This week’s blog post is, essentially, by my students here in Paris. They are preparing to return to the States after four months in France, where they arrived with widely varying levels of ability in the French language. The study-abroad program in which I’ve been teaching, like many others here, does not require that students have studied the language before they arrive, and most of the courses are taught in English.
Now, on the face of it, this method seems bizarre. Imagine a group of Italian undergraduates coming to New York for a semester to study, and taking all their classes in Italian. The difference, of course, is that English is taught in all Western European countries, beginning at a young age. In the United States, we start teaching foreign languages later, and we teach them with far less urgency than our European counterparts -- in large measure because, as native English speakers, we don’t feel we “need” another language. Because study-abroad programs want to encourage students to experience a different culture, they are loath to set a language bar that excludes eager but untaught learners.
I asked my students, of whom some spoke reasonably good French before arriving and others spoke none at all, what their experience of the language had been over these months. Here are a few excerpts:
Maddie (several years of university-level French): I’d gotten used to one voice, my professor’s voice. I’ve found it difficult to adjust my comprehension to all the other voices I’ve been hearing. It’s not that the language is too complicated. It’s that I can’t untangle the words in a different voice or accent. I have to listen really hard.
Electra (no French at all before arriving): I found language itself hard as a child. I spoke late and I read late. Everyone else was reading, and I couldn’t seem to. Then, all at once, I started making out words, and I remember the excitement of the moment I caught on to reading. Like, “Hey! I know what that sign means!” I’m having the same experience now, and it’s very exciting. Signs and announcements that were just letters to me before are starting to make sense, and now I want to go farther, I really want to speak the language. I do find that the French speak awfully fast. I do better with a sort of Germanish accent, with the words slower.
Emily (some university-level French): Being what I would call semi-proficient in the language has forced me to self-reflect. I really wanted to speak French when I got here. Then I became reluctant. I knew I would make so many mistakes. I have to push past that. I have to step it up. If I don’t make myself speak, I’ll leave without much more confidence than I had when I arrived.
Becky (close to fluency): I’ve been here for the whole year, living in a homestay situation, and it’s really pushed me. I find I have a lot more confidence now when I carry on a conversation. I was afraid of making mistakes when I arrived. I’m not afraid anymore.
Maddie: Three times now, people have asked me, “Are you from England?” I thought that was strange, so I wrote to my old French teacher. And she told me she taught me French with a British accent; she said that was the way she was trained to teach the language. I can’t hear the difference, myself.
That last comment strikes me as the refuge of a non-native teacher; after all, if you’re teaching French, why wouldn’t you teach it with a French accent if you could? Still, as I told the students, their comments put me in mind of a trio of us who went off to a Belgian boarding school in 1969. Besides me, there was Molly, from Ohio, who was sharply witty in private but painfully shy in public; and Mary, from Connecticut, who was an effervescent chatterbox. Mary embarrassed Molly and me because she made so many awful mistakes when she spoke French -- she mixed up her tenses and genders and felt free to substitute an English word with a faux French accent whenever she didn’t know the word in French. On our departure, the girls at the school threw us a little party. They raised their glasses, “to Molly who is so intelligent, and Lucy who is so nice, and Mary who speaks such good French.” Mistakes are not the issue; willingness is.
I still don’t know how I feel about English-language study-abroad programs. For my students, though, the issue of language is no minor concern. Their wrestling with it, even as they finish their final papers in English, goes to the center of what they have learned here, and how they have or have not changed.