Post-Program Reflections

It is time for me to reflect on my experiences as a student of German and as an American in Germany. What did I learn about the acquisition of languages? I believe that the most important factor in learning a language is time. Even though I lived in Germany and studied the language systematically, it still took time to acquire vocabulary and learn grammatical structures. Even more difficult was utilizing the vocabulary and grammar that I had learned to speak German, since real-time communication allows very little time to reflect on correct usage.

Even at the end of my stay in Germany, it was difficult for me to understand native German speakers for two reasons: first, they spoke too quickly for me to recognize all of the words and grammatical structures they were using; second, they used vocabulary that I did not know. My ability to speak German was also hampered by my limited vocabulary and incomplete knowledge of grammar. I also struggled to to recognize and formulate German idioms. When writing German, I would also “think” in English idioms and formulate German phrases with these in mind. I had to rely on someone who was fluent in German to show me when I had used an English idiom or when I needed to use a German idiom.

In my SLA proposal, I articulated several goals which I intended to meet after the completion of my eight-week course at the Goethe Institut:

  1. Internalize the morphological and syntactical principles of German such that I can recognize them effortlessly while reading German texts.
  2. Learn to easily comprehend spoken German and acquire the ability to competently converse in German.
  3. Be able to write German with sufficient competency to carry on written correspondence with German colleagues.

Although I am significantly more comfortable with German now than when I first arrived in Germany, I am still only an advanced beginner. Somewhat disappointingly, my course at the Goethe Institut did not cover all of the basic grammatical principles of German. Given what I did learn, however, both at the Goethe Institut and in my graduate German for reading course, I can decipher most of the grammar that I encounter, at least enough to grasp the basic meaning of a text.

Regarding my second goal of being able to speak German and understand spoken German: I cannot easily speak German or understand native German speakers for the reasons mentioned above. But my German for reading course did not teach me to speak or understand spoken German in any way, so I am definitely closer to competency in these areas than I was at the beginning of my studies in Germany. I believe that I have come closest to reaching the third goal of being able to write emails in German. When I am writing, I have more time to reflect on grammatical construction or look up words in a dictionary; I can also have someone else proof-read what I have written, in case I have made mistakes. I could not write anything especially elegant or complicated, but I believe that I know German well enough to communicate through writing on a basic level.

I found that humility is an essential quality when living or travelling in a foreign culture. It is disorienting to be a foreigner. It is uncomfortable to be faced with ambiguity. It is difficult to recognize the cultural preconceptions that often lead us to misinterpret cultural norms or interpersonal interactions. When I encountered situations where things were done differently than in the US, my initial reaction often depended on whether the change affected me positively or negatively. Eventually I learned to avoid judging the difference as good or bad and instead used it to gain insight into myself, my culture, or the culture in which I was a visitor.



Final Reflection

  1. Reflect on your language learning and acculturation during your SLA Grant experience. 

The opportunities afforded to me through the SLA Grant for French language study in Switzerland procured my improved comprehension, conversational skills, and cultural understanding of an additional corner of the Francophone world. As evidenced by my courses and interactions in a Francophone context, I perceive my language acquisition process as something that grows in complexity and capacity with each experience to exercise more nuance and precision. Before embarking on this summer language study, I had not explored the full breadth of strategies for building this nuance, especially through reading novels and short stories in French. My course of study and simultaneous independent learning began to open doors for understanding French rhetoric that requires greater complexity: humor, metaphors, hyperbole, and other stylistic devices that I had not previously engaged. During this language study experience, I held in mind the goals established at the onset of the program, and I feel that I have in large part accomplished them.

  1. Reflect on your SLA Grant experience overall.

On the whole, this language study experience exposed me to a small portion of the European Francophone world, a reflective contrast to the Francophone West African context in which I had previously studied the language. While in Senegal, French was something I consistently politically and historically associated with colonialist rule and imposition. It is an enduring mark of the harm done by France during its colonial period in Senegal and throughout much of the African continent, and it endures as a deep scar and conflicted tether to France still today. While in Switzerland, this dynamic political and historical pairing of language with post-colonialism discourse was largely void. In Geneva and the French-speaking portions of the country, French serves as a lingua franca, a means of conducting international negotiations within international organizations, businesses, and the United Nations itself. Insights about the cultural perceptions of language within the Francophone world have marked my notions of what it means to be a French language learner, someone who enters into the politics and power dynamics of the French language.

I would advise someone who was considering applying for an SLA Grant to discuss seriously the cultural context and spaces of identity to be occupied during their period of language learning. They should explore before departure the ways in which they are prepared to answer to questions about politics, power, and national identity while abroad. Most importantly, I would encourage students to use their advisor as a resource for thinking deeply about this grant in the context of personal and professional aims. I am extremely grateful to my advisor for her mentorship and encouragement in pointing me toward various possibilities as I formed my grant application, and would encourage others to seek the same form of feedback.

