It’s hard to avoid the French language when in France. Yes, I am fully aware of how idiotically obvious this sounds.
What I mean to say is, it’s hard to commit to learning and speaking French all the time while in France—and you must commit, because everything is all French, all the time. But in order to commit, you have to want to commit. And thus far, in my study-abroad experience, the wanting (which conversely means giving up the English) has been the hardest part.
About two weeks ago, when we were just getting our footing in Paris, the VWPP (Vassar-Wesleyan Program in Paris) directors made us sign a contract of sorts, promising that we wouldn’t speak English—not in the VWPP building, not at school, and most importantly, not with each other. For the most part, this request seemed pretty unreasonable, and therefore not at all feasible. How could we be expected to speak only French with each other when that meant our conversations would be frustratingly impaired and restrained?
It became a running joke. We would speak English in whispers, in tucked away corners of the VWPP building, stashing away our contraband language when a professor or adult walked by. We joked around when, on the bus ride back from Claude Monet’s house in Giverny, Pierre, one of the assistants at VWPP, took over the speakers to formally reprimand us for speaking English. I imagine that he and the directors have to deal with the same situation every year.
But after a few weeks, I realized that speaking English was, in fact, diminishing my study-abroad experience. Walking around with my VWPP friends and speaking in English made me feel like I was in a safe little English-speaking bubble rolling around Paris. The thing about that bubble, though, was that Paris couldn’t penetrate it. I could feel that I wasn’t taking away as much as I could from living and being in Paris, all because I was refusing to immerse myself fully in the experience that studying abroad is supposed to offer. I think that most people would agree that that’s a horrible shame.
The thing is, you do get tired of hearing French all the time. During the first few weeks in Paris (and this is embarrassing), I was hooked on Gilmore Girls. I was so tired of hearing a language that was too fast and impossible to understand and simultaneously everywhere, that as soon as I got home, I just wanted to hear as much quick, verbose, garrulous English as I could, and everyone knows that Gilmore Girls serves that up on a piping-hot platter.
But last night, I was sitting in my Contre-Utopie (Dystopia) literature class listening to the professor analyze Nous Autres (We) by Eugène Zamiatine and its critique on Soviet Russia in beautiful, flowing, witty French. Though I could only understand about 85 percent of it, I realized that I love this language. I love the way fluent French speakers speak French like it’s completely natural to have this gorgeous language—full of breathy r’s and slippery s’s—fall off the tongue so easily. I imagined what it would be like if I were to be fluent in a few months.
That’s the thing about studying abroad—maybe you won’t be ready to open yourself up to the experience right away. Maybe it’ll take a few days, or even a few weeks. But there will come a point when you realize why you chose the country or the language or the program. The most important part is taking the initiative.
It’s not easy, but the more I get involved in the Parisian life I am creating for myself, the more hopeful I feel that my French is indeed improving. And there are so many opportunities to improve my French here. The classes that I’m taking here are on prostitution and sex work, women and institutions, and the aforementioned utopian novels, and it’s easy to have a dialogue in French about topics that interest me. Additionally, every week, we each have half-hour meetings with French language tutors, which sometimes feels like a French language therapy session in that you basically talk about your thoughts and feelings on a certain topic for thirty straight minutes. And I’ve met a girl in my French kickboxing class who makes speaking French not feel like a chore.
I’m really excited to see how far I’ve come in a month. Here’s hoping I can continue to open myself up to my JYA experience!