When I first landed in France, I was terrified. I didn’t know if my French was good enough to get me from the airport to the “navette” (bus to the train station), and then from the train station to Arles. I got my luggage and then made two loops around a grand hall of the airport, hoping that I’d see a sign and wouldn’t have to ask anyone. Eventually I gave up and asked an employee very slowly, en français, “excuse me…I have a question…do you know…where the navette for the train station is?” The employee was happy to help, and told me where to go without skipping a beat.
That happened another time at the stop for the navette, and eventually I realized something that has helped me practice my French without reservation – the French love American tourists. In America, if someone asks for directions or orders a sandwich in broken English, we Americans are prone to roll our eyes and hurry them along. This was what I was expecting in France – I didn’t want my butchering of the French language to offend the locals, and that made me reluctant to speak to them. What I have found, though, is that if a French person hears me speak, they will do one of three things;
1) Compliment my accent. The French love American accents. British accents are to Americans as American accents are to the French. I’ve already had more than a few shopkeepers want to talk to me just to hear me say more words.
2) Ask me where I’m from, how I like France, etc. They’re a friendly bunch here – the Arlésiens are genuinely interested to know where I’m from, what I’m studying, how I like France, etc.
3) Respond in English. I wrote on all my scholarship applications that I chose Arles because it’s a small, Southern city, and that makes it hard to find English speakers. That was naïve of me. I’d say half of the French that I’ve come across in this first week and a half have at least a working knowledge of English. When they hear my accent, they want to practice their English with me, and many times I’ll say something in French, e.g., “Merci beaucoup!” only to get an English response, e.g., “You’re welcome!”
The friendliness and genuine interest that have been shown to me here have encouraged me to practice my French without reservation. I don’t have to be afraid to make mistakes (and if I do, the 6-year-old in my host family doesn’t hesitate to correct them), because no one writes me off as a stupid American. Speaking in French 24/7 has become easier and easier every day, because it HAS to when it’s something that you need to do in order to eat, wash your clothes, etc. It’s already crazy to remember how nervous I was to ask a simple question at the airport. It’s actually gotten to the point where it’s hard to switch from French to English – I prefer to save typing something like this for the end of the day because if I do it in the middle, it will throw off my French AND my English.
Language immersion was the main reason that I wanted to spend my summer in France, so I’m thrilled that it’s already taking effect…I can’t wait to see where I am by the end of the trip!
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<p>Jessica Castellanos is a freshman at Northwestern University majoring in Slavic Languages and Literatures and International Studies with a minor in Religious Studies. Even though her major revolves around the Russian language, Jessica loves the French language and French culture and she hopes to become fluent someday and use the language in her career. In her spare time, Jessica likes to run, volunteer with animals, and read.</p>