  1. How do you plan to use your language and intercultural competences in the future?

Perhaps the most anticipated and worthwhile portion of concluding my time in Switzerland is advancing and applying my improvements in language to other settings. For the remainder of my academic career at Notre Dame, French will be a cornerstone of my research inquiry and senior thesis. As a student of International Economics, French serves as my concentration language for which I will select a compilation of primary sources and academic publications for use in my thesis. In particular, I will be studying papers written by Senegalese academics, though Francophone European scholars’ work will also inform my analysis. Post-graduation, I am interested in pursuing research or work in another part of Francophone West Africa. I perceive my French studies as inseparable from learning about economics; the history of the linguistic imposition of French through colonial rule is a root identity marker of socio-economic disparity in the global south. Already, the professional implications of French have presented themselves in internships and fieldwork research environments. I look forward to continuously investing in my capacity and passion for the language.

Opportunities for French Practice and Immersion in Geneva

While Geneva resides within the Francophone canton of Switzerland, it is home to expats who congregate in Switzerland for its centrality as a hub of international affairs, business, technology, and more. For this reason, outlets for non-native French speakers to practice and develop their capabilities in informal settings are abundant. I have taken advantage of several of these opportunities (many of which are provided without cost by the city of Geneva) during my time here, and they continue to open up doors to accessing the rich public life of the city, including its art, music, and film.

Amongst others, the city offers language exchange groups almost daily (with a particular emphasis on French). Midway through the summer, a public initiative called “French in the park” invited participants to attend talks and language exchange opportunities for learners of all levels in a nearby green space. The initiative proved wildly successful and remained in high demand. There are also “philosophy cafés” for those whose French level permits discussion at a deeper level about issues of morality, ethics, and various philosophical traditions.

Having this breadth of opportunities available to me in Geneva builds upon my official course of study and my independent language learning. To be in a space that so deeply embraces the collective goal of learning languages affirms my desire to continue the academic and relational work of studying French.

Notes on Food Sovereignty, Social Justice, and Locality in Switzerland

Central to my experiences in Switzerland are notions of food sovereignty, sustainable land development, and market demand for food. Notoriously, Switzerland is home to high prices and cost of living standards, making for painful weekly trips to the grocery store. Consequentially, I find myself weekly (and sometimes even more frequently) at farmers’ markets throughout Geneva and across the border in France. Sprawling with vendors of cheese, pastries, olives, flowers, falafel sandwiches, fruits, vegetables, meat, crafts, and many more niches, the daily markets of Geneva offer a great deal of connectedness to producers and vendors for those who are interested in ascertaining the source of their food.

As a vegetarian aiming to eat and consume in a socially conscious manner, Geneva’s many markets and interaction spaces for learning about food production offer me a means of consuming more wisely. The social reverberations of consumer-side market decisions carry a feeling of immediacy. For example, throughout the sprawling hills and mountainsides of Switzerland, Swiss cow farmers face a strikingly high suicide rate. Living in relative isolation and facing dropping prices of Swiss milk products (as consumers shift toward buying French milk), movements have emerged to support the market power of Swiss cow farmers through socially conscious buying patterns. The immediacy of consumers’ decisions feels local, tangible, and integrated into the public consciousness. I envision myself maintaining a desire to understand the source and significance of my food, and to build consumption habits that are sustainable and just.

Blending Language and Drawing the Line

Prior to my arrival in Switzerland, my only vested experiences in the Francophone world had taken place in Dakar, Senegal, where the linguistic norm of urban centers entails “code-switching” between French and Wolof, even over the course of one sentence. Upon arrival to Switzerland, I found it almost humorous that French spoken conversationally could be so homogenous, without interspersion of words from other languages, despite the various cantons of Switzerland which differ in language. Italian, German, and French do not strongly intermingle, aside from being utilized by travelers and migrants who move amongst Switzerland’s various cantons. Arriving by train to a German-speaking canton of Switzerland may just as well be a complete identity transformation of the Swiss characterization. Rather than adopting the fluid intermingling of languages experienced in Senegal, languages and linguistic identities remain relatively distinct.

