Traveling or studying abroad in a country whose native citizens speak a different language than your native language can be daunting.
Despite studying that language for several years in high school or college, it’s likely you won’t be fluent or familiar with the colloquialisms of the area where you’re studying. Rather than limiting yourself to conversations with those in your AIFS study abroad program or friends from home, it is important to engage with the culture and to try to communicate.
Even if I feel uncomfortable using the language during my day-to-day experiences in Grenoble, I feel better knowing that I have tried and shared a laugh with a French citizen rather than assuming they speak English or forgoing communication altogether.
I have found in my short time in France that you can get by with at least one of these three things:
1. Use your knowledge of the language and don’t be afraid to ask questions.
If necessary, use a set of memorized phrases, questions, or responses to communicate the basics. During my first few days in France, I used the same general phrasing or conjugations to keep things simple for myself but communicate my intended meaning.
2. Google Translate is not always your friend.
Try to pick up on the dialect of your region and the level of formality used when interacting with others. Google Translate can be useful for a quick fix or a vocab refresh, but the language can translate too formally and do more harm than good.
3. Explain that you’re a new student of the language, but don’t expect anyone to speak your native language.
If you are in their country attempting to engage in the culture, the least you can do is make the effort to speak and learn.
I was intimidated at first to interact beyond the members of my program – I was even scared to talk to my host mother. But, it was helpful to keep perspective and recognize that I am not in my host country because I can speak the language perfectly, but to learn.
In keeping with gaining perspective, I learned that it’s not helpful to compare other people’s language abilities to my own. Hearing a near-perfect accent or a fellow student’s elevated vocabulary may seem to offer a chance for improvement on my end, but such a comparison can bring embarrassment or even a reluctance to speak in front of others.
So, the best thing I can say I did in France was try, fail, and learn.
Plus, once I stopped getting in my own way and just spoke extemporaneously, life got a little easier. Yes, it can be frustrating when something unexpected or surprising pops up, but now I can say that I know how to explain that my front door wouldn’t unlock with my key, or that I want bangs, but not too short.