Language Immersion I

One month of French immersion, and I'm starting to toughen up. I mean, I thought I was pretty tough after my first semester at Olin, when I was swimming harder than I ever had to in high school to keep my head above academic water. I thought I was pretty tough when the physics and calculus and circuits and design and technical presentations and team scheduling all started to click during the second semester. The heat turned up along with my expectations for myself during sophomore year, when I took on a business project in addition to course work. It took some serious work to keep the fires burning and the grades high. Maybe "tough" felt more like "numb" during this past fall, when I took 4 courses, audited another, and wrote an extra half-course's worth of research paper. Especially during the weeks of Mid-terms and Finals: It was tough.

Interesting doors have interesting things behind them. Right?

Behind this door: Reflections on language immersion.

But now I'm in France, and it's a whole new rugby game, as it were. This past month, I would go to sleep just as exhausted as during some of the crazier Olin weeks, even before my classes at the University of Nantes had really begun. The reason is easy to name: language immersion is tough. Sometimes it takes some real mental and emotional toughness to face day after day of linguistic exercise. It takes some real courage to speak up in class, to French students in my weekly Capoeira class, to the admin staff at my program trying to nail down my course schedule, to my (very talkative) host family. The mix of feelings throughout a day, the struggle and success back to back, is complex to be sure. What I'm finding is really just what I'd hoped to find: Studying and living in French is a whole new flavor of challenge, and it's every bit as delicious as the college life back in the States.

One of the tricks I've tried to employ to keep my French improving and my spirits high is to enjoy the mistake. Its pretty obvious that an American student, even after 8 years of classroom French study, is gonna be pretty far from a native speaker. So making mistakes isn't just inevitable, it seems to be exactly the way to improve. Maybe if I make every mistake in the French language enough times, the same part of my brain that memorizes theater scripts or movie lines will gradually accrue more and more expertise, and I'll wake up the second week of May chattering like my jeune Nantais comrades of 21 years. It's certainly awkward sometimes, and more than a little frustrating when you can't find the words, or worse, you find the words but your pronunciation is incomprehensible. But I think if you can enjoy the mistake, you'll never be disappointed. A wise friend once told me the same thing about romance, but that's for another blog.

Notice the French Outlook dialog box in the background.

Lights dancing in my eyes, hopefully after some linguistic revelation.

Here's a good example of a mind bending language experience from this past week. I'm taking two courses at the University of Nantes, one of which is very engineering style. It's essentially a statics course, the mechanics of structures, here found in the physics department, though at Olin we color this subject Engineering. This week we had our first TD, or Travail Dirige, or Guided Work session. Generally, in the CM, or Cours Magistral, or lecture, one can pretty much sit back and absorb. Listening comprehension sky-rockets pretty quickly after arrival, I've found. But in the TD, we were finally asked to produce something for the first time. The content wasn't mind blowing- the questions for this TD were essentially asking us to balance the forces and moments on a simple structure to calculate the tensor which describes the internal efforts. But the time lag between interpreting the vocabulary, along with the technical terminology that was fresh for the whole class, and then figuring out to how to organize variables and apply the concepts... it turned out to be a significant lag.

There's one other American in my class, a student in the same study abroad program who hails from Virginia Tech. She had the additional perspective of having solved very similar problems before, and was finding that the French prof's approach was somewhat conceptually different. There were some long moments of staring at my page and its diagram of a strange looking apparatus labeled with some words that apparently never came up when we were discussing vocab around the house or at a restaurant back in my high school French classes. There was also at least one occasion when the prof would come over, notice I had done little more than copy the symbols (including French subscripts and references), and offer a jolt of advice that flew just shy of comprehension, leaving me nodding in wishful thinking but not making progress.

Things started to improve most drastically after a couple important changes- primarily, starting to ask questions. Not having the courage to speak up (in somewhat broken French) and start giving form to my roadblocks was proving devastating. Once we started to have an exchange between the prof and me, between my classmates and me, and between my American comrade and me, we started to find the common technical language that let us describe both what we were looking at and what we were trying to do with it. All of a sudden, I realized I was staring at a drill press-like device, and that I had chosen the theoretical description of the internal efforts that required the longest calculation. But I was on the way, which at the time I crafted into a perhaps novel French expression "sur le chemin," which got the idea across that I was getting somewhere.

It's kind of like a drill press...

Figure 1: The "Forgot To Bring My French/English Dictionary to Physics Class" Apparatus

Class time was over by this point, but rather than being saved by the bell I lingered to talk with the prof a bit. Maybe I was trying to reassure both him and me that I had now somewhat gotten a clue, that, yes, I would finish the rest of the TD on my own (French profs collect nothing besides the Final, and maybe a midterm, anyway), and remark on how all the cultural references used to describe abstract concepts don't translate so easily. There's a good solid dozen of mistakes checked off my list. When my head stops spinning, I'll come back for the remaining thousands.

Hard to be original when you're a tourist, but then that's not really the point.

French Tourism Photo of the Week: Mont St. Michel seen from across the misty fields of Normandy.

Regards from Nantes-


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