- This summer I learned that the language acquisition process requires patience and plenty of practice. At first, I was very hesitant to speak out of fear that I would make a mistake or would not be understood. I learned that in order to make any progress with languages it is absolutely necessary to get over that fear and speak at every opportunity even if locals can speak English. Luckily, we had great discussions during class every day on topics such as the environment, health care, and women’s rights. I got to share my culture’s perspective but what proved more interesting was hearing what my professor shared on French culture and current events. Furthermore, I engaged in cultural activities sponsored by the school during which we visited lesser known museums and learned about French cinema and television. One of my goals was to be able to converse in French well and I think I reached my goal to some extent but I am still working on it. The speed of the French language is much faster than English so that has been my biggest challenge, andI am working on training my ears to adjust to how fast the French speak.
- The SLA experience is so much more than language acquisition in my opinion because of the unique opportunity to live in a different country meeting all kinds of people. In my class of 13, I had students coming from 11 different countries. During discussion, everyone talked from their country’s perspective (in French of course) and it was beyond fascinating to hear about their countries and cultures from an authentic and genuine point of view. We are living in a confusing world where the ideas of prejudice and nationalism steer young and old minds alike from looking outwards toward the rest of the world. I found that having casual conversations over coffee and building relationships with my classmates opened my eyes in ways I could never predict. For students preparing to start their summer language study, I would highly recommend finding a school that targets international students and accommodates foreigners looking to work in that country. At first, I was intimidated at the prospect of taking classes with working age adults but the class dynamic pushed me to realize that age should never deter you from trying and from expressing yourself. I think it is really important for students to go into this experience with an open mind and an open heart. I found myself seeking discomfort by saying yes to excursions with classmates and it really paid off.
- After this SLA experience, it is really important to me that I keep up with my French because of how much time and effort I have put into cultivating this skill set. Since I am an International Economics major, I will have to prioritize French classes in my schedule which I am very happy about. My hope is to take a French class every semester until graduation to maintain my French. Beyond university requirements, I was thinking about applying to become a French tutor. I have a very strong French grammar background and the more conversation practice I can get the better. I have always had an interest in working abroad and have acquired contacts due to past summer internships that I have done in Europe. My hope is to use to my International Economics degree and this network to find a job that does business with Europe and Asia. This experience has really opened my eyes to the world beyond the United States and I hope to let this new perspective guide me as I start my career after graduation.
During the spring semester in my Conversational French class, Professor Reaves introduced our class to Verlan, the common French slang that is very popular amongst the younger French generations. Due to this initial exposure, I anticipated not being able to understand some locals. However, it was not until I started taking my French classes that I truly realized how present verlan is in the everyday life of young locals. The slang words of verlan have found their way into textbooks and are being taught by professors in an effort to prepare students like me to be as conversational as possible. Verlan is not very complicated; it is simply the inversion of syllables in a word that became popular from hip hop and rap music. It has been adopted by young French people and plays a part in the “langue de métro,” a phrase used to describe informal and solely oral French. Some examples of verlan include cimer which is the inversion of mer-ci, meuf for femme (woman), mec for homme (man), and teuf for fête (party).
Last week, a few friends and I went to the Parc du Champ-de-Mars for a picnic to say goodbye to a classmate. While there, I met some new French friends who joined us for the celebration, and I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to ask about verlan. Once I mentioned my tiny bit of experience with verlan, they practically jumped with excitement. They mentioned that it is very rare for foreigners to be familiar with this slang but it is very prevalent with teens and people in their early 20s in France. They said they use verlan when talking to people of the same age or younger but try to avoid it when talking to parents or people of the older French generations. They explained that the older generations are very loyal to the strict grammar rules of the French language and that older French people see the French language as an art that must be protected. These new friends made a point to say that verlan is used frequently in conversation but it does not reflect one’s lack of education.
