Brielle Entzminger is a Media Studies major who studied in Lyon, France during the Spring 2018 semester of her 3rd year. She was provided with many opportunities to practice her French language skills over the course of her semester. Keep reading to see how she took them on!
“When you come back, you’ll be practically fluent!” Countless people told me this when I told them I was studying abroad in Lyon. I would not only be taking classes in French with French students but also living with a French host family for an entire semester. It makes sense – 5 months of immersion in another language should make you practically fluent, right?
While I would like to think that that is true, my experiences in France so far prove otherwise. I have been in Lyon for almost 3 months now, yet I do not feel anywhere close to being fluent, and I doubt that I will be fluent by the time I leave in May. It is still very difficult to follow conversations between French people, completely comprehend a French movie, and to understand the professors who teach non-international student classes (classes with mostly French students), for example. No matter how hard I concentrate, I can only understand part of the conversation, movie, etc., unless the speakers are not talking too fast.
I have come to realize that becoming fluent in just five months is an unrealistic goal, especially considering my life here. I do take almost all of my class in French and must listen, take notes, and speak in French during those classes. I also speak to my host mother in French and must use French during my day-to-day activities, such as ordering food. However, many of my friends are other American students, meaning that, for the most part, we are communicating in English. I am still exposed to English on a daily basis, from music to social media, also. In short, I am not completely immersed in French.
Other international students have expressed similar feelings to me. A girl who I worked on a group project with has been studying in Lyon since last semester, for example. I asked her if she thinks her French has improved and she said that, honestly, she does not think that it has. While she is now used to listening to and comprehending French in and outside of class, she does not feel that her speaking skills have gotten much better. Many of her roommates and friends (other international students) communicate in English rather than French, so she does not have to speak French all of the time. She too is not completely immersed.
With this, I now no longer hold the goal of becoming fluent above my head. It would take several semesters, perhaps even an entire bachelor’s degree (four years), as well as further immersion (i.e. no use of English), to truly become fluent while studying in France. Instead, I am considering the smaller ways I have progressed in French since January. While reading and writing have never been very difficult for me, I have certainly improved in my comprehension; while in January, I did not even understand when a cashier asked me if I wanted my food “for here” or “to go,” I can now order and ask questions at restaurants with little problem. I can also understand almost all of my professors (excluding my media professor who speaks way too fast). I admit that I do not understand everything the French people say around me at school, on the street, etc. but, if I am paying attention, I can understand what they are talking about.
As for my speaking skills, I now feel a bit more confident when speaking French during my classes, to French people, and with my friends. I have already had to do a total of four exposés (oral presentations) this semester, along with French students and other international students. The presentations were very intimidating, especially the ones in my media class that I have the most trouble understanding; nonetheless, I was quite proud of myself for getting through them.
I also feel happy every time I am able to have a successful conversation with a French person, meaning that I understood them, he or she understood me, and he or she did not switch to English once he or she realized I was not French. Having a successful conversation in French can still be hard, especially with French people who know English and want to ‘practice’ with me, but I have become better at having them.
Finally, I have come to enjoy practicing French with my friends who are also learning French. It helps me to not only realize which words and phrases I do not yet know in French but also helps me to further integrate French into my daily life. While we certainly do not practice French enough with each other, I like it when we do and plan to do it more often.
Perhaps one of my most memorable French milestones occurred just a little over one week ago. As part of the Lyon study abroad program, us UVA students were invited to take a cooking class. The class was a French woman’s house and was entirely in French. While it was difficult at first to understand the written recipes the woman gave us, she was very friendly and helpful, making sure we cooked everything correctly. It was quite easy to understand her and ask her questions, and she complimented our French skills throughout the class. As we dug into our delicious meal of quiche, chicken with vegetables, and chocolate cake, I smiled to myself – we had successfully completed a French cooking class.
My progression in French has ultimately reassured me that fluency is possible. It simply takes a lot of practice and time – way more than one semester in France. It also depends on the person. While some people can quickly grasp new languages (especially if they already know more than one language), for others it takes years. A Polish girl I met, for example, told me she did not feel fluent in English until she was seventeen or eighteen, and she started studying it when she was in elementary school. As I spend my remaining time, I will try my hardest to appreciate the different ways I progress in French; no matter how small they are, they bring me one step closer to truly mastering a second language.