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Taking the Plunge

- Justine

Have you ever been part of a fast-paced conversation and found it hard to stay focused? Have you ever talked to someone who was mumbling so much you had to ask him to repeat himself five times? Have you ever resorted to hand motions to explain yourself? Frustrated, tired out, a tad humiliated… this is how you might feel when you’re faced with problems in communication. And this is how it feels to be immersed in the French language with only five years of mediocre-American-textbook-educated French under your belt. However, if you’re as determined as I am to learn another language and culture, immersion is a thrilling adventure and an extraordinary opportunity that doesn’t present itself too often.

A little under two weeks ago, I was waking up to the briiiinnggg brrriinnggg of an alarm clock and feeling completely petrified. The last time I was that scared of something, it was that Samara from The Ring would crawl out of my T.V. and kill me. The night before, I had gone over important phrases and questions with my cousin (Can you speak a bit more slowly, please? I’m American, I’m learning French at my high school) but I was still nowhere near confident. I felt like I was starting kindergarten all over again, without knowing how to tell time or tie my shoes.

For the next two weeks, I was to be working at the Divonne les Bains Centre de Loisirs, a day camp for kids ages four to twelve, as a volunteer animatrice (counselor). It was an excellent chance to really immerse myself (everyone in my family here is bilingual) because nobody at the Centre– the director, the other counselors, the nurse, the kids– spoke English. The first day of work can be a little scary even in your own country. But in your native language, you can just wing it. As a high school French student, communicating is something of an extensive neurological process.

Step 1: Receive French message.
Step 2: Decode. Check for idioms.
Step 3: Develop response.
Step 4: Adapt response according the extent of your French vocabulary.
Step 5: Edit response for grammatical errors.
Step 6: Vocalize response slowly with proper accent.

My scintillating first words to the person at the front desk were “Je suis une volontaire?” My voice was about two octaves higher than its normal pitch, my “r” sound was too American, and I was desperately hoping that “volontaire” meant “volunteer.” There was a pause, and I glanced in the direction of the director’s office. Thankfully, I was understood, and eventually found myself in a room with dozens of French five-year-olds with eight and a half hours of no English-speaking ahead of me.

Yesterday was my last day at the Centre, and I can definitely say my French has improved. Even the director said he could tell the difference! It was an amazing experience, going from being almost completely silent to asking the kids how they liked the field trip to the zoo, if they would please stop hitting each other, thank you, and to please eat the vegetables, they’re good for you. The education you get from a textbook is nothing compared to actually interacting in a French setting. The textbook will tell you that “Quel âge as-tu?” means “How old are you?” But in France, when someone wants to know your age, what they ask you is more along the lines of “Taquelâge?” The textbook will have you practice describing a picture and ordering a sandwich, but it won’t tell you how to actually hold a conversation with someone that goes beyond the Eiffel Tower or hair color.

If you ever travel to a country where the official language is one that you’re studying in school, I STRONGLY recommend that you try immersion. Find an environment away from the resorts and touristy areas. Try to arrange meeting as many people as possible, especially people your own age. I spent July 14th (the French national holiday) with other 16-year-olds, and found that they understood me better than adults and young kids. They actually complimented my French, because they knew how tough it is to be learning another language in school. Participate in as many local events as possible. Read the local newspaper. Don’t be afraid to speak to people. You have to risk being misunderstood, because the more you talk, the better a speaker you become. Oh, and go see movies. I saw Harry Potter 6 in French, as well as a cute French comedy called Tellement Proches, and while I didn’t always understand what was being said, I got the gist.

There are over 6,000 languages out there, so why master only one? Skip your usual summer lethargy and go immerse yourself in another language. It’s hard work, but the knowledge you gain and the beauty of experiencing a culture other than your own are very, very worth it.

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