I’d like to start off by mentioning that I never could have imagined that I would, at some point, be living in France. Ever since I was 6 years old, I found myself drawn to the French language.
My first language is Spanish, which I speak at home, and I later learned English after moving to the United States. This background made French kind of a no-brainer. Anytime I went anywhere I loved to read the backs of shampoo bottles, or toy boxes: first in English, then in Spanish, and finally in French to see how much of the French I could understand just from context clues. I was continuously surprised to find out that French shares a lot of grammatical similarities to Spanish and many of the words in French can also be found in English and Spanish. This drew me tremendously to the language, as I loved solving puzzles and French was exactly that.
My high school, unfortunately, did not offer French as an elective, so it was up to me to study it on my own. I started off as many people do nowadays: with Duolingo. Slowly after a few intense months of countless daily lessons, I graduated to listening to french music, watching videos or movies with French subtitles, and eventually listening to French news stations. This seems like a lot of work in retrospect, but at the time it was my hobby and I was having a blast.
Come my college years, I was overjoyed to finally be able to take French classes in the academic setting. This allowed me to really drill the one thing that I could never teach myself: grammar. Every semester, I would take 2 French classes. I was constantly amazed at how much I would learn with each passing day. Suddenly, French felt like something I could be good at.
Fast forward to today: I’m living in the beautiful and historically rich city of Strasbourg, France and exploring a new side of French that I never thought I would achieve. Learning French academically is vastly different from speaking it with people your own age. Think about speaking English. We use small colloquialisms, slang, abbreviations, initialisms, you name it. It’s something that comes with a certain level of familiarity with the language. On-campus in the United States, no one would bat an eye if they heard someone say:
“I’m going to the caf to grab a quick bite, before kicking it for a while, y’all want to tag along?”
But think about how that could be understood by someone who is just learning English. I find myself in the same situation here in Strasbourg. So much so that I’ve even started writing some of the words down to use later along with with some of the French “language ticks.” This being – small little sounds or additions to phrases that native speakers sneak into what they’re saying. It’s not uncommon to hear someone end their sentences with “hein?” or “quoi” or even “bof.” Although these words have meanings of their own, they’re often simply added to the end or beginning of a sentence to add a certain flow to the conversation.
This is something the University of Strasbourg has really helped all of us understand. I’m currently taking a class called “Les langues de la rue,” or “languages of the street.” This class has gone well beyond simply teaching us colloquialisms, and has also shown us the origins of certain saying. For example, in my classes, I always learned that to ask for something, you would start by saying “je voudrais,” or “j’aimerais” (I would like), when people in France tend to use “Je prends” (I’ll have) more often.
After learning this, I decided to try it the next morning when I went to the bakery down the street, Le fournil d’Austerlitz, to my astonishment I was not met with the usual hesitation and slowed down French, but with a quick “d’accord” and even a small conversation from which I learned that the woman was actually the owner of the bakery and that her favorite breakfast in the morning was an almond croissant with raspberry jam!
Taking this small victory, I later decided to grab some coffee before heading home in the afternoon. Being a bit of a coffee geek, I decided to talk to the barista at “Cafe Bretelles” (a locally owned third-wave coffee shop) about coffee origins, and her preferences. What I expected to be a simple question turned into a forty-minute conversation on our relationship with coffee and the coffee culture here in France. The conversation really made me feel more at ease; as if I was one step further from seeming obviously foreign, something that really inspired me to continue working at my French and to lose my fear of having those conversations with others.
Simple little conversations like these have helped me realize the power of a total immersion approach to a language. My French level was high enough to understand and be understood, but studying abroad has opened a new side to the language that I never would have reached on my own. The simple act of constantly being surrounded by the language; be it in class, with friends, at dinner with my host family, or even at the local bakery, has made the language much more accessible to me. I can feel myself reaching a level of comfort with the language that makes it feel more comfortable to carry a conversation whereas before, I would have to think about what I was going to say, sometimes even translating it from English, and responding slowly and meticulously. After only three weeks, French has started to feel like an extension of myself and not something that I have to work as hard at.
If I’m noticing such a great change after only three weeks, I can’t wait to see what changes will come after my time here is over.
Mais c’est l’effet spéciale de la France, quoi.
About the Author – Lihlu Fuentes, Fall 2019 BCA Strasbourg, France Student
Salut! My name is Lihlu Fuentes and I will be studying abroad in Strasbourg, France! I’m coming abroad through BCA and my home-school, Austin College (go Roos!), as a double major in Psychology and French with a minor in education. In high-school, I was introduced to photography and elements of filmmaking and fell in love with capturing unique moments to share with others. I love learning languages, exploring cultures, trying new foods, and anything coffee-related. Most importantly, I am excited to share my experiences and adventures abroad! Follow my personal Instagram @queenfontaine for a sneak peek of what’s to come. Next stop: France!