and get directions to destinations before I leave the apartment. Luckily, between my French and others’ English, I have been able to get help when lost. Also, while Paris is a large city, it is a bit isolating here without knowing anyone. As a social networks researcher, I know very well the effects of placing someone in an environment without any contacts, but it is different experiencing it firsthand. I am excited for classes to start not only because I will have people with whom I will be in regular contact, but also because I will be able to travel around more easily when my French proficiency increases. I can’t wait to get started on a summer of immersion in this wonderful city!
Reflective Journal Entry 2:
I still cannot believe that I have the opportunity to study French in Paris. I am in the second week of class, and I have an amazing teacher and classmates. My teacher Linda is fluent in French (her native language), Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian, but she is only somewhat proficient in English. Initially, this scared me because I had a couple of questions the first day of class and neither of us could adequately convey them in either language. Some Spanish speakers who were also proficient in English luckily were able to translate for us! I now realize that this is a great benefit because I am (and will be) forced to figure out how to say everything I need in French; there is no safety blanket. There is also another PhD student from Berkeley who is in my class. He won’t speak to me in English, unless I have no clue what he is saying, and even then he just translates what he said. I originally thought this would get old, but he has turned out to be a great resource, especially when trying to translate something that has no direct English equivalent. He is good at anticipating questions I have and providing good help.
The first day of class was overwhelming! I could barely understand what the professor said and felt that all the other students were much more advanced than I am. The teacher even said that the level may not be appropriate but to wait a few days to see if that was the case. After the first day or two, I began to understand much more of what she said. I still can’t understand every word, but I get her general points. Also, the other students seem to be intimidated by everyone else. I think my inability to understand the teacher at first was a result of being in a class setting since high school, and I am pretty sure that my perception about the other students’ proficiency is largely a misconception.
In class, the textbook mentioned a phrase “la vie quotidienne” to refer to everyday life, but, if I have observed anything in my stay so far, it is that there is nothing quotidian or perfunctory about learning French in Paris. But, I think that is what makes this experience so great. I don’t know how to say much of what I want to say (e.g., when ordering food or buying groceries), but I have to learn the vocabulary to get by. Likewise, when I am exploring and see signs providing some type of pertinent information, I often have to look up the meaning to some of the words. Without the immersion afforded by the SLA grant, it would be hard to gain such a rich understanding of the language in such a short amount of time. Learning to speak for “la vie quotidienne” makes things stick in my memory much quicker than learning a new set of vocabulary words or phrases in a class.
Reflective Journal Entry 3:
Paris is an amazing city with which I am quickly falling in love. While the major attractions (e.g., Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, etc) are very nice, Paris is one of the most central places in the history of sociology, and I am thoroughly enjoying visiting sites related to my discipline’s history. Between the Pere Lachaise and Montparnasse cemeteries, I have visited the graves of the most of sociology’s major figures: Saint Simon, Comte, Durkheim, and Bourdieu. I also visited August Comte’s house. Saint Simon mentored Comte, who would later produce more lasting work than Saint Simon, but Durkheim was the individual who actually started sociology in France’s university system. Bourdieu, on the other hand, was a contemporary sociologist who shaped the direction of sociology across the globe. While visiting these sites, I met a few students who study sociology here in Paris and had a chance to practice speaking French. I think I anticipated that French sociology students would be interested in major historical figures who came from their country, but they were certainly surprised during our discussions when they found out about my interest in 19th century sociologists.
I have been surprised how difficult it can be to practice French while learning in Paris. Many individuals, if not most, speak some English, and, while this was comforting just after my arrival, it makes practicing my oral skills difficult. I have had many conversations in which the other person eventually switched to English. Usually, this does not happen because I either do not understand what the person is saying or cannot get my point across. Rather, the other person responds, and I take a moment to interpret what he or she said or pause to construct a response. The moment I do not automatically respond or hesitate, the other individual restates what he or she said in English. However, I have found that this is more prevalent in the busier areas, so I have begun to schedule outings to less busy or peripheral areas. Not only does that allow me to have more time practicing conversational skills, but also it gives me the chance to see a less known side of Paris.
Class this week has been particularly useful. We are focusing on various past tenses, which is great since I was to be able to read (and eventually write) in French about the history of social thought. There are a couple of tenses that can be a bit confusing to know when to use, but I am putting in extra work outside of class because this so directly relates to my scholarly work and goals. I downloaded a journal article on Gabriel Tarde’s thought, and, while I definitely had to look up some vocabulary, I was encouraged by the amount of the grammatical structure I understood. Hopefully, things keep going as well as they presently are.
