AUCP Student Guest Post : Stefani in Aix

AUCP Student Guest Post : Stefani in Aix

We love reading our students’ blogs! Below is an excerpt from Stefani’s blog, on sticking to the full-time switch from French to English. Stefani is a full-year student in Aix-en-Provence, come to us from Barnard College in New York.

“And then all the world thought he was crazy. (beat) I mean everybody. Everybody thought he was crazy.”

“I would like to go out to dinner later tonight, but I don’t have a lot of hunger right now.” (beat) “I don’t think we ‘have hunger’ in English.”

If these excerpts of passing English conversations are any indication: IT’S FINALLY HAPPENING. Tout le monde is starting to think in French.

The first time that I spoke English for an extended period of time was when I Skyped with my mom and my brother last week. It was great to talk to them, of course, but speaking English was seriously weird, at least for the first few minutes. What I had forgotten, it seems, is just how EASY it is to speak in one’s native language. By now, one month (wow!) into my sejour en France, I’ve gotten used to feeling like my brain is constantly in four-wheel drive–not necessarily struggling, but definitely getting fewer miles per gallon. Gallons of…sleep or brainpower…or something. As soon as I began speaking with my family, it was as if I didn’t even have to think at all (not necessarily a good thing), and English was just FLOWING forth from my mouth like milk and honey. At the same time, it felt oddly foreign; although the linguistic resistance that I have become accustomed to had disappeared, I found myself using French constructions such as “all the world” and “having hunger”, as well as rediscovering English ones that I had completely forgotten. When I captioned my photo of snails (I’m never going to let it go, y’all) in my last post “SNAILS ON SNAILS ON SNAILS”, I felt as if I had been reunited with a long lost friend: Informal English Internet Grammar, oh how I miss thee! Unfortunately, remembering how easy it was to speak and think in English made it all the harder to turn off the tap and return to the world of linguistic four-wheel drive.

Once I did, however, I settled back into immersion, just as happy as before. Four weeks in, I’ve found that I am indeed thinking mostly in French–consciously, most of the time, but consistently, nonetheless. However, there are a few things, oddly enough, that my brain REFUSES to do in French:

  1. Mental math: I know my French numbers, and can even take a derivative or two in English, but ask me to do even the simplest mental math in French, and I’m completely hopeless. Unfortunately, mental math is something that comes up pretty regularly; whether paying the check at a restaurant, figuring out what temperature it is in Fahrenheit, or converting 24 hour time to 12 hour time, I have to translate the numbers into English before calculating, or else I’m completely lost. The last time I tried to fight it, I ended up giving the cashier the wrong change, so I think I’ll have to surrender to the arithmetic for now. Perhaps this can (should) be a goal for the end of this semester.
  2. Reading music: One of the things that I love about my host family is that it’s basically like living with the Von Trapp’s. There’s always someone singing or playing the piano, clavesin, or harp. I fit in pretty well; I’m always humming to myself and can’t think of anything that calms me down more after a long day than spending some time at the piano. My mere d’accueil and I even share the same favorite composer: Frederic Chopin. “Perfect!” one would think, “Music–the universal language of mankind!”. Not quite. As soon as I sit down and begin to read sheet music, everything switches to English. Even though reading music doesn’t require actual thinking of words and sentences, somehow the notes are enough to trigger an English take-over of my brain.
  3. Choice words for unfortunate circumstances: All in all, I have loved my experience in France thus far. However, this week had its challenges. Saturday, I spilled juice on my host mom’s couch, Sunday I got sick, Monday I forgot to print my homework, and Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, I had to take extremely cold showers–our hot water has been out for the past week. What I have discovered, thanks to this challenge-intensive week, is that when choice circumstances–such as spilling a glass of bright orange mango juice all over your family’s *white* couch–arrive, choice words do, too. In English, of course. I guess once saying “merde” becomes my instinctual reflex, I’ll know I’ve made it.
  4. Speaking other foreign languages: Often, when I’m meeting someone new, they’ll ask me if I speak any other foreign languages besides French. It seems to be a common French conversation-starter–and for good reason! Almost every French person that I’ve asked the same question has responded with at least 2 languages besides French. My own host mom speaks French, English, German, and Italian! I was having this conversation with a friend of my host mom, and told him that I speak a little Modern Greek. It turned out that he spoke some Greek as well, so he asked me a few things in that language–and it was nearly impossible for me to reply. Seeing as I hadn’t practiced in a few months, I expected to be rusty, but this was a whole new level of incapacitation. I’m not nearly as proficient in Greek as I am in French, so I generally have to translate everything I say from English to Greek. As I was speaking to this person and thinking in French, it was impossible for me to go from French to Greek; I had to faire la tour, translating from French back to English and then to Greek.

Most of these mind blocks are fairly internal, but rest assured that I make plenty of noticeable/embarrassing mistakes as well. Learning a new language and a new culture is naturally  linked with making mistakes, listening to criticism, learning from both, and accepting help when offered, seeking help when needed. I think that embracing criticism and learning to be OK with saying “I’m confused–HELP” is probably one of the hardest but most valuable skills that I’ve been able to practice while abroad. As a guest in someone else’s house, classroom, country, culture, or continent, there’s always a pressure to seem smart, like you totally know what’s going on. It’s natural to want to please and even impress. But it’s not always the best approach.

The first day of the semester, we were doing an exercise in class–going around the room and answering a question, I think. When my turn came, I made a small grammar mistake and the professor corrected me. “Desolée!” I said, and corrected myself. Then it was the turn of a student that I’ll refer to as W. He also made a small grammar mistake, and the professor corrected him. “Ah, merci,” he said, and corrected his mistake. It was the simplest thing, but the difference in our responses made a huge impact on me. The fact that his instinct was to say “thank you” for the correction instead of “I’m sorry” is something that I truly admire. Ever since, I’ve tried to do the same, and to take each conseil as a privilege instead of a reprimand.

– Stefani

Keep up with Stefani’s blog 116th and Abroad, and check back soon on Le Blog!