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.

Finding Spaces for Language

While studying French (which, in practical terms, often entails sitting in poorly-ventilated classrooms, digesting grammar and stories and conversation in tandem), immersion experiences offer up reminders of why we choose to study languages at all. This is a concrete benefit of the SLA grant, in my opinion: through extending my immersion in Switzerland secured by an internship experience, my grasp of the benefits and widespread applications of language development solidify.

Within the International Organization and United Nations system established in Geneva, the benefits of acquiring another “official language” (of which there are six) are numerous. Moving beyond dependency upon translations at meetings and hearings to active, participatory listening lends itself to quickly capturing the rapid back-and-forth, the occasional humor, or the intensity of rhetoric in a given situation. Knowledge of French within this system is, I believe, indispensable. It is one of the cornerstone languages of day-to-day communication and a bridge outside of Switzerland to the rest of the Francophone world.

Aside from a professional context, I find myself desiring spaces for language-learning because I find French a conduit of certain emotions and expressions that find a certain lightness in their untouched form. I often consider the difficulty of accessing the emotional power of language aside from my mother tongue, and I consider that the depth of connotation and nuance required to experience emotional ties to language may be the last component to arrive in the language-learning process, far after humor and advanced rhetoric. Perhaps this remains a distant goal because of the disparity in the way I emotionally experience the written word in English and the way in which my French reading skills focus on comprehension, not experiencing rich constructions of emotive narratives. Along my journey of learning the language, I hold this goal in mind: reaching a point at which the connotations, nuance, and lightness of words strike me in ways that are novel and even moving. It entails opening spaces of language, resting in them more fully.

Adjusting to Geneva

While I have only recently begun my course in French, my time in Switzerland has already begun to set in fully, owing to my internship (also in Geneva) preceding the SLA Grant period. Upon arriving to Switzerland in the early summer months, I felt as though I’d inched in small steps from day-to-day life in West Africa into a more familiar, distinctly Western context. Following my study abroad semester in Dakar, Senegal, I felt relieved to experience a short transitionary period splitting my time between stays in Senegal and Switzerland due to their polarity in terms of pace of life, social structures, and certain social nuances such as gender relations. Leaving Senegal, I visited friends in both Togo and Morocco, witnessing the socioeconomic distinctions between rural areas of Togo (some of which were geopolitically and culturally reminiscent of certain areas in Senegal) and the urban, equally wildly beautiful cities of Rabat and Tangier, Morocco. As I split from the Francophone world and moved into Spain for several days, I was warmed by linguistic familiarity, the sounds of Spanish spilling into my ears and easing my transition into Europe. Arriving in Switzerland a few days later, I felt ready to return to a Francophone sphere, however different pace of life and economic development would prove to be in the Swiss context.

Within Switzerland, linguistic distinctions comprise the whole of the small country, with four national languages claiming corners of particular regions. Of course, I find myself in Geneva in the Francophone region of the country, though a short weekend hiking trip or bus ride to visit friends across a border line radically changes the composition of language predispositions- I feel at a loss, at times, for my lacking German and Italian skills. As an international center, Geneva hosts the United Nations, a plethora of international organizations, NGOs, corporate entities, and more. Walking along Lac Leman, I pick up on conversational bits in French, Spanish, and on rare occasion, Wolof. Linguistic and national distinctions are too numerous to name, yet a strange homogeneity hangs over Geneva, clad in similarly branded pressed suits and skirts and walking with determination to perfectly scheduled tram arrivals. I am looking forward to continuing my progress through engaging this space, unfolding its complexities, and making its many languages (French in particular) grow in vibrancy and meaning with time.Geneva Landscape