My first instinct was to begin writing this post in French – a good indicator of what happens when one is dropped in a foreign country and tries to speak the language.
First, it’s exhilarating. My brain is working in French! Exhausting. Got to keep this up! And frustrating. Now I can’t even remember some words in English! But sitting down to write this blog and finding my first thought to be “Qu’est ce que c’est, l’immersion?” rather than “So, what is immersion?” awakened me to where my education here will lead.
My goal is to learn French though immersion. Thus, I am living with a French family, attending classes at the French University of Montpellier and buying all my groceries in…French. The language is everywhere, and even in just two weeks I have become much more comfortable with it. The rhythm is sinking into my psyche, not unlike a melody, so that speaking becomes a metaphorical dance. With practice, the hope is that I’ll stop tripping over my metaphorical feet sometime soon.
Immersion is undeniably a process. Starting with the French I had learned in the classroom, I knew how to say, “My name is Lena. Nice to meet you. One second,” to my host mom, before running off to grab my bag. As she followed me out she said, in French, “You speak well.” I was terrified. Exactly how high had she just set the bar? Classroom French is all very well for walking to the car, but it did not prepare me for my host mom’s accent or her 4-year-old daughter, whose intonation was unintelligible until a few days after my arrival.
My host mother is from Strasbourg, and she speaks with an accent that I have never heard before. She clips the ends of some words and her “o” sounds bear little resemblance to those of any French teacher I have ever had. Likewise, her daughter, though her language skills are closer to my level, has high intonation and complicates conversations by constantly moving from place to place. Nonetheless, I say “Sorry, please repeat that” less and less everyday.
Immersion is also learning how to hear. To get scientific about it, no two people pronounce the same word exactly the same way. Accents and the physical construction of vocal tracts make every voice unique. Native speakers of a single language understand each other because they spend their childhoods practicing hearing. I, on the other hand, need to play catch up.
The professors at the University of Montpellier are very helpful in that regard. Armed with conjugation skills, a basic vocabulary and some helpful cognates, I can listen to my professors without feeling lost. They speak relatively slowly, they enunciate and they provide PowerPoints with notes. They also face forward, and being able to watch their mouths makes a huge difference. Rather than trying to figure out where one word ends and the next begins, I can focus on learning.
So, immersion is also understanding—hearing words in French and knowing what they mean and using previous knowledge to continue learning. The first time I heard the word “flou,” its meaning was beyond me but the word itself stuck. The second time, in the same class, I understood the context. When it came up the next day I pieced together the meaning: out of focus or blurry. Victory!
Finally, immersion is participating, even if that just means being able to laugh at jokes. The first movie I watched with my host family made them laugh every other line. My host father tried to explain one of the jokes and I, after squinting with concentration, laughed about a minute after he finished talking. Now, just a week and a half later, I get all (okay, most) of the jokes he makes at the dinner table.
I don’t think there is a French equivalent for “fake it til you make it,” but that, in essence, is what immersion is.