Learning through Conversing

Although many language classes focus on writing, reading comprehension, and memorization of grammar structures, one of the most important things a person can do to better their understanding of a language and reach native fluency is to improve their speaking and conversational skills. When surrounded by students who are at the same speaking level as yourself, it can be difficult to engage in conversations that challenge you and broaden your knowledge of your chosen language of study. And while professors and GSIs are helpful, they only have so much time for casual conversation. As a freshman at U of M and a student of Chinese, I was interested in improving my spoken Mandarin and becoming more comfortable carrying on conversations in the language. To do so, I signed up for the Language Exchange Club, a group that paired U of M language students with individuals who were looking to learn English. I was unsure what to expect at first – I was paired with a complete stranger, and part of me expected the partnership to fizzle out after a few meetings. Our first encounter was definitely awkward; after introducing ourselves (she was named Winnie and was in Ann Arbor for the year from Taipei, Taiwan, accompanying her husband, who was a MBA student at Ross, and I was a freshman learning Chinese) we were unsure what to talk about.

Eventually the meetings became less awkward though, and as meeting up with Winnie became part of my weekly routine, I realized how much I was learning from her. At first, I had been shy about talking in front of her, but this shyness subsided as the weeks went by. Every week we met at a coffee shop downtown and discussed a topic of our choosing, which had been designated the previous week. One hour in English and one hour in Chinese, alternating, and at the end we would choose our next topic and then walk to the bus stop together, chatting the whole way. Becoming friends with Winnie was extremely helpful for my language learning – speaking Chinese for an hour straight was not something I did in my language classes, and it felt great to use Chinese to talk about my personal life instead of the more academic topics we tackled in class.

But knowing Winnie had so many other benefits, too – I learned a lot about Taiwanese culture and what life in Taiwan is like, which is not something we talk about in class as most of our lessons focus on Mainland Chinese culture. I realized that friendships can easily be forged across various borders – I absolutely consider Winnie my friend, even though she is nearly ten years my senior, speaks a different language, and now lives halfway around the world. I was so excited to share the things I love about Michigan with someone who had not experienced them yet, and she was just as excited to tell me about Taiwan, which I had never visited. She invited me over for dinner and I was able to use the Chinese I knew (especially that which I had picked up from her) to talk to her husband about his hobbies, his school life, and even to discuss the news. Rather than the academic and stilted speech that can come as the result of too much time studying books and not enough real-world practice, I found that I was able to converse casually and comfortably.

Having a language partner allowed me to take my learning outside of the classroom and into my own hands, and it made me more confident when speaking Chinese. The most rewarding part, however, was seeing the same effect for Winnie – while it was sometimes hard to gauge how much progress I was making, I could clearly see the difference in her English abilities as she became more confident, more outgoing, and more talkative with each of our meetings. Knowing I had a part in her journey to English mastery, and that she has helped me with Chinese in a that way my teachers (through no fault of their own) could not do is something I am extremely grateful for.

— Maggie M.

Maggie is a current UofM undergrad in the Residential College studying English. To find out more about the Language Exchange Club at Michigan, click here, or find information about the LRC’s own conversation partner program here!


So How Was It? Explaining a Life-changing Trip

Upon my return to campus this fall, I received all the typical post-study abroad questions, the majority of which were: How was Africa?

My first reaction was that I didn’t actually go to Africa – I went to Tanzania. But finding someone who could identify the Tanzanian coast along the Indian Ocean was evidently a tall order. I chalked this unawareness up to a gross lack of education about African culture and realized that in telling about my study abroad experience, I had a chance to give authentic, first-hand information about east Africa.

But, in spite of this fantastic opportunity to educate and inform, I found myself conflicted as I searched for the words:

How could I condense an entire month of life-changing experiences into mere sentences?

How could I summarize an entire culture, an entire lifestyle, climate and language?

And even then, how could I articulate what I saw and learned in terms to which my peers could connect?

I thought back to the stifling heat, the beautiful and malnourished children we worked with, the joy and frustration of trying to express myself in Swahili, the easy walks to and from my village and the market… I thought of missing home, of getting sick when I was a continent away from my mom, the moments when I felt infinite and the moments when I wished I could melt away into my simple and effortless life in the States.

