Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Study Abroad / étudier à l'étranger

"Etudier a l'etranger" is how Google Translate tells me to say "study abroad", but how do the French and Francophones really say it?

As I've mentioned, I learned very little Spanish in three years of high school Spanish class. That isn't meant to be an indictment of traditional language methods. It's an indictment of the poor quality of my high school Spanish classes. They expected little and got less. Most of our grade--I swear, this is not hyperbole--was based on our "cultural projects", outside work that was awarded points on some mysterious basis. Eating at a Mexican restaurant earned you quite a few points. So did making a pinata. You could get points for cooking Mexican foods--not as many as the effort required, in my opinion--but you only got full points if you made a big posterboard with pictures of the food you made, and confetti and whatnot. Friendship bracelets. Confetti eggs. You get the idea. A few of the possible activities (we were given a list) did require actual Spanish knowledge or learning, but these, mysteriously, were awarded a very small number of points. I only did them when I needed a few more points to round out my grade. Writing a letter in Spanish (you had to bring it to the teacher with a stamped envelope so the teacher could mail it; the writing alone didn't get you any points, so you had to have someone to write to) earned far less points than eating a chimichanga at La Fiesta. (You had to bring in a receipt signed by the waiter, by the way. Every year angry parents wanted to know why a note from the parent stating that they'd eaten at the restaurant wasn't good enough; they'd eaten at three that semester and now their kid wasn't going to get any points? The Spanish teachers were a suspicious lot.)

Isn't that CRAZY? I could go on for this long enough to make it its own post. You had to do that big poster thing for making Mexican food at home, but you still wouldn't get as many points as you would for having a waiter sign a receipt.

Anyway, my point is: I didn't learn much Spanish. I DID learn to conjugate 24 irregular verbs in the present and maybe preterit tense. I had these memorized for a long time. They gave us a long, long sheet of paper and we had to write them all in. Every semester we had a test in this, and it made up the rest of our grade that didn't consist of cultural projects--again, no hyperbole. (The first semester the test was just which verbs they were and the first person present; we had to do more each semester.) I was very, very sad when I started learning Spanish for real and found out there are more than 24 irregular verbs in Spanish. My Guatemalan teacher was not impressed in the slightest by my ability to list 24 infinitives with irregular conjugations.

So, I flunked the Spanish placement exam in college and elected not to take any Spanish there; I wasn't particularly interested in it anyway. I wanted to learn ancient Greek and Latin, with a vague idea that then I would be able to learn almost any language with some ease.

I basically failed ancient Greek, for various reasons, most involving me being lazy. I loved parts of Greek, but it was not a Greek Appreciation class. THAT I would have aced. I did not admit to laziness, and my professor suggested I start over again but begin with Latin this time, because no one ever started with Greek. They'd all taken Latin in high school, or at least started it in college first. I lasted half a term in Latin. I proclaimed that I didn't think I would ever learn a language unless I was somewhere where I had to speak it all the time. I decided to fulfill my college's strict language requirement by learning more-or-less organically and then "testing out". I went to Italy.

I learned Italian, in Italy; I learned it pretty well, considering how little time I put into it. I was with an American program made up of students from various colleges. It was more rigorous than such programs often are. The program was for art history, primarily, but we spent the first month in intensive Italian classes. We lived with Italian "host families", but central Florence being what it is, almost all of us lived with older ladies or couples who provided us with a room and two meals a day and dinner conversation, but little else. And each of us had an American roommate. My roommate and I hit it off instantly, and we didn't even try to make promises about speaking only Italian to each other. (This promise, and the quick abandoning of it, is a common trope of study abroad novels and narratives.) We went to Italian class together, and of course we did things around town that required us to speak Italian, and we spoke Italian with our "host signora". We learned. Somehow I got to the point where I felt like I could say whatever I wanted in Italian. It really was almost like magic, at least in retrospect. A year later, when I traveled in the south of Italy, several people asked me where in northern Italy I was from after hearing me talk (this is more a reflection on how different southern Italian is from northern Italian than my own fluency). (Or, as I am trying diplomatically NOT to put it, but as my full-of-pride teachers would have said: it just means they speak bad Italian in the south.) Not all of my classmates got there, and at least for many of them, I think it was largely that fear of making mistakes. One of my friends asked me in astonishment once, after I told a story about speaking to a nice elderly man I met in the park, "You feel comfortable enough with your Italian to talk to people?" Another time I went with two classmates to one of those stores that specializes in selling imported American processed foods. I asked for a bagel in Italian, grammatically perfect but strongly accented. The jerk guy who was along said "Listen to you! 'Vor-ay'?" and sneered. Then he asked for his pretzels in English. (There were only six men in our group of thirty students, and though this guy was a jerk, he was good-looking, and--well, it's lucky that I already thought he was a jerk, because as it was, that was almost enough to make me stop speaking Italian for good. What if my accent really was as bad as he said and he was just the only one pointing it out?)

