What a French Major Studies

Hello everyone! It has literally been a year since my first post and I remembered I started this blog as the annual charge went through! I’m making the same promise of posting every week to myself again. As I really have no excuse since a bunch of free time opened up, thanks quarantine. So let’s see what French classes taught me in undergrad!

Parlez-Vous Francais? ; Tell me something in French

If you study a language, or anything in higher education, there’s the old routine of questions friends (but especially family) bring up. They expect you to be an expert in such a small time frame considering the classes are a couple of days a week. Here’s just a couple of examples of these questions.

So what are these questions specifically?

  • “You speak insert language fluently then?”
  • “When are you/have you studied abroad insert country?”
  • “How are you going to use the language?”
  • “What do you like/dislike about it?”

The questioning doesn’t frustrate me as much as it just left me as flustered as any college student defending their choice of major. Now if we’re talking job interviews or presentations, then I should be prepared to have a good “why”. Mine isn’t too deep, I just wanted to be able to read more and see where French literature crosses over thematically with English based overtime. Maybe one day my “why” will change once I have a better answer regarding fluency and traveling abroad once I make a trip.

While the first two questions are more difficult, this is also because they are closed questions with a yes or no answer. I prefer the later questions as they allow a freer conversation about what makes a language like French fascinating to me. Whether then if I have made it useful enough for conversation by developing a fluency. They’re also more interesting to answer as I can pull from my knowledge of a specific word that can’t be translated properly, looking at you “grandeur“. The content of my French classes also better prepared me for this type of question as we will now see.

Ouvrez vos livres; Hitting the books

What are French classes actually? It’s not a constant hour of speaking back and forth about food and books. But it also isn’t reading books with pretentious titles and subtle plot points. More of a fine line in between.

French Conversation, you hear the name of this class and think okay maybe we’ll learn how to discuss a bunch of topics. Food, books, the newest Weeknd album, things you’d discuss in your native language. I hated the fact that I was wrong more and more every week for twice a week when the professor had the authority to limit the class to her choice of topic: movies. Instead of learning vocab and role-playing like the introductory coursework, we watched films and had to be prepared before class through our research and writing to discuss them. This left my speaking fluency faltering even in class because there were only so many words to discuss a film especially when we watched two of the same genre. Next, we’ll discuss one other class where my speaking was not one hundred percent.

French literature, the higher level you take as a junior/senior exposed me to some of the most beautiful prose and poetry I’ve ever read. It was mostly reading and writing as this was the only way our professors could accurately test us. We still had oral discussions of the assigned readings but these turned into a competition of words. It’s hard enough presenting your analysis of a book in your native language and doing so in French required stringing together the grammar and right words in your head fast enough. Think of when a scrabble table is filled with all the words you know while you’re running out of useful letters. I found after three or more students made their points that it was hard to come up with a new sentence or idea. I’m prepared now to speak maybe one or two points on a formal book such as Hugo’s poetry, but not in modern terms or slang since the classes were formal.

My skills from the years in the unexpected challenge of lots of reading and relying on word reference “qui me sauve la vie”. I know the right reference sites, to watch shows in the language no subtitles, and even forums to discuss with others. Although I can’t call myself fluent as I was during my finals exams, its fun to dive into French culture and other places to see what I can retain outside the English barrier.

Bon Voyage ; Travel Difficulties

Of course, I desired the experience of studying abroad; the thought of practicing my French while surrounded by works of art and delicious cheese was always at the back of my mind. Finances stopped me once I realized the number of student loans I already racked up from undergrad and still desired to go to grad school after a gap year. Add on top of these things the extra costs of the flights and passport fees, my part-time student job wasn’t going to help me enough.

The new goal is to save money to travel on my own in the future after keeping up with French on my own. It isn’t immersing yourself around the language on a 24-hour basis, however, UNR does its best by having all third and fourth-year classes conducted entirely in French. Students cannot use English at all making it rewarding when you figure out another way to say the sentence you’ve had stuck in your head. No, it isn’t Lyon, but I’m still grateful for the classes I’ve taken that allowed me an experience immersed in the language regardless of dismissing a semester abroad.

Another conundrum in the plan was the required profinecy tests which ensure you’re ready for high-level courses outside the US. This includes oral, reading, and writing with higher score requirements depending on the classes you plan on taking. I considered it was too late for me after three years of French focused on written exams with enough student loans stacked up from housing and my other major. UNR has a renowned study abroad program which I’ve heard numerous great things about from my classmates don’t get me wrong, but the logistics of my situation lead me to decide I’d travel a year after graduating, maybe more delayed now.

Grandeur Dans La Langue; Language’s greatness

Another misconception of language studies is that the student learns how the language is spoken contemporarily and natively. Some probably know this already, but there are several dialects especially in romance languages and any language outside English. Dialectsrefer to variations in a language depending on the degree of formality or region for example along with different forms which include alternative vocab, grammar, etc. Examples in English seldom come up because they are with specific words and vowel pronunciations depending on where you’re from. Soda vs pop and sandwich vs sub, to name a couple.

The French I studied didn’t always transmit directly to the real world/native country. We didn’t learn slang and some words have more formal uses mainly found in older 17th or 18th-century literary works. Professors warn us that not every grammar structure (seriously there’s a lot), is spoken. An easier way is to avoid using formal tenses like the subjunctive employing substitution with another word or phrase whenever possible. This means that while a French major conjugates for every verb tense a ridiculous amount of time, they don’t know how to say the words “guy” and “bitch” translated to “mec” and “putain” informally. Seriously, context changes the meanings of words in all registers depending on who is dancing (danser) or what is being tasted (gouter).

French ER verbs

One more takeaway from the variations in slang, pronunciation, and other structures in foreign languages is the importance of listening and being open. Sure you may not understand the language someone is speaking, but I found this applies to English as well. We may disregard others when their word choice or descriptions sound unlike how we would say it. Naturally, we learn to speak the same way as those around us growing up meaning our families and hometowns. This doesn’t mean someone’s ungrammatical account of the quarantine, for example, is wrong as much as you may not understand what they’re saying.

Fin; Final thoughts

I’ve loved my French classes despite not studying abroad or speaking the same way they do in Paris. The small class sizes, the energy the professors bring to every class until finals week, and the beautiful language of course. Although I can’t say I’m a fluent speaker, I know that I made the right choice when I changed my minor to a major.

Thank you for reading if you made it to the this far! Next week, I’ll be switching back to my experience as an English major. I’m thinking of covering “how English majors read” not in the literal sense of course. So be on the lookout for that.