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BREAKING THE (LANGUAGE) BARRIER

I’m sure the majority of people on their years abroad right now are bi, tri or even dodeca-lingual and I’m just putting it out there that I hate you all. (You too English people in America or Australia, but for obviously different reasons!) Phew now that’s out of my system…

I confess I’m not entirely ignorant in the French language so perhaps I’m cheating slightly and mildly count as one of those ^ people to anyone who has gone on their year abroad without even being able to say hello in their future tongue. However, I honestly felt hopeless in September, couldn’t say boo (in French) to a ghost, so for anyone who is struggling, whatever your language level, THERE IS A LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL (and hopefully it’s not just the headlights on the metro…) So allow me to ramble and (attempt to) give you some hope if you feel a bit like you’re drowning…

So, my background: it started with 5 years of language memory games, I was taught how to memorize everything, from what’s in my pencil case in year 7 (which I’m sure is fascinating for people to hear in casual conversation), to some very carefully drafted scripts that my teacher wrote for the class in the hope that we’d all scrape a C in GCSE (thanks Mrs Palmer).  What a useful 5 years eh? A little bit of vocab here and there sure, but I couldn’t conjugate a verb properly even if it threatened to punch me in the face.

A level was the real kickstart, I went from an E grade to an A, managed to pick up a comprehensible accent, started to dream in French and even forgot certain words in English from time to time. However, sixth form definitely doesn’t last forever so after 2 years of a good language education I took a 3 year gap from French to study Fine Art, which brings us to now. I’m still studying art but as some of you will know, I’m currently studying it in Grenoble, France for a year; a year in the country of my rusty second language…scary on so many levels. So here’s how things went from there…

Michel Thomas was my god when I arrived 2 months ago. I clearly assumed that listening to his help tapes over and over would drill the entire French language back into my brain. Instead I just found myself physically sickened by his overly loud mouth sounds and unfathomably annoyed by the genuinely stupid American woman he uses as a hypothetical student on the tapes. Again, some vocab absorbed here and there but these tapes don’t teach you how to listen and respond in a real conversation, it all still felt very rehearsed.

And so, feeling as though I was going in blind, (more like mute and deaf), my classes started at École Superieure d’art et design Grenoble. I can safely say that the look on my face whenever anyone spoke to me in those first few days was that of a deer in the headlights. My nerves destroyed every ounce of language confidence I had, which if you couldn’t tell, was minimal to start with! I got headaches in class from concentrating so hard of every single word and after about an hour I would always reach an understanding saturation point and not be able to comprehend any more French. Not. One. Word. I would need to take a break, ‘power up’ if you will, before I could even attempt to listen and understand someone again.

So it felt more than necessary to start a French course. 5 hours a week, worksheets etc all done in French. However there was an unusual problem in my class, I was the only English person. This would’ve been fine, but the other 15 students were Spanish speakers, and in the same way that if you spend too much time with someone from London or Yorkshire you start to pick up some of their accent, I started to pick up the wrong language from my lessons. ‘Parce que’ became ‘parce qu-ayyy’ and ‘comme’ became ‘como’. So I quit before I started craving sangria. In hindsight the course was definitely way too expensive anyway.

I was always embarrassed to talk to French students, thinking they must be judging how bad my language is. One guy even pointed out how obvious my embarrassment was, but also encouraged me that no-one actually cares how well you can speak if you make the effort! If you can convince yourself of this then maybe you’ll do what I did next – SPEAK TO YOUR CLASSMATES. Even saying ‘salut’ can get the ball rolling apparently, so I did. I started to take lunch with some of them, one girl invited me to come shopping in IKEA with her and soon I was going on nights out with them. The rapidity of the result from there on was actually crazy. The headaches in class disappeared, I started to understand more and more surprisingly quickly, and was even able to joke with people (I make all the LOLs…). Now, if I ask people to speak a little slower it usually means I can understand 90%+ of what they’re saying, which is good enough for me! I’m 2 months in and this is starting to feel like home now I can communicate with people, and I know I’m still progressing!

So, here’s my practical recommendations on what to do more of if you’re struggling with a new language on year abroad…

PRACTICE YOUR ACCENT by reading a foreign book aloud. Also, cheat and use Google Translate on occasion, just to see how a word sounds. Make sure to write down any words you don’t know from the book and look them up. As you progress through the book and over time you will have to write down fewer and fewer words, which feels like progress :)

PRACTICE LISTENING by putting on a local Radio station. I’ve replaced my normal iTunes listening for Coeur de Pirate (French Canadian singer) and the France Bleu Isere channel. It just makes your exposure to the language more consistent, it’s like leaving the ‘on’ switch on even when you’re not actually interacting with anyone in the language. Eavesdropping on conversations going on in public, and actually paying attention in lectures will also do wonders for your ability to comprehend what people are saying to you.

PRACTICE SPEAKING by going out with the people who live in your new country, especially going out drinking. If you can learn to understand and speak another language when you can’t see straight then you’re practically a local. Also, please note that although skyping with English friends and family can be so comforting when you’re abroad, speaking with them too much, or constantly being in situations where you switch back to English truly is detrimental to any progress you’re making with your new language.

And finally BE CONFIDENT (http://hahgay.com/). I feel like some sort of self help book but seriously, for best results? Just give yourself a slap in the face and say YOU CAN DO THIS and throw yourself in at the deep end.

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