I made it a goal to improve my French while I was abroad. Despite some hesitation in the beginning, I think I really achieved this. I wanted to reflect on my experience and share what I noticed with those who are deciding to go to a French speaking country for similar reasons.
I know a lot of French words, I would say, but it’s much different when you’re writing and when you’re speaking. Similar to English, I would use much more complicated words for an academic essay than when speaking to a friend. However, it always frustrated me that I’d use the same words constantly when speaking in French (my overuse of the word “beaucoup” instantly comes to mind). I think it’s due to the fact that French isn’t my native language so my exposure to new or variant ways of saying things was low, despite my years of studying it. It has been so much help hearing the way native speakers actually use the language and it has improved the depth of conversation I am able to have with others.
It’s also always interesting to know what a certain idiom may be in French as opposed to in English or how to speak in a professional work setting.
I would like to say that my comprehension is high but you’ll always have moments where you didn’t properly hear or you misunderstood someone. In your native language, you just nod and pretend like you know what they’re saying (and we all have an endless list of stories where that goes wrong!) but in French, people can sometimes treat you like you don’t know the language because of it. This isn’t always because they’re rude or snobby, as I initially believed before going abroad, but because they want to help you or to speed up the interaction. It can be disheartening as a language learner, though, and I had more than a few moments where the embarrassment put me off to trying to speak in French for a little bit.
Being constantly surrounded by French is helpful in this regard as it allowed my brain to constantly hear and process the language, lessening the occurrence of this gaffe. I have an easier time understanding fast speakers enough to respond now than I initially did. Though there are of course still moments where I get tripped up, I’m happy to see some noticeable improvement!
My grammar has been and always will be atrocious. Even in English, it’s not that great. In French? It’s non-existent. In both languages, I just go off of what sounds correct. This is easier to do in English, as I am a native speaker. I’ve been learning French for so long that I’m accurate about 80% of the time but I do have a lot of moments where I get messed up.
Although not that much has changed in this regard, I will say that I’m now slightly better at detecting what is and isn’t correct grammar. I noticed this when I heard a native speaker make a small grammar mistake. That also reassured me that everyone, even natives, aren’t always grammatically correct and no one cares all that much as long as they can understand you. I’ll keep working on it, though, for all those French essays I’ll be writing when I get back to Drexel.
I think this is the most important of all. Even if I had completely mastered all of the above, being comfortable speaking the language to native speakers is one of the most important things. I mentioned above that I made some comprehension mistakes early on during my time here in Brussels and that the embarrassment would make me shut down. This was a hard thing to get over at first but I had to acknowledge that part of being a lifelong language learner (and a human) means that you will inevitably make mistakes. You just need to have the confidence to accept that and learn from it.
An example, I went into a night shop to get some study snacks and greeted the cashier with “bonjour!” He promptly responded “bonsoir.” I was admittedly embarrassed for the rest of the interaction for that tiny mistake. However, instead of letting it haunt me, I learned from it and have rarely made the mistake since then.
I am 100% confirming that going on study abroad will be a big step in your language learning journey. I have never been more confident in my French skills and I plan to travel to more French speaking countries to keep the momentum going!