I made it! Friday was my last day of school. After 24 hours of travel so far, I I'm writing this sitting at JFK airport in New York waiting for my final flight to Pittsburgh and am so excited to be home after 9 weeks of French Language School. My last day of class was the same as every other last day I've ever experienced: a blend of excited to move on and sad it was over. It's been like this my entire live, whether elementary or high school, as well as all four years of college. Let me explain.
Immersive language learning is really intense, especially at my recently nearly beginner level. I arrived in Montpellier nine weeks thinking I knew some French and was abruptly shocked into reality. Conversations, whether they were in the hallways at school, on the street or at my host family’s home were generally meaningless jumbles of sound. I could pick out the occasional word or two, but that was about it. That meant I not only needed to learn as much grammar as possible, but also vocabulary, listening and reading comprehension. French grammar is very complex which made everything more complicated. Oh, and every week we also had a written and oral test…
I’m a closet perfectionist about some things and I struggled at times to feel like I was learning enough. Translated, I intellectually understood that I could only hope to build a strong base in two months, but, at times, I had an unrealistic emotional expectation of how good I’d be at the end. My goal was to come home at an intermediate level capable of faster self-learning and I accomplished this in spades and have the certification to prove it. It’s just that it’s hard to be satisfied with that. I want more!! It’s a lot like martial arts training. You pass a lower level belt exam and feel all tough until you go to the next level and get your butt easily kicked by a smaller, more advanced student. I felt like that most of the time.
I also tend to be very competitive and think I should be able to excel in everything because that was always my academic experience. I’ve never been the middle of a class, let alone at the bottom, which is where I spent the past nine weeks. The other students (except for the occasional American or Brit) speak at least 2-3 languages fluently, so they are at the point where adding one more is pretty straight forward. Also, most of them have had several years of French while growing up. My experience is very different: I’ve been to Africa twice, listened to “Learn French” CD’s from the library, and taken two community college classes.
The most amazing experience was when my European classmates (mostly German and Swiss 18-22 year olds) would help me in English understand what was going on. When I needed the help, they would, under their breath, translate what the teacher was saying and help explain grammar concepts. It was amazing! They took it for granted until I explained how incredible it is that they understand my language so well that they could help me learn French! I made some special friends, especially in my first six weeks because the class didn’t change much. Majallea, Malin, Eileen and Andrea were wonderful support. I think I was “cool Uncle Doug” to them. They made it clear that they liked helping me and didn’t see me as a burden.
That said, when I step back and unemotionally evaluate how much I’ve learned, I’m really excited! Garbled sounds became recognizable sentences and I would get really excited when I understood what was going on. Every once in a while, I’d lean over to one of my classmates and gleefully tell her that I truly knew what was going on, lol! An example of my progress is that I was able to (intentionally at the end!) make my host parents laugh because I could communicate well enough to crack jokes. The most encouraging proof of my progress was that I understood Monday’s guided tour of Montpellier. A teacher gives a free two-hour guided tour of alternating parts of Montpellier every Monday afternoon and these helped me to learn my way around as well as see some beautiful places. However, I stopped going after the first two weeks because it was too frustrating not to understand. Plus, I was schlepping around my heavy backpack. However, I went this past Monday and found that I could understand nearly everything she said!! It was the same teacher and I was really psyched.
Thank you so much for your prayers and financial support. You have made this trip possible. I’m so grateful to have taken this focused, immersed “next step” in my preparation to serve in French-speaking Africa. While I have a long way to go, I have a solid base and a plan to keep improving when I get back to Pittsburgh. I’m working on scheduling a winter/ spring trip to Bongolo, as well as ongoing French education. I will continue to work, cut my living expenses and fund-raise to support what God has called me to. I’m honored you are part of this journey!