Reflective Journal Entry 4:
Unfortunately, I was not able to discover as much this week because I was ill for several days. I am lucky though, as the extra week in June meant that my class spent the time reviewing and not learning anything new. Also, I was able to make progress on a couple of my journaling assignments.
First, since Bastille Day is coming up, I decided to see if there are differences between the official and unofficial accounts. To get an official account of the holiday, I spoke with an individual at Alliance Française who is responsible for cultural engagement. She told me the historical account and that most people go to the official events (i.e., parade at Champs-Élysées and fireworks at/around the Eiffel Tower). She mentioned that this holiday is pretty much the same as July 4 in the United States. To get another, less official side of the event, I asked my teacher what she thought about the holiday. She too said that it is just like July 4 in the US, but she said that only some Parisians attend the big events, while many others have their own celebrations. While both liken the event to the American national holiday, they differed in how important the average person thought the officially sponsored events are. However, both accounts stressed the importance of Bastille Day for French citizens’ personal identities, but, if this is actually the case, then I think Bastille Day differs from July 4 in the US because the salience of the national holiday really varies between individuals.
I also asked a couple of minority individuals about their feelings toward the community in which they live. The first individual came here from Ecuador about a year ago to live with her boyfriend. She generally did feel like she is treated poorly, and I only heard a single real grievance. She is still learning French and gets frustrated because, when most French speakers realize she is not fluent in French, they automatically switch to English. While she speaks English, she said only a few people are willing to attempt a conversation in Spanish and that, as a result, her English has improved much more quickly than her French. Additionally, because of her immigrant status and inability to speak French well, she seems to be much more reliant on her boyfriend for social integration.
The second individual to whom I spoke was a woman evangelizing on a street corner. She thought that the community generally treats her poorly, but I think this impression was shaped from experiences while she approaches others in conversion attempts. This really isn’t surprising, given that French look down upon public displays of religion much more than Americans. In fact, she contrasted her treatment here with how things would be in the United States, which she thinks is a much more righteous nation than France. However, she insisted that the negativity she experiences reinforces her conviction that this is where God wants her to be.
While I was unable to do a lot of exploration this week, I was able to visit some bookstores near the Sorbonne, and they were amazing! One of my main reasons for learning French is to be able to read some sociological works from the late 1800s that have not been translated into English, in particular pieces by Gabriel Tarde. In the United States, it is very difficult to find the extant English translations and even more difficult to find the untranslated French works. However, between a couple of bookshops here, I found the majority of Tarde’s scholarly corpus. Even though I can’t easily read everything at this point, I bought all of his books I could find. Now, I have to figure out how to get them all home! What a great find!
Reflective Journal Entry 5:
This week was the second part of my current level at Alliance Française. We covered another verb form that will be especially helpful for reading classical sociology texts. I can tell that my proficiency is increasing a good bit because I am now able to get through everyday exchanges with strangers relatively easily. If I need to talk about a domain with which I am not familiar, it can still be difficult, but I am nonetheless really happy that my language skills have made a considerable improvement. Also, I have spent more time attempting to read French texts, and my written comprehension has improved a surprising bit, as well. In fact, my reading comprehension is definitely better than my oral comprehension. Next week in class, we take a test that examines everything we have practiced in the current level; I am anxious to see how I will do.
This week, I had the chance to take two major outings. The first was to a wine tasting with a friend from class. Aside from tasting great wine, I really enjoyed learning about the importance the French place on geographical location instead of simply on grape varieties. I learned that even in the same general area and using the same wines, different winemakers swear by their own idiosyncratic practices to grow and make their wines. Many wine enthusiasts here often swear not by a particular region, but by a particular vineyard within a particular region. Cultural practices are very tied to their wine preferences. Second, I was able to go to a restaurant that specializes in southwestern French cuisine. I originally did not know this cuisine is special, but I found out that it is roughly the equivalent of comfort food in the United States. When I asked my served why this type of food is so special (the restaurant was packed, and I was told it is always like that), he responded that the cuisine is not pretentious like that for which France is famous. He said this type of cuisine uses simple ingredients that can be found in many provincial homes and farms and that is was prepared with care for the consumer (implying that preparation of the most popular French cuisine has more to do with the chef than the customer). I had a huge omelet for dinner, and it did indeed have very simply ingredients (eggs, ham, peppers, and potatoes). It was incredible.