My friends stood there as I contemplated a tsunami of thought and feeling, lost in nostalgia and reflection as they waited for my stock answer, the one I always gave:

“It was great! I spoke a lot of Swahili and worked with adorable kids. I had so much fun,” I said as they asked me in the middle of the Diag, the first week of school upon us now.

With each false telling, the words left an unsavory and guilty taste in my mouth, the feelings and truths I glossed over burning brighter and brighter in my memory – the things that truly mattered… the ways that my world-view became more holistic and compassionate and selfless and how my life goals were forever altered.

The truth begged to be told, but I had no idea how even to begin. My friends – the ones who fantasize about dating the handsome stranger in chemistry class, and spend weekends tailgating for football games and writing English essays; how could they possibly understand? My friends, the beautiful and sweet people that they are, asked me with all the best intentions: How was Africa?

And in my head, I screamed: I cried for the infants I fed whose mothers had died in labor and the way their malnourished bellies made my stomach sick with guilt and anger, and I wept for the fact that men in traditional cultures still think it’s okay to harass women and that my white skin made me somehow more important than locals because whiteness equates to goodness for so many in this world. I wept, I wept, I wept; but truly, I lived.

And as those words clamored in my head, all that I said was: “It was such a great experience. Tough, but amazing.”

Telling of my trip is hard. There is no way to comprehend it, and, as I attempt to piece it all together 4 months later, I share less and less of my actual experience. For now, I have settled on this: Wherever you go, you will not come back the same as when you left.

— Britt Boyle

Putting Language Skills to the Test: Navigating daily life abroad

“France is a Western country- things could not be THAT different from America. I mean, it’s going to be just like America, but in French, right?”


“I’ve studied French since I was eleven, I’ve passed the proficiency test, I can communicate just fine.”

Wrong, again.

Many European merchants and European ATMs no longer read cards with just a magnetic strip, and all I had was about two hundred euros in cash. A non-francophone friend needed to go to the doctor and did not have anyone else but me to translate for her. The cashier gave me an incorrect train ticket, now I had to – cheaply – get a correct one for a later train. If an account with the French Electricity Company was not set up, the electricity in my apartment would be cut. The electricity company will not accept payment unless it is from a French bank account. I need to buy a new toilet seat….? An RIB number…?

How the hell was I supposed to handle this?

From learning French and learning about French culture since before I was a teenager, I thought that culture shock would not even faze me. I had travelled to Paris 2012, so I thought I knew what to expect. It was not until I got there, and I came to the quick realization that I had to fend for myself – not as easy as I thought – and I was going to have to figure out for myself that how to navigate this new place that I would be living in for the next two months. All of a sudden there were things that I needed that I did not know how to get. As I started to take on everyday life, I quickly understood just how good my French wasn’t. French people don’t always talk like French professors. They were using all of these expressions and inverted words that I didn’t understand. While overcoming obstacles during the first few weeks, I felt like I had no way out, and I would have killed for someone to just explain to me what was going on – in English.

When you travel to a foreign country, especially by yourself, the obstacles are part of the deal. Even though it was a giant pain sometimes, I definitely would not have gained the same skills, if I had not had these obstacles put in front of me. I was not expecting half of the problems I had to be actual problems. At the time, it seemed like the world was going to come crashing down if I could not find a solution.

But it didn’t.

Looking back on my thoughts before I left America, I was preparing myself for big things – obstacles that I might encounter, for which I had to have a plan of attack in order for them not to become roadblocks. After returning home, I have realized that these obstacles, for me in the States, would have been relatively small things – obstacles that I didn’t even imagine myself having to deal with, that ended up being ‘big obstacles’ for me in a different country.

However, I can say that if I had not been able to speak French and I had not learned a little bit about French culture, those ‘big obstacles’ could have easily been deal breakers. If I was a traveler who did not speak French (and had little patience), these problems could have flustered me into wishing I were on the next flight to the United States and never wanting to return to France again.

Luckily, I was able to find a solution to all of these problems, but I definitely did not do it alone. With a lot of help from my French friends, and a little bit of help from Google, I made it through. However, had I not spoken French and not tried to make the initial connection with my current French friends, this would be a very different story.

There’s a moment when you overcome an obstacle in another language, and you think to yourself, “I did it. I overcame this problem that seemed huge a few days, a few hours, or even five minutes ago, and I did it – in FRENCH.” There aren’t very many feelings similar to this – you know, the one where you feel like you can conquer the world – until you’re faced with your next obstacle and the cycle repeats itself. This happens at home, but because we are surrounded by familiar things in a familiar language, we don’t really notice it as much.

