By Olivia Clarke
At a little over a month into my study abroad program in France, I’ve learned a number of things. For instance: French pastries are, in fact, delicious; discussing sensitive political issues is a favorite local pastime; and picking up after one’s dog is definitely not a priority here. But by far the most jarring discovery I’ve made is that learning a new language is really, really hard. Really.
I came to France after studying the language for four years. When I arrived at the University of Pau, I tested into one of the highest levels in the language program. However, this does not mean I’m anywhere near fluent. Between prepositions, conjugations, listening comprehension, and just plain vocabulary, the ever-present language barrier can make my interactions with French people exhausting. And then, of course, there are the inevitable embarrassing mistakes, like the time when I used the wrong auxiliary verb and accidentally informed my host mother that I was dead. It seems like every time I open my mouth, I get corrected, and every day I learn that I’ve been misusing a word or expression this whole time. Sometimes the frustration of being wrong so often just makes me want to hide in my room.
It all comes down to two basic truths: language is really complicated, and expressing oneself is really important. When we’re stripped of our ability to communicate ideas, it can be pretty traumatic; yet a new language can’t be learned overnight. So the budding bilingual finds herself in an uncomfortable no man’s land between blissful ignorance and fluency, where communication is a constant struggle. That’s tough, but I have to keep two things in mind: I chose this experience for myself, and you can bet I wouldn’t learn any of this from a textbook.