France Post-Program Reflections

Reflecting back on my time in France, I think I can say I met most of my language goals. I already had a pretty good ability to communicate, but by the time I left I had the ability to articulate stories and arguments without someone re-explaining my ideas to make them clearer. I had to hone this skill even with very important and controversial arguments, since the French are more willing to bring them up without getting embarrassed or angry. Refreshing in one way but uncomfortable in another. But I think it helped me open up a little more. Most of what I learned honestly depended on the teacher, since only some of them were willing to do creative exercises and have intellectual discussions with us—the textbook only took us so far. With my immersion experience this summer, I think I might be fluent (if not, close to it).

Since this was my first time out of the country, I think the biggest change is that I’m simply stronger for having been so far away from home by myself for so long. I think I was expecting a more dramatic change in culture than I actually experienced—when you look below the surface of norms like how to deal with strangers and how to eat politely, there are just humans like you and me. To anyone else receiving an SLA grant in the future, I’d warn you that culture shock is in the little things—the ten minutes I spent trying to figure out how to work the plug adapter, the way the toilets look, the public library being closed on Mondays. If you’ve never been abroad by yourself before and have no idea what you’re doing, it’s a tough run, but I’m writing this now, so apparently it’s possible.

When I get back to Notre Dame, my improved fluency in French should definitely help me in finishing up my French major—especially in classes where oral participation is important, since I’ve always had more trouble speaking than writing even in English. I also have friends who enjoy speaking in French with me, so we can help each other improve mutually. When I graduate I want to be either a translator or a language teacher; while I was in France I tried translating some of my creative writing from English to French, and I actually had fun doing it, so that’s a good sign! It’s the little nuances that are hard to translate, but I like that, so hopefully my experience with real French speakers will help me interpret things for other people in the future.

A huge thank you to the Center for the Study of Languages and Cultures for this amazing opportunity! This is something I never would have been able to do without your help.

Final week in Tours

Last blog! I head home tomorrow! My last week here has been mostly relaxed and full of good food and conversations, which is the way I like to show real affection to a place—more so than traveling around and trying to see it all. That’s why I liked it here in Tours; it has that sort of atmosphere, not too huge and tourist-y to make me feel out of my element.

This week’s good news: I got a final grade in my French class, and if I were staying here, I would qualify for the next level! Practically I know it doesn’t mean much since I’m not staying, but it’s definitely a personal achievement. I would have enough trouble with those crazy listening exercises in English! Good to know I did all right on them. One of my teachers told me I had good class participation, which means a lot to me since her discussion exercises were easily my favorite part of her classes.

Overall, this was definitely a learning experience for me. I say that in a very serious way—this is the first time I’ve ever left the United States, and I was completely on my own. It was hard to adapt to, since for the entire first week I hardly met anyone my age. I’d like to say that I’ve gained a certain amount of maturity from the experience. Obviously, it was also a learning experience in the way that I hoped it would be—learning French. I came in with a high level of it, but I can now slip in and out of it so easily and express ideas without stumbling or using the word chose (thing) quite as much that I’m starting to think I might be fluent. I’m not quite sure what the qualifier is, but if I haven’t reached it yet, I must be close!

A huge, huge thanks to the people who made this possible! I’m very honored to have received this scholarship.

Tours Week 5

It’s already been five weeks! This past week has mostly been full of random little discoveries, like a really awesome coffee shop and a store full of affordable but gorgeous jewelry. Even though I’ve been here for five weeks, I can always find something new in Tours. That’s what I like about the size of it—it’s not so huge that it’s impossible to find my way around, but it’s big enough that I’m never bored just walking around.

The school week wasn’t much different from normal, although my Monday-Wednesday-Friday teacher has been coming up with some really creative exercises for us to do. For instance, on Wednesday she pinned pieces of paper to the wall with random things like the five senses or the four elements written on them, and we had to go over to our “favorite” and explain why we chose it. One of the prompts was literally just “yes” or “no,” so we had some fun with that one.

I also had a dream in French this week. I’m taking that as a sign that I’m really integrated with the language by this point. I won’t go into the details of the dream since it was really weird, but at least it was in French.

Gearing up for my last week in Tours! I’m leaving on Saturday, so my last blog post will have to go up either before I leave or after I get back to the United States, but I’ll be sure to talk about how this week goes.

Tours Week 4

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I spent the day in Paris yesterday! The main thing I wanted to see was Notre Dame de Paris, so I was a little disappointed that I didn’t get to spend as much time there as I would’ve liked, but at least I still got to see it. It’s absolutely gorgeous, and as I walked around inside the cathedral I really think I could distinctly feel Our Lady’s presence. As one of the biggest tributes to Mary, one of the eponyms to my university, and just an all-around stunning location, I think it’s officially earned the status of my favorite church in the world. I also saw the Eiffel Tower (I mean, I couldn’t just not) and the Musée d’Orsay. Exhausting day, and of course I didn’t see everything, but I hit a few major landmarks and really tried to take the time for them.

Other than that, it’s been a pretty quiet week, so I don’t have much to say about my classes at the Institut de Touraine at the moment. We’ve been doing a lot of exercises made to resemble this standardized test that a lot of other students are here to take, so that’s comprised most of our lessons. I have mixed feelings about them, since I sometimes feel like my level of French is being evaluated solely on how much trouble I’m having on the exercises, when in reality I’d have the same problems with them in English—because the audio recordings are poor quality, the questions are more specific than the excerpt, I can’t listen and write at the same time, etc. Because of that, I feel like I’m noticing more improvement in my French skills outside of the classroom. For instance, in the past week I’ve had to explain the game “Humans versus Zombies,” the reasons I think American students have trouble with foreign languages, and the culture of respect in fencing as opposed to other sports, all in French. In all of these instances it’s been easier for me to find words to express things, without making the French-speaker I’m talking to even more confused and wishing I hadn’t brought it up. I also was trying to translate something for my host mom and couldn’t remember the English word, and she said, “Hooray, she’s forgetting English!”