An annual contest amongst Senegalese university students in Dakar comes to mind when I think of this linguistic difference between Senegalese French and Swiss French: students are challenged to speak on a specific subject for five minutes in exclusively Wolof. If a student uses even a single word in French (or a word that has been adapted from French stylistically into Wolof), they are disqualified. Year after year, the task proves nearly impossible for students. The historical and cultural intermingling of the languages, the imprint of colonial imposition and resulting forced adaptation reverberates into the deepest structures of the Wolof language. To consider this occurring between, for example, French and Italian, as a persistent social phenomenon in Switzerland, would be inconceivable. This stands as yet another reminder of the historical and cultural entrenchments of language, and my need to be mindful of them as I discover differences in how French is used across geographic landscapes.

Post-Program Reflections

  1. Reflect on your language learning and acculturation during your SLA Grant experience. 

Spending time in Russia allowed me to make such incredible language gains as I never would have anticipated. The classroom instruction contributed to this hugely, as my classes were so incredibly small and we received instruction exclusively in Russian. When I did not understand a word, it was explained to me with the definition or other Russian synonyms, which expanded my lexicon hugely. It was also phenomenal to be able to take what I learned in the classroom and apply it immediately off campus at the grocery store, restaurants, social contexts, etc. Engaging with the local people and their culture allowed me to further practice my language and learn nuances and slang that are only available to native speakers who evolve with and help shape their language. It was a privilege to learn from my Russian peers and professors, and I believe their guidance helped me reach the benchmarks I set for myself before this experience on the route to achieving language fluency.

  1. Reflect on your SLA Grant experience overall.

I find that this experience has given me a more multidimensional understanding of Russian culture and mentality. Through conversations with natives, I heard a variety of perspectives about topics ranging from the economy to pop culture to Putin. From a linguistic standpoint – I cannot emphasize enough how valuable it was to hear the language spoken as it was intended on a daily basis. I was able to correct many mistakes I had no idea I had been making and drastically improve my accent because of the language immersion. It is important to take full advantage of such a rich experience and not be afraid of making mistakes in speech. Without leaps of faith, there can be no progress. Such is with learning a foreign language.

  1. How do you plan to use your language and intercultural competences in the future? My summer experience has already begin to pay off in the Fall 2016 semester. As I have begun my Advanced Russian class, many of the skills of language learning I developed over the summer have been useful. Additionally, literary topics discussed have already overlapped, and I have been able to bring in information about Golden Age figures like Turgenev and Dostoevsky that my teachers in Russia shared with me. Stronger speaking and writing skills have served me in the classroom, but the improvement of my reading comprehension has allowed me to look at some primary sources in Russian at the library. This will be especially important to me as I move forward in my academic career and build a thesis. Research skills in my target language will give me access to a greater range of resources and perspectives. I can’t wait to continue building my language competency in Russian and very much hope that it will bring me back to the political capital of the country, whether it be for research or in my professional life. Regardless, I will use the skills acquired over this summer to be the best cultural ambassador that I can be.

Making Up for Lost Time (Part II)

In the craziness of leaving Tours, doing some travelling with limited access to internet, and returning to school, I forgot to upload my final blog post, so here it is!

At the risk of sounding trite, I can’t believe that it’s over!  Even though it hasn’t been that long, it’s so strange writing this from the United States and thinking back on my time in France.  It was such an amazing experience and so far out of my everyday life that it’s a little bit hard to believe I was actually abroad this summer.

My host family has a tradition that they ask each student to make a traditional dish from their country the week before they leave.  The Japanese student who was also staying with my family made okonomiyaki, which is somewhere between a crepe and an omelette, with pork and cuttlefish.  I made brownies (pronounced “broo-NEE” in French!) for dessert, and although American foods are well-known enough in France that they were already familiar with them, they were excited to try the homemade variety!

The night before I left, I went to la guinguette with my Chilean friend.  A “guinguette” is a bit like an open-air bar or restaurant, and there is often live music and dancing.  They are very common along the Loire River; in fact, Degas painted lots of them in his works.  I was excited to go there, because I had not yet experienced la guinguette, which is an important part of French culture.  Although there were threatening rain clouds all afternoon, we only got sprinkled on a little bit, and being there was more than worth it!

I adjusted to life in Tours so fast that it seemed very natural to me, and it was hard to leave my classmates, my host family, and the place that had become a home for me for over a month.  I made some amazing friends who helped me practice my French (and who weren’t afraid to correct me when I said something that made no sense!), and I will certainly miss them.  This summer was an opportunity to fall even more in love than I already was the French language, culture, and countryside, and I loved every minute of it!  I am so grateful for this opportunity!

