Let’s have a little fun today, shall we? Just one more week of classes, and with the weather so balmy, it feels like summer already. So, to be a little less serious than usual (and a lot more cliché), here’s a list of 7 things I didn’t think I’d do while studying abroad:
1. Find some subjects easier to talk about in French than in English. In one of my classes, we talked about how our relationship with a language is never straightforward. For example, we can derive a lot of our identity from the fact that we speak a certain language even if we don’t speak it well (for example, I’m very proud of the fact that I can speak a little Swedish; even if I can really only understand a tiny bit and pronounce a few words, it’s important to me because it’s the language of my grandmother’s family). Another aspect is that of reference; that is, if we’ve been taught a certain subject in a certain language, we might not find it easy to discuss that subject in another language. After several classes at the Université de Lausanne, this is the case for me with linguistics, narratology, comic books, and more.
2. Open a bank account. Did I expect to ever have to open a bank account in French? No. Within the first few weeks of being here in Switzerland, I had to do just that in order to receive my monthly stipends, which were very much needed, seeing as my American bank card only worked with some ATMs and with no grocery stores. I was shaking and sweating as I walked into the office and fumbled out the few phrases I’d practiced beforehand in my room: Je voudrais bien ouvrir un compte … The man behind the desk smiled politely until he found out that I was American. Cue the pages and pages of forms and multiple appointments with the (very polite) bank staff who put up with loads of paperwork, my poorly practiced French, and a nervous, bureaucracy-phobic student.
3. Deal with a foreign hospital in a foreign language. Two weeks ago, I had to make an unexpected trip to the emergency room (wait—are trips to the ER ever expected?! Thankfully, it’s nothing too serious and I’m back in good health). For most of the fifteen hours of waiting, examinations, tests, and scans, I spoke in French with the nurses and doctors, who frequently said something to the effect of, “Your French is better than my English, so if you don’t mind …” Towards the thirteen hour mark, I kind of lost it and started crying and repeating the same few sentences in English. Thankfully, my sister, best friend, and future mom-in-law were there to support me and to deal with the hospital staff. This week, I’ve called the hospital to cancel some more appointments for tests that were made while I’ll be home for the summer. It’s been oddly encouraging to have these unplanned conversations in French; as I’ve not been able to reflect beforehand on what I was going to say, I’ve had a real test of my abilities in spontaneous oral French. Needless to say, it’s improved since the bank account experience!
4. Look for apartments. I’ve practiced my reading comprehension in French and even learned a little German while looking for apartments to move into after the wedding. Who would have thought? I’ve also glanced through classified ads for furniture. What an adventure this will be!
5. Take part in bilingual counselling. Nothing like a little premarital counselling in French and English! The system actually worked quite well—the couple spoke mostly French, we often spoke English, and occasionally, to make sure everything was understood, things got said in both languages. I really appreciated their willingness to work with the fact that we’re not native French speakers! In fact, on the whole, I really valued the fact that my church put the importance of relationships above the importance of language-learning.
6. Pray in French. Turns out, one of the weirdest, most difficult things I’ve done in French has been praying. Praying in front of other people is already an odd feeling; prayer is such an intimate conversation that it feels awkward unless I know the other people really well. Despite taking part in Bible studies and church services in French that ended with a time of communal prayer, I never could bring myself to pipe up in front of such a big group. Listening to so much prayer in French did teach me a few things about how to formulate a prayer in French; nevertheless, I actually prayed in English at the smaller gatherings as I knew the francophones around me could understand what I was saying. But one evening, I did need to pray in French. It was a kickoff for a week of evangelisation, and I didn’t know how much English one of the members of my group understood. Sure, I could have prayed in English, but the strange thing is this: I found that, being as exhausted as I was after a full day of classes in French, I couldn’t find anything to say in English. So, French it was. I’m sure I made countless errors and probably left the group members scratching their heads in bewilderment at times, but thankfully, God understands the heart, so even if my words were jumbled, He knew what I was saying.
7. Babysit francophone kids. Okay, I’ve got to be honest with this one; of course I was hoping I’d be involved with kids in some way while abroad. After all, I love teaching and I love kids, and I’ve spent the past several years tutoring, babysitting, and working at a preschool in Nebraska. But I certainly didn’t expect to spend as much time with kids as I did this past year, nor did I expect it to be such a linguistically enriching experience. My church here is full of young families, several of whom are now good friends. So it’s no surprise that as I was invited over to their houses more and more frequently, I made friends with their kids as well, and eventually was asked to babysit. Who knew that interacting with children who are just learning the language themselves would be so enriching! I clearly remember talking to a little boy about the firetruck he was playing with. I said that people called for a firetruck when there was a fire—except that I forgot (as always) how to pronounce feu. I said it one way, looked at him and saw that he didn’t understand, and so I proceeded to pronounce feu with every possible vowel sound I could think of. The little boy burst into laughter. When he calmed down enough, I asked how we said the thing that’s very hot and has lots of flames, like a candle but bigger. He got the most mischievous look on his face as he gave me the correct pronunciation. That was the first time he realised that I didn’t speak French as a first language! Ever since, whenever I ask him for help with a word, he replies in turn with a question about how to say it in English. Of course, there are moments when it is an incredibly vulnerable experience as well, especially when I need to communicate something quickly to a child, or when a child is upset and I can’t understand what they’re saying. It’s amazing how much vocabulary I’m picking up from the time I spend with little kids! And even more amazing are the moments when I’m with my soon-to-be-nephews and my first instinct is to ask C’est quoi ça? instead of What’s that? There’s nothing more delightful than having a smiling child seek me out in church saying “Anna, Anna.”
Well, there you have it: 7 things I never thought I’d do while studying abroad. It’s almost over, folks; one more week of classes, three more weeks until I’m back in Nebraska. Time’s fun when you’re having flies, as my old science teacher Mr. Burns used to say. As I sit here munching on roasted sweet potatoes, baked chicken, and the most delicious tomatoes, I’m reminded of another thing I could add to the list: discuss baking techniques. With all the potlucks at the church, there’s been more than a few Sundays that the conversation at the table turns to who made what and how. The list could go on and on, but I’ll stop it here. This has been an incredible year of learning; I’m looking forward to seeing my French continue to grow!