Finding Balance in France

This post is the fourth 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:

Confession time: I had an unfair expectation for myself when I came to France. I’ve studied French since I was 11, majored in it in Towson’s remarkable French department, and am lucky to have an aptitude for the language as well as a deep interest in it. That being said, I had an “all or nothing” attitude about it when I came. For several reasons, that did not last very long.

First reason: while I’m the only U.S. American on exchange at the University of Avignon this semester, many other students speak English. Rather than isolating myself from them, I’ve decided to pick my battles and agree to speak English with some of them when we occasionally cross paths.

Second reason: many people don’t speak much English, and are very excited to learn that I’m American. My last name is British in origin, and I still have a noticeable American accent. So, people sometimes try to start conversations in English or throw out a word or two. At first, I took that really personally—I assumed that they thought I spoke poorly. However, I have learned that many of them are just deeply curious. (Aren’t I the same way?) Many adults I’ve spoken to were dissatisfied with their English education in lycée, and are looking to practice.

Third reason: being willing to speak English some of the time allows me to teach while being taught. I became an English teaching assistant at a private high school, and have had a unique opportunity to talk about American culture, learn the ins and outs of the French education system, and even help students proofread letters to American penpals. Someone also recently suggested that I post an ad on LeBonCoin (French Craigslist, basically) for private lessons. I have 5 clients and am making 15 euros an hour to help people. It has been more gratifying than I ever could have imagined.

Additionally, I’m taking a translation course, in which I and the other students work hard to learn each other’s mother tongue. If there’s a course in which the “playing field” is pretty level, that would have to be it.

As long as these paragraphs were, English makes up very little of what I’m speaking here. I roll out of bed, rub the sleep from my eyes, and speak French with my host family at breakfast; listen to French podcasts on my 20-minute walk to the university; listen to an average of 4 hours of French lectures a day; ask other students questions about the library; speak French at dinner; and do my homework in French.

As I mentioned in one of my previous posts, switching from one language to another feels a lot like baking in a sauna, diving into a cold lake, and scuttling back to the sauna. It’s a shock to your system, but you get used to it—right now, I’m typing this in English and listening to my host family banter in French. Getting over myself and  being judicious about speaking English in certain situations has given me a much richer and more connected experience than I would have otherwise had. Instead of burning the bridge between myself, my native language, and my place of birth; I’m learning how to build a bridge, and weave these two lives together.