Four down, two to go! It doesn’t feel like I’ve been here for a month, but it’s been almost exactly that long. I miss home, but I hope I can take advantage of my last two weeks here.

Tours Week 3

Week 3 at the Institut de Touraine has finally brought everyone back into a more normal schedule; I was actually surprised this past Monday when I got there and there was a giant crowd of new students waiting to be assigned classes. After one particularly weird day when classes started at two in the afternoon, I’m back to their normal four-week progression of the course until I leave. I liked my professor last week better than my professors this week, I think, but time will tell. We started class on Monday with an unusual icebreaker—we each had to pick an object that meant a lot to us and then introduce ourselves as the object. Definitely a good exercise in French and helped me get to know my classmates better than the classic “Notre Dame Introduction” (name, major, hometown) would.

Surprisingly, I think the hardest thing about speaking French here is trying to get my fellow American students to practice it with me. They’ll often switch to English when there aren’t any non-English-speakers around. Fortunately I have a friend from Notre Dame here now who’s just as eager to practice her French as I am, and one of my new friends from my classes is getting comfortable enough with the language that he’s starting to use it in everyday conversations with me. I also occasionally have to act as an interpreter for another student who’s just arrived to stay with my host mom, if he doesn’t understand a French word she’s trying to use or she doesn’t understand an English word he’s trying to use. Considering that’s the type of career I’m looking at, I admit I get a little thrill whenever that happens.

It’s been a pretty quiet week. I couldn’t keep reading Les Misérables because someone checked it out, but I’m hoping I can read at least a little more in the upcoming weeks. I’ve been wanting to read that for so long. This upcoming weekend I’m going to see the actual Notre Dame in Paris! I’m really excited. Stay posted, I’ll probably talk about it a lot next week.

Tours week 2

My second week at the Institut de Touraine was great. Like I mentioned, this week is technically a vacation because there’s a national standardized test going on, but there were smaller oral courses for students who wanted to keep taking classes this week. My class this week was bigger and full of people who were more willing to make an effort than everyone in my class last week, so I feel like I learned a lot more. The class was almost like a conversation—we would have a new topic every few days with worksheets and activities to do, but most of the time we got very off track and just started discussing and debating various things.

This, of course, is exactly what I need to improve my French, since if I couldn’t articulate something I was actually unable to cheat and switch to English—my teacher couldn’t speak it at all. I’d simply have to find a better way to express myself. I had to do this with all kinds of topics, from describing popular stereotypes of various nationalities to defending my opinion on a controversial issue. Having to do this day after day made me sort of gradually forget I was doing it in a foreign language and just focus on the topic itself, which greatly helped. I think my proudest moment was when two people in my class were trying to argue against a certain article but confusing the rest of us, until I pointed out that they were arguing for the same point as the writer but taking her metaphor too literally.

We also had to do these phonetic labs where we’d usually be given an absolutely Herculean task like imitating a recording’s voice inflections down to the last syllable, fail at it for obvious reasons, then listen to the playback of our own voices and realize that despite our mistakes we sounded like native French-speakers with a completely French accent. It was really frustrating but interesting in a way.

This week I also explored Tours a little more. I visited the Musée des Beaux Arts; I’m not a huge fan of art museums, but I really loved all the art there inspired by Greek mythology. There was a ton of it—paintings and statues of so many different stories. I also visited the public library a few times and started reading Les Misérables in French. And last night I went to a concert where a bunch of different choirs from around Europe sang to compete for our votes. It was really beautiful, and I got to hear some other languages too. It’s been a pretty good week, and I’m excited to see what next week has in store.

Tours week 1

I arrived in Paris on Sunday morning and somehow managed to get to the Tours train station without missing either of the trains, considering how jet-lagged I was. I had some minor technology disasters in that my phone company neglected to tell me my cell wouldn’t work at all abroad, so I’m extremely glad that the language barrier turned out not to be too much of a problem in the first few hours. I knew there were plenty of English-speakers at the airport, but I managed to find my way around by asking for directions only in French! Personal goal fulfilled. All those exercises where we had to pretend to order food from each other in French class finally paid off. And so did those horrible, ridiculously fast listening exercises, since that was pretty much how the announcements sounded on the train.

I’m staying with a host family. My host mom’s name is France (which one could choose to view in a metaphorical way) and she takes in a lot of travelers trying to improve their French. There’s a Brazilian woman who barely even speaks a word of French, a guy I haven’t really interacted with much yet (besides some awkward clashes over using the bathroom first in the morning), and my host mom’s kids. I interact the most with my host mom, carrying on most of the conversation when she and the Brazilian woman and I have dinner together. She lent me a bike so I can get around Tours a little faster, so I feel like a real French person when I ride it to school.

I’m liking the Institut de Touraine so far, although I think they may have put me in a class that’s a little too easy. The language experience I want to gain is in articulating myself more clearly in arguments, discussions, etc., and so far I’ve barely gotten a chance to do that between reviews of grammar I already know. I’m planning on requesting to move up next week—although next week is going to be a little weird, because it’s technically a “vacation.” This week has been a little weird too, since I arrived during the last week of a class cycle and since because of various absences I’ve had a different teacher almost every day. Next week there should be some other students who are on a stranger schedule like me who will be taking some oral classes, and I’m hoping things will settle into place after that.