Learning French Through Study Abroad – USAC

Dinner started as it always does. Around eight thirty I’m called to the table, I sit down and help serve. Every day my host family asks about my classes, how they are going and what we are learning, then we end up moving on. When talking about my day the other night I was taken by surprise when my host dad asked me to stop talking. He asked me a question and at first I had no idea what he was asking me about. I thought he said something about my recent trip to Ireland so I attempted to answer what I heard but I was quickly stopped. He ended up asking me to repeat a few words and one of them was simply “Bien.” I was worried and slightly embarrassed because I thought that I was saying the word wrong. It is probably the easiest word and it was one of the first things I learned when I started French about six years ago. I repeated it a few more times for them which was followed by my host dad sitting back in his chair with crossed arms, laughing to himself.

“Salut, tu vas bien? Tu avait un bon vol?” These were some of the first words I heard as I was being pulled in to “faire la bise.” Only a few minutes before, I was standing in the baggage claim with the other students debating on when to go out and find my host family. The nerves hadn’t hit me until the moment I stepped off of the plane. I left the states without a doubt, only worried about not seeing my family for the next four months. I was tired, scared and not exactly sure what I had gotten myself into. The airport is where I was supposed to meet the people that I would live with for the semester. I had heard so many great things about living with a host family, but even more were bad. Those stories ranged from being ignored to being kicked out, and I couldn’t stand the thought of being kicked out of someone’s house in another country where I hardly have any connections. I was asking myself why I decided to live with a family – I very easily could have lived in the on-campus residence hall and not of had to worry about constantly pleasing them. Everything was going through my head in that moment along with the quick French I was hearing from the people around me.

Our group was lucky since we had some time to talk to our host families before leaving the states. I emailed mine about two weeks before I left and all I knew was that I would be living with a couple and their two younger sons, both still in high school. They told me that they enjoyed seeing good movies, going skiing and having good food, but they don’t speak any English. Although I have never been skiing, I knew that there would not be a problem with the other two interests. All I knew about the boys was that they enjoyed playing basketball. I was excited to hear that I had host brothers since I am really close to my younger brother at home. My host mom, sent a picture of their family along with her email. I had studied the picture, but when I stepped out of the baggage claim, I still had trouble recognizing her. I was quickly approached by an assistant who took my name and then finally took me over to my host mom. The French hit me at once and I realized that I was not prepared to speak in another language. Although I could understand what she was saying, my response time was so far off. I was relived to find her anyways. She introduced herself as Claire and told me that she had to go to work so she could not take me home. The next thing I knew was that I was being introduced to her friend that also hosts students, Andrea, and Andrea’s student, Kayla. We all walked out together and then parted ways.

I followed Kayla and Andrea to the car, slightly confused and nervous once again. I knew nothing of where I was going to be living and I was not even going to walk into the house with my host mother. After a while of driving we arrived in the center of the city. Andrea helped me with my bags and we went down a pretty steep sidewalk with the most beautiful view of the mountains. We stopped outside an apartment and Andrea buzzed the door. A minute or two later we were greeted by my youngest host brother. I was then left by Andrea and Kayla to go up to the apartment with him. He offered to take a bag, and I’m glad he did since I found out that they lived on the third floor of the building. I was shown my room, and then left to unpack and get situated. I was too nervous to go out and talk to my host brother and so I showered then fell asleep for about an hour or two. My host mother returned after I woke up and we were further introduced. She told me about how they hardly had rules and that things here are just “tranquille.” It came time for dinner and I had to find the courage to meet the others and speak more French. I met my other host brother and my host dad. I once again had to “faire la bise,” which has always been weird to me even though I know that it is a part of the French culture as well as many others.

Dinner went on and I was once again caught up by the language barrier. I didn’t realize how much winter break had effected my French. It had only been about a month since I spoke French, but it still proved to be difficult. I was also dealing with the speed and a million questions being thrown at me. After a while my host family went on to speak amongst themselves, hardly trying to include me into the conversation; it felt like the longest night ever. The next two weeks went about the same, but I had finally started my classes. They helped a bit since I was forced to speak more French than English, but I was still uncomfortable with the language. At night I would talk with my family, but stop a lot. I found myself constantly searching for words and phrases on google translate. I was able to understand more and more but I was still struggling to respond, especially when I would get stuck. My language anxiety hit the hardest when I would go out and order things at restaurants or at bakeries. Getting caught up by a word or two was my fear along with not being able to respond to a question. I remember daydreaming about the day I wouldn’t have a problem, and just be able to speak freely with my family and people outside of my family.

When I was at my home university, I always worried about messing up while speaking. I had very strict teachers and even though the classes were good, I didn’t have a lot of room for improvement since I was so afraid to make mistakes. I came to this country with the same worries. I didn’t want anyone to think poorly of my language skills, especially since I am from the states and that often carries the idea that we’re not open to learning about other languages and cultures. Slowly but surely, I started learning how to laugh at myself. I was figuring out how to let my mistakes go and how to correct them. In the past two months, my confidence has increased and I can understand more and speak faster with little to no hesitation. I felt that way until I was stopped the other night at dinner with my family.

My host dad was still laughing, and after a moment I realized the others were as well. They caught onto something that I just could not figure out. They told me that I say the word “bien” a bit nasally – I immediately apologized, blaming my possible Chicago accent, but was then taken by surprise. They told me that they were laughing because that was the accent of the south. They thought it was funny since they noticed that I was starting to develop their accent more and more when I speak French. I was immediately relieved and took that as a compliment. I had daydreamed for so long about how one day I might be able to speak like a native. Although I know that I still have a long journey ahead of me to becoming fluent, this is a step in the right direction.

Kayla Crossland is a USAC Pau alumna and attends Loyola University Chicago and is studying Digital Media and French. You can read more about her time in France on her blog.

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