The Difficulties of Learning French in Paris

December 12, 2013
learning french in Paris


foreign-correspondent badge final Around the middle of October, I got tired of learning French in Paris. I got frustrated every time I tried to communicate with a cab driver or a baker or another student, and during the times when I actually felt confident enough to converse with someone, the person would detect my accent and respond in English. The cherry on top of this discouragement was a conversation I had with my host sister’s friend. Knowing that I was an American, he greeted me with, “Hi, I’m David.”

I responded, “So you speak English?” Of course he did, just as nearly everyone else does in Paris.

“Yeah, actually, you don’t need to study French,” he said. “English is the international language. You’re fine.”

For about two weeks after that encounter, I lost my motivation to study for my grammar classes, I didn’t mind when storekeepers spoke to me in English, and I took refuge in the company of my American friends. It’s amazing, actually, how easy it is to avoid all things French even while in France, especially in an international city like Paris.

But one day, I spoke to my dad about the apathy that I was feeling and he said quite simply, “If you aren’t making an effort to learn, you’re wasting your experience.” That was all it took to make me realize, once again, how amazing and rare this study abroad experience is.  I will likely never be in Paris for this long in one sitting again. And even if I am, the demands of life after college probably won’t allow me as much freedom for exploration as I have right now. I have nothing but time, and my obligations are minimal. Why would I cheat myself by not learning French?

While you can get along fine in Paris with English alone, you do miss out on so much when you don’t understand the majority of interactions taking place right before you. After I refocused, I could, and still can, see the improvement in my French. When I first arrived in September, I could understand about one-fourth of everything I heard. Now I comprehend about three-fourths of everything I hear, and that’s definitely changed how I perceive the city.

Don’t allow yourself to get too comfortable. Don’t fashion a little enclave of home in your new city. Even if things would be significantly easier without making the effort, the effort is what makes the experience abroad worth it. The feeling you get when you unexpectedly see the payoff of your struggle–for example, the moment when you realize you understand the cab driver talking about how and why he came to Paris from Senegal–makes every struggle along the way worthwhile.

About Angelyn Irvin

Angelyn Irivin is a student at the University of Pennsylvania who studied abroad in Paris in 2013.

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