And it’s over. Has a year really gone by?! In the moment, time feels like an eternity but when it’s passed it feels like a train that’s rushed by in a hurry and one is left hearing the whistle trailing off in the distance. As I sit here on my couch this summer morning in Albertville, with my to-do packing list next to me, and my graduation ceremony behind me, I’ll do my best to recount some lessons I learned during this year of intense French language school.
Immersion language learning is…
1. …one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done.
This caught me off guard, maybe because I had taken Spanish in high school, and Greek and Latin in the years following. Language learning had always been fun and challenging. But what I wasn’t prepared for was the physical, emotional, and mental challenges of language immersion. At the end of long conversations or a week of class where no English was allowed, I could literally feel my brain throbbing. Each day was a firehose of new words, new verb syntaxes, new ways of speaking and expressing, and desperately trying to understand what those around you were saying. Each day was also filled with many unsuccessful attempts at speaking, though this improved with practice.
2. …at times amusing.
If you don’t laugh, you’ll cry. O how true this old adage is when it comes to learning a second (or third) language. I made many mistakes but some were more memorable like when I told the choir I was going to “bother them” instead of “lead them.” The French words for lead (diriger) and bother (déranger) are similar, yet very different. Or when I volunteered to lead Bible study thinking that I was volunteering to make a cake.
3. …emotionally challenging.
We quickly learned that the French educational system is much different than the American system. Upon reflection I can see the benefits, yet it was a painful process. A passing score is 50%. That doesn’t sound too bad you might say, but in reality for us Americans, it feels like a beat-down. I’m used to being an A student, studying well and getting good grades. But that’s almost impossible here in France. The tests are made so incredibly difficult that it’s almost impossible to get a “good” grade. It feels like you are drowning, like you can barely keep your head above water and waves are forcing water into your mouth. In the midst of this storm you find out that you passed, but it doesn’t feel like “passing” in our American minds. Self-esteem doesn’t stand a chance when you miss almost half of the questions. This may be a benefit of the French model, yet for me this was emotionally challenging. I never realised how much value I put on performance and how much self worth I find in success. What a scary thing to build one’s confidence on this constantly moving foundation! It is my prayer that I will learn from this realisation and build my confidence on Christ’s work and perfect score…not my feeble attempts.
4. …takes time.
A month into our time here in France I asked Carlan when he started to feel more confortable in French. I was expecting him to say something like “by month 3,” yet he said, “after a whole year of language school and 6 months into living in Burundi.” What??!! And Carlan is super duper smart. But it’s true. Learning a language takes time. In our fast paced world it kind of goes against our grain to be patient. We want instant results. If we look at children, they absorb their mother tongue for years before even uttering one word. I have been learning and relearning the lesson of patience this last year as I strive to learn French.
5. …confusing to your mother tongue.
Yes, I have had moments when I’ve forgotten a word in English, or accidentally used a French word without realising it. My spelling was never great, but now it’s atroce. I’m constantly asking myself things like “is plant spelled with an “e” like plante or without?” In French it’s: plante, in English: plant.
6. …very rewarding.
Almost no one speaks English in Savoie (where our language school is). When I arrived, I knew next to nothing in French. Every conversation sounded like a mass of sounds with a few “bonjours” interspersed. We went out to eat at a restaurant the day after getting here. Carlan told me what to say and asked me to order in French. I did the best I could but the lady just looked at me confused. Even shopping was scary. What if I couldn’t find something and needed to ask for help, what would I say? Or even more scary, what if someone asked *me* a question! Eek! Yet as the days and weeks of language school progressed, I started understanding more and more. I remember the thrill of my first Sunday when I understood most of the sermon, that was back in January. All of these crazy sounds started making sense! I was surprised at how encouraging it was to have a conversation with someone in *their* language and to understand them and to be understood!
So there you have it, not a complete list, but some thoughts looking back in this last year. I couldn’t have done it without my Saviour and his unconditional love and forgiveness. And I couldn’t have done it without the encouragement of my husband. And I couldn’t have done it without my patient, hardworking professeur!
The years ahead will continue to hold additional language learning as we head to Burundi and learn Kirundi and continue on in French, but I’m thankful for these lessons and hope to continue to learn from them in the future!
Here is a link to a video of our school made by a fellow student (Stephen Abbott). The drone footage is amazing!