This post is the first installment in a semester-long series of posts from Towson senior Allie Woodfin. Allie is studying this Fall 2014 semester at the University of Avignon. You can also follow along on her tumblr at: http://provisoirementprovencale.tumblr.com/
I’m studying abroad this semester in Avignon, France! It’s my senior year at TU, and since I finished my Economics major with a summer course, I finally have the opportunity to intensively study French at the University of Avignon.
Avignon is a beautiful city, and was even named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995. However, I chose Avignon instead of a destination like Paris because I wanted immersion. Paris is very international, and I was warned that it would be difficult to immerse in French since there are so many English speakers. People talk about the value of being “immersed” in a language or culture, but it’s something I didn’t completely understand before I arrived here. As soon as I disembarked from my overnight flight to Paris, however, it started to make sense. I had to listen for announcements in French, read signs in French, and ask a baggage agent about my suitcase.
Many people in Paris spoke English, but the farther south I went, the less English I heard and the more I realized that immersion is “sink or swim.” In a country where everyone speaks the language you’re trying to learn, you don’t get a cookie or an A+ for remembering a word or conjugating your sentence properly. All that means is that you got your thoughts across. If there’s a “real world” version of learning a foreign language, immersion would have to be it!
Immersion in a language that isn’t your first is like distance swimming in very cold water. You can always hop out of that water and take a warm break in your first language, but that only makes it harder to jump back into the language you’re learning. My best days with French have been when I’ve stayed in the cold water and kept my English exposure minimal.
One of the best things I’ve learned is to have patience. Provided that you’re polite and speak clearly, people generally catch on to the fact that you’re learning their language—and as one person told me, it’s flattering that someone wants to come to their county and learn. My Airbnb host was a wonderful listener, and praised me for speaking well. I was very shy at first because I was afraid of saying something incorrectly, but the more I spoke, the more confident I became.
I live with a host family now, which means that if I’m at home, we are speaking French. Emmanuel taught me how to make coffee and lock up the house, all in French, and Odile teaches me about Provençal food and French culture. Their 9-year-old daughter Clara is very smart, and I’ve learned just from keeping up with her! I can understand about 85% of what’s being said, but my goal is to be able to really hold up my end of a conversation.
Reaching that goal will require a lot of discipline. Before I left, I decided that I wanted to reserve one day a week for English—Skype, Facebook, and blogging. That hasn’t been easy, especially as I tie up loose ends in the U.S. and am meeting other exchange students whose common language is English. Once classes start and I’m meeting more French students, I’m looking forward to how much I’ll learn about this beautiful language.