What I Learned From Doing A Master's Degree In A Language I Don't Speak

Apparently almost everyone who was there has a much better memory of a drunken me cussing someone out in French than I do.
Publish date:
July 12, 2014
education, french, language, weekend, study abroad, learning french

In June 2012 I received an offer of admission from a cross-disciplinary master's program in Switzerland. The program was fully funded and matched my areas of interest and expertise.

The school was well-regarded. The curriculum was theoretically taught in English.

The one -- sort of -- drawback was that most of the courses in my field were in French. I didn't speak and had never studied French.

I looked at the scholarship, looked at what was available to me back in the U.S., and decided that I could learn fast.

To say I was totally unfamiliar with the language would not be strictly accurate. Five years prior, I had taken a one-month “fun French” course during the winter break at my university. I had visited France for a workshop (taught in English) and learned the words for “wh*re” and “b*tch.” I could tell all and sundry hello and thank you.

I learned a lot in the program -- about my actual subject, about French, about studying languages, about myself. Here are the highlights.

True fluency is incredibly hard.

My first few months of course notes have lists and lists of words to look up definitions for, broken every half-page or so by one brokenly translated sentence. French is like English in that the same sound can be spelled multiple ways -- but unlike English in that many more sounds are slurred together indistinguishably.

It took me six months of sitting through eight hours of lecture in French a week before I realized the phrase I had been writing “savoudire” with a line of question marks after it was actually spelled "ça veut dire"1.

Orthography was a minor difficulty compared to the feeling, constantly hovering over me like a passive-aggressive rain cloud, that I was constantly just missing something.

If I went to a movie in French, I usually cackled when the rest of the theater was silent, and often was startled by gales of laughter after a line that I didn't realize was supposed to be funny. If my Parisian friend put on a Quebecois accent, I didn't realize the every-so-slightly more nasal vowels were supposed to make me laugh.

Every day I learned another thing I had wrong: the connotations of two slightly-different synonyms or a different, more natural way to phrase things. The way I speak is often correct but not right.

But languages are gorgeous, intricate, unendingly fascinating things, and whenever I discover a new part of this puzzle it fills me with delight. I love knowing that only the Swiss French call a cell phone a “natel” and a plastic bag a “cornet.”

(For everyone else it's a “portable” and a “sac.”)

I adore learning that the French have a verb specifically for switching from the formal you (vous) to the informal you (tu) in conversation (“tutoyer”), and that among colleagues you will usually have a short conversation about when the appropriate time to make that switch is.

I love my native language -- I love all its eccentricities and textures and layers of meaning -- and in some ways the more I understand how equally intricate French is and how unlikely I am to ever truly master it, the more I love English, too.

You don't realize how much you're making up until you can't make anything up.

I think we've all seen the meme of a couple of sentences with the central letters of words scrambled but the initial and final letter still in place.

The point is that you can still read the word with most of the letters out of order because you're not actually processing every single symbol; as soon as you recognize the pattern of the word, your brain provides you with the most likely completion2.

That actually is a good summary of how a lot of language works -- you learn the patterns back-to-front-to-sideways-to-under-the-refrigerator, and with a few cue words and some body language, your brain is constantly filling in the blanks of what you didn't actually perceive.

Not so with a language you aren't fluent in.

If I chat with a friend in French, that person has to be facing me, so I can watch their facial twitches and their enunciation. If I check out for even five seconds during a lecture, I cannot guess what words I just missed; I just have to move on and hope it wasn't too important.

It's the difference between walking around your own house in the dark and someone else's house in the dark. In my house, I might trip on the dog; in your house, I might take a wall to the face.

The language center in your brain is a rickety nonsense-producing factory run by diabolical elves, and you will never understand why it works the way it does.

I have no French short-term memory. Seriously. Even if I understand a conversation well enough in the moment to respond, make jokes, and ask questions, I can only remember things that I translate to English -- either out loud, on paper, or in my head -- for longer than five seconds. I can walk away from an hour-long conversation with no memory of what was said.

You need all kinds of teachers.

This is not my first time at the language immersion rodeo. It's just my least-well-prepared-for adventure into a non-English climate, and ironically, my most successful. Prior to this I had studied Japanese and Spanish and worked in offices where those were the primary languages.

One big difference between my excursions into Japan and Spain and my stay in Switzerland (besides length of time -- which, admittedly, makes a huge difference) is that I had studied both of those languages in an academic environment. I took a whole slew of high school and university courses before going to the country where I meant to deploy my new-found linguistic skills.

Stupidly, I expected that to be enough.

In Switzerland, because I didn't have time to study French by itself before starting my regular courses, I took whatever knowledge I could find from whatever source where I could find it. I started meeting with a conversation partner my first month there -- then another and another.

Both my second and third term, I took five master's courses in French, each taught by someone with a different accent -- mushy pronunciation from the visiting Parisian professor, rolled Rs from the Italians, brusque but clear phrases from the Swiss.

Gatherings with my friends tended to drift into French, and they, too, had all kinds of accents and ways of putting together the same set of words, from Moroccan university-educated French to German high school French to slangy suburban French.

All my English-as-a-mother-tongue friends were learning French, too, and we commiserated over the conjugations and the prepositions and the vowels.

(Oh, the vowels.)

Language is not a single set of grammatical rules and vocabulary that you can learn and be done with: It's a conglomeration of every person who has ever used that language to express what they want, what they think, what they plan to eat for lunch. When you learn a foreign language in a classroom, it's given to you like a paint-by-numbers copy of a classical painting: Do this thing and get this result.

But when you get into the world where that language is spoken, it turns out it's just a bunch of kids throwing paint at each other. The results are unpredictable and unlimited.

We are all doing our best.

When I was learning Spanish and Japanese in the offices I worked in, I was so terrified of humiliating myself that I would spend days -- sometimes a whole week -- without speaking to another human being. I was intensely embarrassed by my lack of understanding.

Every time I had to ask for clarification I felt I might as well be wearing a sign that said NO I DID NOT DO ALL MY VOCABULARY WORKSHEETS AND SOMETIMES I BLOW OFF THE READING HOMEWORK YES THANK YOU VERY MUCH. I couldn't bear to admit that languages are hard for me.

My master's program was about half native French-speakers, and the rest were split between a wide variety of mother tongues: Greek, Farsi, German, English, Turkish, Punjabi, Arabic, and Chinese. I edited a lot of papers written in questionable English for my classmates, looked over a lot of cover letters, answered a lot of grammatical questions.

And they did the same for me.

Sure, there was a lot of laughing (apparently almost everyone who was there has a much better memory of a drunken me cussing someone out in French than I do). But it takes a lot of nerve to put yourself into an environment where you are constantly being pushed to the edge of your comfort zone. It takes a lot of resolve to keep your learning hat on every day -- not just when you are in class but also when you go to the post office, the doctor, the grocery store.

That deserves respect. My efforts deserve respect. My classmates' efforts deserve respect. Anyone who makes that dive into a language that's not their own deserves respect.

We are all doing our best.

1. Ca veut dire = this means.

2. The details of this meme are explored in more depth here. Suffice it to say, it's not as simple as the chain email made it out to be, but language does have a lot to do with pattern recognition.