Reality Checks and Reflections || Postcards from Pau #4

I’m into the twelfth week of living the Palois life and i’m really starting to feel it. If my year abroad is like a marathon, or like one my less impressive 5k runs, then I have definitely hit that wall. You know, the wall where any energy you had to begin with has dissipated but you’ve not quite got the end in sight to motivate you, so you can’t stop thinking about how heavy your body feels and how every breath feels like your last (woah, that got dramatic).

Don’t worry, this isn’t my way of telling you i’m dying. I guess things just aren’t so shiny and new anymore which means there are less things to distract me from how much I miss my family, my friends and a proper cup of tea. Don’t get me wrong, I still have a little moment every day when I think to myself, ‘Wow. I’m living in France. That’s pretty awesome’. Just last week I did a little road trip of Toulouse and Montpellier which was indeed ‘pretty awesome’ and deserves a dedicated blog post of its own which will be coming soon. I have made some cracking friends here too, so I have no end of support and laughter. But in the interest of being ‘real’, this is my ‘real’.

Aside from that little update, I also have a few reflections on learning a foreign language outside the classroom walls. It’s all well and good learning grammar rules off by heart and doing endless vocab tests on Quizlet, but there are some things that you only really start to learn when you are surrounded by the language. And not just to do with your linguistic skills either. So sit tight, hold on to your hats and try to not get too excited because here are…

FIVE THINGS LEARNING FRENCH IN FRANCE HAS TAUGHT ME

#1 Being okay with receiving corrections on a daily basis

Whether it’s delivered with a supportive smile or an unsympathetic eyebrow raise, you learn very early on that anything to come out of your mouth in a foreign language will be under scrutiny. When you are learning a language, there will always be something you say which just doesn’t sound quite right to the native listener, whether it’s a tiny prepositional error or, dare I say, the misuse of a subjunctive. Soon enough you get used to constant correction, which is not bad thing. It’s the best way to improve, and I actually demand that my friends correct me. But it definitely makes you realise that you are a walking work in process. I mean, aren’t we all? But when it comes to your language, there is nowhere to hide and no way of masking your imperfections. So the only option is to embrace them (which has taught me a valuable life lesson in other areas of my life too).

#2 Realising that you can no longer speak your own language

I’ll be FaceTiming home or chatting with one of my English speaking friends here and more often than not, i’ll say something that sounds like utter gibberish, like a sentence that has been Google translated into 500 languages and then back into English. I have had many moments of frustration when I can’t even speak my own language properly. I think because i’m interchanging between two languages throughout the day (add a third into the mix if I’ve got a Spanish class), my brain takes a while to catch up. Sometimes, it takes its revenge and will shut down altogether. It can’t find any words, in any language, and just leaves me high and dry in the middle of a conversation. Thanks brain.

#3 Accepting that you will always be tired

Just like i’ve gotten used to the constant hum of the fridge in my room, I’ve also come to accept the perpetual haze of mental exhaustion that has been hanging over my head since I arrived here. Constantly switching between languages and learning new vocabulary is pretty tiring in itself. But my brain also likes to work over time and, even in my down time, tries to translate my thoughts because it is in the habit of doing so in conversation. This means it is quite hard to switch off and it can get pretty tiring.

#4 Your facial expressions change with each language

I can literally feel different muscles in my face working when I speak a different language. It’s weird. I don’t know if it because it makes it easier to make certain sounds or because I have some kind of alter ego that takes centre stage when I speak a foreign language, but I can’t help it. When I speak French, for example, I’ve noticed that I pout. A lot. I don’t think I’m normally a very pouty person but the ‘French’ me could easily be mistaken for a trout.

#5 To take the pressure off yourself

Before setting off on my year abroad, I had this idea that I was going to step back onto British soil completely fluent in my two foreign languages and that would be it. I have realised that that is not only unrealistic, but it is also really unhelpful. I’ve been trying so hard to improve my French as much as possible since I’ve been here, and I do think my hard work is paying off, but I have been finding it so frustrating when I stumble on a sentence or spend an age searching for the right word. And then it occurred to me; don’t I do the same in English? There will always be words and concepts that I don’t know, just like there are in English. Equally, there will always be situations where I can speak more fluently than I can in others. So I decided to scrap the end goal and focus instead on making the most out of the opportunity I have been given. The linguistic level that I have at the end of my year will be what it will be, and I have the rest of my life to keep getting better!

So there we have it. A few ruminations about my year abroad and a reality check for myself, but also for anyone reading who is going through a similar thing. Now i’ve stopped for water on my marathon of a year, I better get back on the path and push through until the next checkpoint; Christmas! If you hadn’t noticed, I love a good analogy.

So there we have it. A few ruminations about my year abroad and a reality check for myself, but also for anyone reading who is going through a similar thing. Now i’ve stopped for water on my marathon of a year, I better get back on the path and push through until the next checkpoint; Christmas! If you hadn’t noticed, I love a good analogy.

À bientôt,

Rosie x

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