But anyway, yes, I learned Italian. I easily passed a test for people who had taken two years of college Italian. I've forgotten it fairly thoroughly. I have little occasion to use it, and it's not really worth the effort to keep it up.

So when I decided to learn Spanish for real, it was a no-brainer: I was going to go somewhere Spanish-speaking and learn Spanish by magic just as I'd learned Italian. I chose Guatemala, mecca of Spanish learners. I loved Guatemala. LOVED. I lived with a "real" host family, parents and children (though still just interaction at meals, which was okay with me). I had one-on-one teaching and daily "excursions"--and because I went to the right kind of school, these were all in Spanish, too. Independently I started taking lessons in backstrap weaving, and these were in Spanish. If I had gone by myself instead of with another American, I would have been speaking Spanish 24/7. I learned Spanish. It took more work than magic, but my Spanish was better grammatically than my Italian ever was. My teachers pushed me. I said things in multiple tenses without having to think about it much, after a while. (I relied heavily on the present tense in Italian.)

The person I was with was of a more studious nature than I was, and spent more time on homework and flashcards than I would have on my own; I started doing it too, because I didn't want to be left behind. (Or bored. We had a limited number of English books along, and there wasn't much else to do after dinner.) Also, the tourist who speaks the language the best generally does all the talking and comprehending during travels, so I would have been left WAY behind if I'd been even a little behind. That was my first real experience with flashcards for foreign language, and I found them pretty useful, though I wasn't nearly as systematic about it as my companion.

I discovered the world of free and creative language-learning resources, and language-learning blogs, just last year when I dabbled in learning Portuguese after beginning a brief, sweet romance in Brazil.

Then I decided to learn French. I wanted to learn French "for real", the way I'd learned Italian and Spanish "for real". And to me, this meant going somewhere where people speak French and learning it the same way I learned Italian and Spanish.

So... even though I have all of these great free and inexpensive resources available, and examples of people who learn languages without ever going to the country... I keep finding myself trying to insist that I won't be able to learn French without immersion--actual, physical immersion.

Is it true? I don't know. It doesn't have to be true, it's not like it would be impossible mentally, but the question is whether I will actually be able to make myself do it without going somewhere.

I don't have the luxury I used to have of long stretches of time where I could go to another country. Would two weeks be worth it?

I can't afford France.

I've been spoiled by Guatemala. Language lessons are not as cheap anywhere as they are in Guatemala. And it's hard to imagine going back to a classroom-of-foreigners environment after all that delicious individual tutoring.

Because I still have a great feeling of wistfulness for Latin America, and because I can't afford France, I looked into going to French Guiana. Some of you already know the punchline THERE. (Apparently everything in French Guiana is imported, and it's one of the more expensive places to live in the world. It isn't some French-speaking developing nation, the equivalent of Bolivia:Spain.)

And there's Africa. Africa is expensive to get to. It's the version of French I want to learn, so it makes sense to learn there. I just... do I need to do this? Should I? Is it the best use of my money? I started looking at a school in Senegal. It's much more expensive than my school in Guatemala was. Worth it? Necessary? I just don't know.

Insisting on a foreign-immersion environment is just as stick-in-the-mud "right way to learn a language" as any other "must".

But it's still a question I'll probably revisit often.

Nécessaire? Important? Aucune de ces?


  1. Is immersion necessary? Perhaps. The more important question though is probably the 'why' question. Why do you want to learn French? How will knowing French positively affect your life and the lives of others?

    I came across two quotes today. The first: "The life that is most powerfully lived is the one that finds passionate urgency fueled by a sense of destiny." If French isn't a part of a sense of destiny, of real purpose for you, something may be missing. You can find purpose anywhere. Immersion my increase the chances of finding it though.

    Second quote: "We need to have a dream we are pursuing and at the same time experience enough of that dream to keep us inspired." Again, you can find experiences in French anywhere. Immersion does make it more likely to be a regular thing though.

    Why share these with you? I think you have the sense of destiny. You want to work with DWB. Can't think of many things that would be more impactful for both you and others. It's a pretty serious sense of purpose. So it seems the struggle may be in actually experiencing the dream as you pursue it. You can fuel that dream too. Keep in contact and listen to stories from DWB people. Keep the DWB dream alive and burning. It will fuel the desire to learn French. And on the other front, can you find ways to increase your 'real' experiences with French? Find French nationals living in your area. Or better yet, immigrants from French speaking Africa. Make friends with them. Help them here and now. They will care about your learning of French far more than any of your English speaking friends. They will become the fuel that fires your learning.

    Immersion is not necessary if you can get the things you need here and now. It'll take a bit of work, but you can do it. Your goal to work with DWB is too important not to do it.

  2. This is an interesting thing to think about--increasing motivation. I've thought about spending time finding more MSF narratives, but then thought--is that really the best use of my time, is that really going to do anything to help me get ready? I know that I have to beware of what I think of as "false progress", feeling like I'm doing something without actually doing something (more on this in a future post). But if things like that do the intangible of keeping me feeling motivated, that's definitely worthwhile. Thanks!