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Subconsciously Learning a New Language

May 26, 2017

American exchange students have these stereotypes - actually mostly good from what I’ve encountered - that they carry around. One stereotype is every weekend, they visit somewhere new. This is true for me, at least it has been for the last month. I spent two months learning about and navigating Switzerland, exploring my city, Lausanne and the surrounding area.

This past month, I went to three new cities: Zürich, in the German part of Switzerland; Barcelona, Spain; and Rome, Italy. And what do these three cities have in common? I don’t speak the language. I couldn’t speak a lick of German in Zürich, Italian in Rome, or Spanish (and certainly not Catalan) in Barcelona. I was completely lost. But it was wonderful. I suddenly had an epiphany I’d been waiting four months for: I suddenly realized that I could speak French.

This sounds crazy, I know. For starters, I am a French major at Randolph-Macon – something people don’t really declare or decide to do unless they are confident in the language. On paper, I am confident. I took my first French class in 2008, at age eleven, and aside from a brief break in eighth grade, I have taken a French class every semester. I have not been the best French student. While I hated it sometimes, I kept taking the classes, even after I finished what was required. In fact, I came into college with just one semester left, but I stuck with it. And then I decided to minor in it. Eventually, I declared French as my major. But I still didn’t think that I was that great.

Suddenly, somewhere in Zürich, Rome, and Barcelona, I realized every question I wanted to ask, every phrase I wanted to use with the locals, I didn’t know how to say it, but I knew exactly how to ask or say it in French. In high school, one of my French teachers used to say we needed to create a highway in our mind that connects French and English seamlessly. My sarcastic, sassy retort was always, “yeah, I think the best I’ll get is a two-way dirt road.” Somewhere in my brain, a secret highway was built, one I didn’t know existed until I tried to introduce a third language and my brain told me, “AUGUSTA SLOW DOWN THIS HIGHWAY CURRENTLY ONLY WORKS FOR FRENCH AND ENGLISH.” I apologize for this awful joke, but it’s true.

I guess what I want all the readers to understand is when I chose to study abroad, strengthening my French language skills was important, but not at the top of my list. People, no matter their nationality, choose to spend a semester or a year abroad for a variety of reasons. I didn’t even realize how much my language skills were improving because I had stopped stressing over it. I want to encourage students, even if they are worried about studying abroad in a place where they don’t speak the language, they are going to be fine. You’re going to learn the language. You’re going to be alright. And you’re going to have a great semester.

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