While walking around Paris, I carry a cloth sack for my books, as many French women do, that says Washington D.C. I was standing in line at the Arc de Triomphe when an older couple touring with friends behind me struck up a conversation with me and asked what it was like living in the DC area with our current president. I offered my opinion and then asked for their opinion on verlan, a question for a question type of exchange. They explained that they do not use verlan because it still bears a sort of negative connotation due to where it came from. The couple explained that they know some words of verlan but not all, and they assumed it was a similar situation for most people their age. If you are not familiar with the person you are talking to, they said to avoid verlan. According to this friendly couple, young people are disrespecting their mother tongue by using this slang but added that older generations are going to have to adapt because verlan is not going anywhere.
View from the Arc de Triomphe
From all these conversations, I have gathered that verlan plays an important role in connecting with locals. Before I leave, my goal is to identify as much verlan vocabulary as possible.
Since Paris is so gastronomically diverse, I decided to set out and find the unique dish of a different region of France. While on a day trip to Strasbourg, an Alsacien town bordering France and Germany, I started seeing signs for “Tarte Flambée” on every block and street corner. I explored the canals and the famous church in town before sitting down to taste this Alsacien dish. I asked the waitress what tarte flambée was and what it was made of. She explained that this regional dish is similar to a thin crust pizza but is traditionally topped with thin pieces of bacon, onions, and white cheese sauce instead of tomato sauce. She said there are many variations but the most important part is the texture and thinness of the crust. You can separate the good from the bad if the crust can crunch while still remaining extremely thin.
Tarte Flambée-Banana and Chocolate variation
I looked around and saw that pretty much the whole restaurant was eating the tarte flambée whether there was one person at a table or six. The waitress explained that because of the beer and wine drinking culture of the Alsacien region this pizza type dish was very popular for sharing and socializing. Many people will enjoy local beer or a glass of wine after work with colleagues while they pick at a tarte flambée before getting on the train home. She said this dish is the quintessential dish of Strasbourg because it represents the history of how French and German culture have combined over the years in this tiny town due to exchanges of power.
Cathédral Notre Dame de Strasbourg
In April, the whole world watched as the famous cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris burned. Due to an electrical failure from a major renovation, the church caught fire damaging centuries of craftsmanship, stained glass art, and the only spire. I remember being heartbroken by such an incident as I had fond memories of visits to the basilica with my family. Within days, there were promises from all around the world for hundreds of millions of dollars to be donated to the reconstruction of Notre Dame. These donations sparked many debates on the news and social media regarding whether or not these donations were admirable with problems such as world hunger and poverty in the world. After reading about opinions on all sides of the debate, I was anxious to know what French people in Paris actually thought about the topic.
When I arrived in Paris, I saw Notre Dame my first day; it sat on the Île de la Cité lifeless, dark, and beaten down. As I sat in the taxi on the way to my home for the next six weeks, I asked the taxi driver what he thought about all of the donations for Notre Dame. He explained to me that his opinion was not as clear cut as most people he knows. He said that most adults in France are appalled by the idea of such exuberant wealth being poured into this cathedral when there exist many great feats of similar architecture and craftsmanship in France. In his hometown of Reims, there is another Notre Dame cathedral where the kings of France were crowned. He promised that it was as glorious as the Notre Dame in Paris, so it has been hard for him to understand the global fuss. However, he continued on to say that he thinks the restoration of Notre Dame is important for young people because they need to appreciate this landmark of French culture. According to him, young people also need to understand the importance of preserving history in this age of technology.
**Inspired by this conversation, I decided to take a train to Reims to see the cathedral he described. I can confirm it emulates Notre Dame of Paris and all its beauty; I was shocked.**
Notre Dame in Reims, France
After a couple weeks at school, I decided to pose the same question to my professor during our mid-morning coffee break. Madame Vasilek reacted strongly to the topic expressing her strong disgust for such donations. She explained to me that France has its own means to take care of the restoration IN TIME. She stressed that there are problems much more pressing than Notre Dame and her heart ached for all the other ways this money could be used.