For Bastille Day, I did not make it to the parade, but I did get to see the wonderful firework show. I did not go to the Eiffel Tower itself (from where the majority of the fireworks were shot) because I went about a mile from it earlier that day only to have trouble doing anything because of the huge number of people. I viewed the show from a bridge half way between Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower, which turned out to be an incredible location. The bridge was mostly full, but I am pretty sure that there were very few tourists (or at least very few individuals who did not speak French fluently). Someone told me the next day in class that there were a ton of tourists at both the parade and the firework show. However, he also told me that there were a lot of French citizens. Thus, I do not think the holiday seems to be too different from what one would expect to find in a major US city.
Reflective Journal Entry 6:
I cannot believe my time here in Paris is coming to a close. I have been visiting my favorite places in the city a last time before I leave and realizing that I should have spent more time in a few places, Probably the one place I wish I would have frequented more is an open air market called Le Marché des Enfants Rouges. It isn’t too big, but it has food products from all over the world. I am particularly fond of a Moroccan booth. Even though Paris is a large city, my everyday life has come to revolve around my neighborhood along the border of the third and fourth arrondissements, and I will certainly miss the experience of a cohesive neighborhood when I return to Mishawaka. Fortunately, the Notre Dame community will help buffer my transition.
This week, I had the chance to speak with a few people about their feelings regarding the United States. The first person to whom I spoke was the owner of the Moroccan food booth. Surprisingly, he did not have any specific feelings; his response was simply “It’s fine.” I asked him what he meant by that, and he said that it is an okay country but that he prefers France. This type of response was uncommon.
The other two individuals with whom I spoke were much younger. They were a (native Parisian) couple I met while walking around the Canal Saint-Martin one evening. Their comments generally revolved around the US having too much power and wielding it unfairly. They spoke about Gaza and how they thought the US should not be aiding Israel like it currently does. However, both individuals (separately) had spent a good deal of time in the United States and enjoyed their stay. After talking with them about their experiences in large cities, such as New York and Miami, they even expressed the desire to return. The overall impression I got was that they appreciate life within the US but condemn our actions within the world system. The opinions of this couple reflected most of the comments concerning the US I heard while walking around Paris or reading the newspaper.
Reflection on my language learning and intercultural gains:
I learned a lot about myself and the language acquisition process in general when I was in Paris this summer. First, I learned that parts of the process can be very hard. I enjoy grammar (in English) and had few difficulties learning French grammar, but there were a few lessons that were particularly challenging. Second, the language acquisition process can be very emotionally taxing. While people in Paris were overwhelmingly nice, sometimes I felt very isolated since I could only speak well enough to get around and accomplish everyday tasks. I did not anticipate the emotional toll of not having intensive conversations with friends.
To learn French in Paris, an English-speaker must be persistent! Parisians notice very quickly that you are not a native French speaker and will automatically start speaking English. I learned that, if I kept speaking in French after the individual switched to English, that she or he would eventually switch back to speaking French.
I generally accomplished my goals. While I still have difficulties understanding spoken French, I am confident in my reading skills. Being able to read French has already helped me communicate with French colleagues and read French texts.
Reflection on my summer language abroad experience overall:
One of the insights that I have brought back and that continues to impress me is an empathy for non-native English speakers in the United States. As a doctoral student, I work with many individuals who have learned or are learning to speak English, and I cannot image that burden on top of acquiring disciplinary knowledge. Learning a language truly takes dedication and emotional resilience. I also now have a much clearer idea of the steps I need to take to become an expert in French social thought. After taking classes this summer, I know what grammar I still need to learn and that my oral French skills are weaker than my written skills. This might seem discouraging to some, but, to me, it is encouraging to know exactly what I need to do. With this knowledge, I can create a game plan for the next year or so to get myself to where I need to be.
My advice to someone applying for an SLA grant is simple: be prepared, and know what lies ahead. Spending the summer immersed in another culture is an experience of a lifetime, but maximizing one’s learning experience requires much determination and dedication.
How I plan to use my language and intercultural competences in the future:
When thinking about how to maintain the French skills I have acquired over the summer, I have two main considerations: written and oral proficiency. Maintaining and improving my ability to read French is probably the most important to me professionally because I need to read texts that have not been translated into English. This will be a relatively easy task since I have to read French works for my social theory comprehensive examination that I will take next semester and for a paper I am currently writing. Improving my oral skills is a bit trickier because I am not regularly exposed to French speakers. However, I plan to take advantage of activities hosted by Notre Dame’s French club in order to speak French with others. My SLA experience has also opened another door in the form of a fellowship through the French Embassy in Washington, DC. They offer a grant for US PhD students to study with French scholars, and, while I was in Paris, I met an individual who is willing to be my French adviser (a requirement for the fellowship).