Right out of the gate, I’ll ease some of your anxiety: many students who come on the EPA program do not speak very much French. In fact, only one other Drexel student in my cohort is in 300-level French at Drexel. Most of the non-Drexel students do not have very high French proficiency skills but are still able to comfortably manage. I was an immersion student and would put my French comprehension skills at a solid 9/10 (I understand most things and those that I don’t immediately know, I can figure out pretty quickly through context clues) while my speaking is at 7/10 (my grammar is atrocious and I need to improve my word choice).
Belgium presents you with a wonderful language learning opportunity in that regard. Since there is a mixture of French and Dutch speakers, you won’t feel as much pressure if you aren’t perfect at French since a decent part of the population doesn’t speak it as their first language either! There are also so many ways to pick up French while you’re here that don’t involve sitting in a classroom.
At Your Internship
This may not apply as much if you’re working in the office of an MEP who doesn’t speak French but for those you working in an office, this is your chance to pick up on French words you would’ve never heard before.
Not only will you be exposed to words associated with the office culture, but you’ll also be able to have friendly conversation with your coworkers during your lunch break. Sometimes, I will pay close attention to the back and forth between my coworkers and jot down any words that I have never heard of before. This has helped me learn some more formal French and also taught me some of the more casual slang used by native speakers.
You can also ask that your coworkers only speak to you or send emails in French to help with your comprehension. When I mentioned that I was trying to improve my range of vocabulary, one of my coworkers started sending me emails exclusively in formal French, which has been very helpful!
The news is also an interesting way to improve your French. It exposes you to very high brow, uncommon words that you may not hear as readily in daily conversations. It will also give you a chance to keep up with the news and issues happening in Europe, since they’ll now be affecting you much more than when you were back home.
Before leaving for Brussels, I would watch France24’s 24-hour livestream on YouTube. They never really have 24-hours worth of news to report on so the stories often will repeat every hour or so, which would give me a chance to re-listen and understand what exactly they were talking about.
Hit the Books
There are a ton of bookstores all around Brussels. Pop in and grab one that looks particularly interesting to you! You don’t even need to read an advanced or adult book. Try searching for a fun science fiction novel in the Young Adults section or just page through a children’s book to see what new words you may find.
If you’re not feeling confident about your reading comprehension skills just yet, you could always read a book you already know so that way you can at least follow the storyline and maybe even learn some cultural differences through the way they retell the story.
Hopefully these tips will help you improve your confidence in French during your time abroad!