Post Program Reflections

1. Reflect on your language learning and acculturation during your SLA Grant experience.

Perhaps most importantly I realized while abroad how many gaps in my language skills there were. My expectation had been that at the very least I would be able to function in day to day life in Moscow. Upon arriving, I all at once realized how very little I knew, especially with day to day tasks like ordering a coffee. However, it helped me realize very quickly what I needed to focus on while studying Russian which I would not have figured out in the States. Additionally, I discovered that the Russian I had been learning in class was very different from spoken Russian. I picked up on nuances and how Russians thought by the phrases I kept hearing over and over. For example, when I understood something, I wouldn’t say “I understand” but rather “[This is] understood”. Over the summer, I acquired a bunch of stock phrases; some of which I am still not certain how they’re spelled but I know how to pronounce and use. At the beginning of the summer, my goals were rather nebulous but my progress is certainly what I wanted it to be.

2. Reflect on your SLA Grant experience overall.

Although my bank account is now almost empty, I am very glad I went to Russia. Even though it was only a short amount of time, I made sure to experience as much as I could. At times Moscow seemed like such a foreign, fairy tale-esque place and at other times it seemed as familiar to me as my own hometown. The most important insight I gained was simply how to exist so outside of my comfort zone and away from a support system. It’s something one can never really prepare himself or herself for and it’s something I would recommend anyone planning on studying abroad to fully embrace. Something I didn’t expect to learn was to appreciate how difficult it is to learn a new language as an adult. It helped me appreciate even more the struggles my parents have gone through as immigrants. Not being able to communicate can be so frustrating and isolating at times but also allows room for creativity. In addition to fully embracing the foreignness, I would also recommend anyone planning to study abroad to stay away from English speakers. It can be really easy and comforting to only spend time around English speakers, but one will lose the mentality of the other language and waste the time of being abroad. Furthermore, as far as language acquisition is concerned, one will pick up more language walking around and being surrounded by the language than locked up in a room, studying from books. One can do that back home; but the constant environment isn’t so easily replicated.

3. How do you plan to use your language and intercultural competences in the future?

As soon as my Advanced Russian class started this semester, I was so grateful that I had spent the summer in Russia. I would never have developed the listening comprehension to feel comfortable with the fluid Russian. Even having only been in the States for a few short weeks, I can already feel the Russian slipping away (although I still sometimes accidentally thank people in Russian) but I make sure to keep up with my Russian friends and Skype them on occasion. As I get more settled into a regular schedule, I plan to incorporate more movies and music in Russian into my daily life to at the very least to try and recreate the background Russian I was so used to in Moscow. I look forward to someday returning to Moscow (preferably sooner than later) and incorporating the language in a professional sense, whether that be when treating patients or in the international research community.

Post-Program Reflections

Although tomorrow is the last day of my program, I would like to give my Post-Program reflection now, because it seems that September 2 is the deadline to upload it. Here they are:

  1. Reflect on your language learning and acculturation during your SLA Grant experience.

This two-month SLA experience greatly helps me with my German learning. It is the first time for me to be put into a German language environment. In the past, both in China and in the U.S., my German learning focused only on grammar and reading. This summer, thanks to the SLA Grant, I have to use German to survive, both in and outside Carl Duisburg Center class. I think it is a breaking experience for me, which builds my confidence to improve German in a more balanced way. The teachers in class made us speak only in German. It turns out to be a very effective method to develop the habit to “think in German.” I think I have basically met the goals that I set for myself before I started the program: now I not only have confidence to speak German, but also read German scholarly literature more fluently, because German as a language feels much more intimate to me.

  1. Reflect on your SLA Grant experience overall.

For me, the SLA Grant experience this summer is a learning tour, not only because I practice German sufficiently inside and outside class, but also because I have opportunity to personally put my feet on a lot of German places. European history is my academic specialty. This summer, besides Munich, I have visited Regensburg, Bamberg, Salzburg, Cologne, Aachen, Reichenau. In the past, I met these place names hundred of times in papers and books, but never saw them personally. Thanks to the personal encounter with the landscapes of these old cities and the historical remains preserved in their museums, the history that I study has never been more live to me after this summer. For those who prepare to start their own summer language study, I would like to suggest that you choose the target city carefully. Because I planned to visit several cities in south Germany, I chose Munich, and it turns out to be a right choice.

  1. How do you plan to use your language and intercultural competences in the future?

As I said, this SLA Grant experience has built my confidence to speak German. It is a good start. I need to keep learning and practice. In the past, every time I met German or Austrian scholars in conference or other academic occasions, I naturally chose to talk to them in German. In the future, I decide to try to use German in oral academic communication. Moreover, I am thinking about finding a language partner when I come back. This experience in summer has proved how important a language environment is for a learner. Though I cannot always stay in Germany, I want at least to take effort to create such a language environment – by speaking with a native speaker – at least a couple of hours every week. Lastly, I would like to try to apply for a exchange program (DAAD, for example) to do my research in Germany for half a year or a year. This summer, I have proved that I can handle living in Germany and study effectively here.