Postcard #6 from Paris: Learning the French Language
September 30, 2019
By Robbie Sams ’20
PARIS, France — Learning French in France? It just made sense. Like enjoying a slice of key lime pie on a beach in the Florida Keys or KFC in Kentucky.
When I signed up for the Asbury University Paris Semester last year, I had only two French classes under my belt. While my third and final French course would be much more challenging, I was thrilled to learn I could complete it while I was in France as an element of AU’s study abroad program. Being immersed in the culture would make it incredibly easy, I thought. This proved to be true only in some aspects.
French classes were held at Etoile Institut de Langue in the 6th Arrondissement in Paris, and for four weeks, five days a week and three hours a day, my fellow Asburians and I plowed through the ultimate Français crash course. A simple method allowed us to quickly accelerate in our comprehension of the language: conversing only in French. We were joined by other students from around the globe and talking about French in French educated us in leaps and bounds. We flew through numbers and the alphabet basics and quickly reached every-day practicalities like giving directions and talking about our week.
Now that a strong foundation had been created in the classroom, the next challenge lay ahead: incorporating what we’d learned into real life circumstances. There is only so much preparation that can go into something and there is no substitution for experience! By keeping a positive mindset, I let embarrassing situations become learning opportunities. Some of the communication breakdowns I had were simply priceless.
On one of our first evenings in Paris, several other students and I went to a café for dinner. I had been rehearsing all the French social pleasantries I knew in my head that day, and I felt optimistic about a task as simple as ordering food. It’s one thing to practice ordering food, and it’s another thing to actually do it. While virtually everyone in the city knows at least a little English, we wanted to go the whole nine yards and order dinner entirely in French. Drinks were first, and unknown to us, water was complimentary. When asked what beverage I wanted, I requested a glass of water, but mistakenly substituted bouteille (bottle) for boisson (drink). I had asked for an additional bottle of water. Confused, the waiter said, “Bouteille de soda?” I panicked and blurted “Non, water!”
“Non, verre (glass).”
“Verre d’eau (glass of water)?”
What kind of water did I want? He then asked. I could have spring water, mineral water, sparkling water… and so on. I kept nodding and said “Oui, s’il vous plait!” Moments later, I was the king of H2O. I was given two additional drinking glasses, each filled with a different type of water. And then the complimentary water that’s also provided was also brought out. The bad news: I was not quite as prepared to converse in a foreign language as I thought. The good news: After dinner I was hydrated! VERY hydrated.
A benefit of starting on something of a low note is that there’s nowhere to go but up. Ordering food only got easier, and I even started learning things on the fly. Simply overhearing other people order coffee taught me responses to simple questions like “Et du Sucre?” (Sugar?) and “Sur place ou à emporter?” (For here or to go?).
As I was attempting to learn a second language this semester, I was struck with a deep appreciation for people who are already bilingual. Many times when I couldn’t comprehend a question posed to me in French, the barista or cashier I was speaking to would immediately ask me if English would be more comfortable for me. And then a completely smooth English conversation would take place. I came to France slightly intimidated by the language and unsure of how I’d be received as an American. But learning to step out of the proverbial boat onto the water has allowed me to walk fearlessly through the city and enjoy all things that are different from my little world back home.
The French people have been a great source of inspiration for me in their willingness to meet my needs. The moment I speak, it’s immediately obvious that I’m a beginner but every Parisian I’ve encountered has been incredibly kind and patient with me while I verbally struggle. All things considered Vive la France and Vive Asbury University!