I initially chose to study abroad in France because I wanted to improve my proficiency in French to someday be bilingual. Recently I have been very self-critical for not being more proactive in seeking out “French” interactions. Although I am living with a French student, we primarily speak English unless we are out with his friends, where they choose to test their English on me. Additionally my primary circle of friends consists of a number of Canadians and Scandinavians who are either fluent or native English speakers with numerous cultural similarities to me.
Although these friends are great, sometimes I feel like I’m not really studying abroad or improving my French. But my experiences this weekend showed me that French improvement is only one of the many things I can gain from studying abroad.
Coincidentally my circle of fellow exchanges represents all of Scandinavia (Finland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden), so on Saturday they decided to host “Scandinavian Night” with dishes and drinks specific to their respective countries. It was a great time of food, fun, and fellowship! I will admit a certain ignorance to Scandinavian culture, so it was awesome to hear each of my friends give the name of their dish and explain its contents.
My American compatriot and I promised we would return the favor by hosting Thanksgiving Dinner, so I anticipate multiple phone calls to my mother for advice!
But my cultural development did not end there. On Sunday morning I decided to attend a local protestant church, not only for my own spiritual development, but also because I thought it would be a great immersion experience. The entire service was obviously in French, but I understood the general message.
After church the young adults group invited me to come hang out with them for lunch at one of their houses. Lunch turned into 8 hours of socializing, eating, rugby watching, and walking on the beach. All in French! Everyone was so welcoming and happy to help me along in French.
Linguistically, I have discovered that I am comfortable and successful conversing in a one-on-one context, but group settings are extremely difficult. When people are surrounded by others who speak the same language, they all collectively speak faster and mumble more. The result is you understand every word but have no idea what they are talking about. It’s like this: Imagine going to your girlfriend’s house for the first time and hearing her family discuss everyone who is married, pregnant, dying, or moving. You understand everything they are saying, but you have no clue what they are ACTUALLY talking about so you just smile, nod, and act like it is extremely interesting.
Right about now is when I am supposed to start hitting culture shock and homesickness, but instead this weekend demonstrated the richness of experiences that study abroad can offer. I am so excited to pursue relationships with my French friends from church and my exchange friends from all over the world!