Living with ‘no English’ while abroad

There’s a sign at the study abroad center here in Nantes that reads (in French, of course): “You only have X days left to speak French. After that, you won’t be able to anymore, and you will regret it!!!” Where the X is placed, a new post-it goes up every day with the countdown number on it: “29,” “28,” “27…” The idea is to reinforce the center’s “no English” policy, which applies not only to the classrooms but also to the hallways, the kitchen, the computer lab, the library and pretty much everywhere else. The students are expected to always be practicing their language skills, whether that’s in grammar class with the formidable Madame DePous or asking a fellow student why the printer won’t work.

In a way, I think this rule (and the guilt-trip countdown sign used to reinforce it) says something about my life as a study abroad student in France. French language and culture are no longer relegated to three classes a week plus homework (well, and French table). Instead, while I continue to take classes and do homework in French, I also “live” French all day long, adopting a “learning lifestyle” in a way I’ve never experienced before.

This rather specific situation has both its benefits and its drawbacks. On the positive side, of course, there’s the exhilaration of continual learning and application. A couple weeks ago, for example, I was at the study abroad center reviewing for a French exam when, among the list of words I was trying to memorize, I found one that I already knew. At least one of these verbs-turned-noun was already in my vocabulary! Buoyed by this isolated victory, I set to work drilling the gender of said noun into my head by quietly and enthusiastically chanting to myself, “UNE guérison, UNE guérison, UNE guérison.” It was at this moment that a classmate walked into the room where I was studying and witnessed my intense memorization efforts. I stopped short when I noticed I wasn’t alone and shrugged sheepishly at my classmate. “I was really excited to already know this noun, but I’m trying to remember the gender,” I explained in French.

“It’s okay, I understand!” she said laughing. “I always remember that one because I once had a band director named Mrs. Garrison, so it has to be feminine. I don’t know if that will help you at all.”

“It will, thank you! In the future — or, um” — I searched for a better word — “from now on (désormais), I’ll remember that. That’s the correct usage of ‘from now on,’ isn’t it?” She nodded. “That’s the first time I’ve used that, then! I just added a new word to my vocabulary!”

My classmate offered me a morale-boosting high five of victory for the double success of using the word désormais and already knowing guérison, then we returned to our studying. The following weekend, I managed to naturally incorporate three new words into a single conversation. I don’t think my advancing vocabulary did much to impress my francophone friends, but I silently enjoyed my small personal victory: “Yeah, that’s right: I just employed the word subvenir in everyday conversation!”

As a French major and self-proclaimed “word nerd,” I’m not quick to complain about the opportunity to continually revel in language acquisition. However, to be fair, the arrangement does come with a few frustrations. Sometimes, for example, I don’t want my whole life to be a French classroom. In principle, of course, I would like my host family and francophone friends to correct me when I make a mistake in the language. That’s the best way to know if I’m employing it correctly. In practice, however, that’s not always the case. Some days I wouldn’t mind hitting “pause” on the ongoing French lesson. Last Monday, for example, my day had already been long, I was exhausted and I still had a presentation to attend in the evening. I was trying to tell my host father that to reach the conference center where the presentation was to take place, I would be getting off tram line one at Gare Maritime. This, he decided, was a good moment to interrupt the conversation for a pronunciation lesson.

“Gare,” he corrected me, emphasizing the vowel, then prompted: “It’s gAre. Like mAmon.”

I responded. “Gare.”

“No, Gare.”

“Gare.”

“Yes, now Ma-ri-time,” he prompted.

“Ma-ri-time,” I replied obediently. “Gare Maritime.”

“There you go,” he responded, pleased with his work. “Gare Maritime. Now, what time do you need to be there?”

This little interaction actually gave me two French lessons for the inconvenience of one: not only did I learn better pronunciation, I was also reminded how the French like to interrupt one another in conversation. It actually doesn’t bother me that much, though, and I am still intent on learning everything I can while I’m here. After all, I only have 26 days left to speak French in France. After that I won’t be able to anymore, and if I don’t learn how to pronounce Gare Maritime before I leave, I will forever regret it…or something like that.

Lauren Styczynski

Tags:  France French language study abroad words

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