One day, I found myself in a cafe doing some work and saw a woman reading an article on how the French state has yet to receive the promised funds for Notre Dame. I asked this woman, Aneshka, what she thought of the situation and ended up having a nice conversation. She said that for her the basilica of Notre Dame is an integral part of Paris’ identity. People come to Paris to climb the Eiffel Tower, see Notre Dame, and experience the Parisian way of life. She thought that it was necessary to protect this piece of French culture for the generations to come and added that it was better these rich donors were giving to a good cause as opposed to keeping all their money for themselves. She said that only time will tell about what the world really thinks of Notre Dame, but she prays to see a restored Notre Dame soon.
From these conversations, I learned that the preservation of culture means something different to each person. I think Americans yearn to preserve every bit of history because we only have 300 years to consider, but for European countries, they have history flowing out of every inch of their city blocks. During a time when the future is nearer than the past, I thought these donations were admirable and absolutely necessary, but now, I am not quite sure.
Two weeks ago, I was sitting at home in Washington DC impatiently waiting to start French classes in Paris. I pinched myself as I packed and continued to ask myself if this could actually be real life and not a dream. It is unbelievable to think that here I am having completed more than a week of class. At this point, I have walked all over Paris, eaten at countless boulangeries, travelled by train to Strasbourg, and visited Monet’s home in Giverny, France. I have visited Paris several times in the past so it has been incredible to live like a local without the need to visit all the tourist attractions.
I have already learned so much about French culture and the patience and adjustment it takes to live in a foreign country. There is an air of respect here for the importance of a mid-morning break and a two hour long dinner. The Parisian way prioritizes face to face conversations and the art of the baguette. Despite only being here a week, the French have taught me that you have to approach travelling and all interactions while abroad with humility and respect. A simple “Bonjour” with a smile will get you a long way in France.
Luckily for me, I attend Alliance Française which is located in the heart of Paris. My professor is tough but I can already sense how much my French is improving. The most interesting part has been getting to interact with my classmates who come from all corners of the world. Over the customary mid-morning coffees, I have grown great relationships with them, and we have exchanged thoughts on cultures and countries. These conversations have been the perfect opportunity to learn about their opinions on the United States.
My first conversation was with a 19 year old Spanish boy named Bosco who had a rather interesting take on the United States. He said that he knew right away that I was American because of my tendency to smile. He said Americans are far too optimistic compared to the French or other Europeans. Bosco continued to say that interacting with Americans has always been interesting because he finds them all too friendly but absolutely loves visiting the United States for this reason. He said that Americans do not have quite the same appreciation for history like Europeans due to the fact that the United States is an infant nation when compared to Spain or France. Despite being shocked by some of his opinions, I came to realize that he made some valid points.
My second interview was with a 22 year old German woman named Sara who revealed to me she spent a whole semester studying President Obama’s Obamacare initiative while at university in Munich. She discussed with me how for such an advanced country the United States is way behind when it comes to healthcare. She said she fears for the American people with President Trump’s idea to repeal Obamacare.
Finally, I had the opportunity to talk with an American born woman named Valerie who is now retired but has been living in France and Mexico for all of her adult life. She said that she wishes she had left the United States earlier than she did. In her opinion, Americans are far too sensitive whether it be to criticism or judgement. She thinks American culture is too caught up in caring about what others think and that being out of the States is the most freeing feeling one can have. I thought this was quite ironic to say about the Land of the Free. From her point of view, the United States defines one’s success by bank account holdings and our country does not know how to appreciate the beauty of every day life.
All of these conversations have prompted me to reflect and to look at my life and the lives of others with an additional lens. The American is not always the best way. There are different ways of life beyond ours, and I am so grateful to have this opportunity to learn about and experience them more.
Monet’s Water Lily Garden in Giverny, France