One Tongue-Tied Traveller is Lost in Translation and in Over Her Head

One of the biggest challenges to overcome while studying abroad is the language barrier. Whether you’re in Barcelona, Tokyo, Rome or Paris, there is always a wall that blocks communication between you and everyone else.

This poses difficulties in everyday life activities, such as shopping at the grocery store, ordering food or even taking classes. Although the challenges can be overwhelming and somewhat volatile, the proof of improvement is so much more gratifying and rewarding than words can express.

I’ll be honest, when I applied for the Education Abroad Program (EAP) full immersion program at the University of Lyon, I was ambitious, but had no idea what was coming. Yes, I heard stories about the challenges of taking classes in French; but really, how hard could it be? After all, I was taking French classes Monday through Thursday at UCI so I had my share of daily practice, right?

I could not have been more wrong.

For starters, the summer before I left for France, my study habits had gone out the window and I almost never studied French. Call me crazy, but I just couldn’t bring myself to sit down for an hour a day to review verb tenses and pronouns.

I had also heard from past participants that there really was no way to prepare for what was to come. So, in my eyes, why try to prepare at all? The justification seemed logical at the time.

Needless to say, I was definitely shocked three weeks into the program. Before week three, I was taking intensive language classes that were equivalent to French 1B at UCI (the minimum language requirement to participate in this program is French 2C.) The ability to breeze through these classes didn’t humble my overconfidence.

When my academic courses at Institut d’Etudes Politiques (The Institute of Political Studies) began, I envisioned myself strolling into class, conversing with other French university students about politics and breezing through the papers and final. Then, at the end of my semester abroad, I would come back to the U.S. completely fluent in the language.

In reality, standing next to other French students was enough to kill my confidence. I failed to understand huge portions of their conversations – I had the vocabulary equivalent of a French kindergartner. Instead of being smooth and confident like I imagined, I awkwardly tried to compose sentences as my peers responded with utterly confused expressions.

As if that wasn’t painful enough, I still had political science lectures to sit through. Professors lectured about globalization, international violence and social democracy. The vocabulary and speed of their lectures were not exactly equivalent to my “intensive” language classes where we studied terms such as “window,” “flower vase” and “painting.”

During these two to three hour lectures, I kept thinking, “I’m sure these lectures would be interesting if I actually understood what the professor was saying.” It was discouraging, to say the least, and it took everything inside of me to not run away from the French language and hide in my bed until December.

Instead, I decided to be proactive and do everything in my power to beat my language blues. I reviewed basic French grammar so that it was ingrained into my brain and I forced myself to read French articles daily to improve my vocabulary.

Slowly but surely, change began to happen. The improvement was made apparent when I started mixing French words into my English. Subconsciously, instead of saying “for,” I’d use “pour.” My pronunciation for English sounded more like French. I was willing to sacrifice my ability to speak English if that meant I could speak better French.

My comprehension also improved to the point that I understood about 65 percent of the lectures. Therefore, my notes began to look more like notes and less like chicken scratch.

Today, it is still a work in progress. I’d say that my comprehension is about 75 to 80 percent and my speaking abilities are improving but still not up to par. I still speak at a snail’s pace but that’s OK.

Each day is a challenge, but now I welcome it with open arms because, in the end, the most enriching memories that I will gain from this experience will have more to do with French interactions than anything else.