Today began our second week of classes. The schedule remains the same, but I can already see changes in all of us. The beginners, who were somewhat shell-shocked this time last week, are joining in conversations and showing off their new-found vocabulary. The advanced students are still a bit intimidating, and some are friendlier and more helpful than others. For the intermediate folks like me, we’re gaining confidence, and jumping into discussions where we may have stayed silent before. We’re also organizing evening conversation groups around shared interests. (I’m trying not to think about work, but there are a lot of international and public health folks here…)
If there’s one thing I know I have improved it’s my verb conjugations. I’m embarrassed to think back on my last trip to Haiti and the crazy mix of Creole and un-conjugated French I was throwing around. It’s pretty hard to say anything intelligible in any language if you can’t use the past tense properly!
I’ve been thinking a lot about one of my colleagues, a doctor, who is probably the bravest – and, by extension, the most effective – language learner I know. I know she studies and works hard, but she also just goes for it, mistakes be damned. She learns the basics and then she starts talking. Crazy, I know.
The program at the Institut is focused on speaking with ease and correctness. We do drills and role-plays all day and I think I’m never going to remember all of the information being thrown at me. Then I stop at the grocery store and joke with the saleswoman about returning to the store because I bought cheese but forgot to buy bread (because this is France, and one does not eat cheese without a fresh baguette).
For anyone who is considering studying French in an immersion environment, I can’t stress enough the benefit of doing so in a small village or community. I know that in Paris or in a larger city, very few people would be willing to deal with our fumbling attempts at French, and would instead switch immediately into English. But the Institut is part of the life (and economy!) of this town, and the merchants and restaurant owners and residents welcome us and let us practice with them. In return, they make it their responsibility to correct us. It’s as if the whole town is colluding to ensure that we improve our French. And it’s working.