Nevertheless, language skills are so important when dealing with any sort of issue in any country. Sure, I could have easily played the “I can we speak English?” card, or I could use every attempt to speak French and show whomever I was talking to that I was genuinely trying to figure out what was happening. Constantly asking for English can often land you face-to-face with some pretty annoyed people. In America, we’re not always thrilled to help people who don’t speak English (aside from the fact that we often don’t know how to help them). So, in a non-Anglophone country, why should we expect it to be any different?

There was a lot of good that came out of overcoming each issue I encountered. For me, asking for help from some of my French friends turned into lasting friendships. Without the ability to speak French, I would not have been able to overcome these obstacles.

–Haley Schafer

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The Fine Art of Franglais

Every time I told people about my study abroad plans, they asked me incredulously, “Why Switzerland?” Most  people did not know how multilingual Switzerland is; some Swiss speak French, some a mangled form of German, or that some even speak a little bit of Italian in the south. Switzerland’s mélange of spoken languages seemed interesting, and Lausanne, the city I studied in, was situated on the shores of Lake Geneva, surrounded by the Swiss and French Alps. Who could say no this view?

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After five months in Lausanne, Switzerland, I can definitely say that my French has improved, though I still hesitate to say that I am fluent. The only language that I mastered la-bas was the fine art of Franglais, or the mixing together of French and English. After seven years of French classes, I felt reasonably confident going to a Francophone country, especially after going through the intensive language program of the Residential College (shoutout to my RC French professors Dominique, Mark, and Elissa). Though, when I arrived, I felt like I was in over my head. Somehow, I managed to find all of the holes in my vocabulary during that first week.

To add to the culture shock, my French brain is much slower than, say, my English brain, so it always took me an extra moment to understand what was being asked, and even longer to formulate a coherent response. In casual situations, I would easily start the sentence off properly in French, but then get lost in the middle and resort to saying a word in English, despite my attempts at circumlocution. For example, how does one explain how brownies are different from cake without the (dreaded) word for moist? I once described the brownies as mouillé, or wet, which was not quite the word I was going for. I found later that the word I was looking for was moelleux.

Outside of the classroom, my mélange of French and English worked fine, since most people my age, no matter where they came from, had incredibly fluent English, much better than my French. My professors were less impressed, and many of my papers came back with marks in red pen screaming anglicisme! (This had more to do with the syntax of my sentences, rather than words used.)

Though, frustratingly, as a determined French learner, English was the “cool” or “useful” language for students to know and  the French of the youths I encountered was rife with anglicismes, or words borrowed from the English language. No longer does one send un courriel, but un e-mail, and other newer technological terms, such as internet, iPhone, and blog, just gain a French accent, much to the vexation of my truly French teachers who push for their “proper” French names.

Along with anglicismes, there is a type French slang, most often used in French rap, known as verlan. This will often take a noun and pronounce backwards, such as une meuf rather than une femme (a woman) or une teuf rather than une fête (a party). The word verlan is itself an example of verlan, it plays on the word l’envers, meaning “the reverse.” After years of formal French practice in high school and university classrooms, it was difficult in the beginning to communicate casually with people my age. I never quite mastered verlan, but I gradually improved in fluidity and expanded my vocabulary.

Besides the constant pressure of doing really cool things during my time abroad, living somewhere that speaks a different language is really tiring. There is the constant translation voice going in your head and the perpetual sense of forgetting some exception to a rule. Far from home, I was thankful for my Anglophone friends: Canadians, Brits, fellow Americans. Together, we could forget the stressful (and somewhat illogical) rules of French grammar and syntax to revert back to our mother tongue. But even in the midst of our fluid English conversations, French words slip in, whether by accident or to make a joke: “I was reading an article sur ligne…” “I’m hungry, before we go, let’s mange.” Outside of earshot of Francophones, we allowed ourselves to completely butcher their language with our Franglais, pronouncing French words with completely Anglophone accents, or bastardizing the word with English conjugations.

This was our own type of verlan, our way of connecting over our frustrations with living in a partially Francophone country. Of course, we had all signed up for this program knowing it wouldn’t just be croissants and coffee, but after hours of drab grammar lectures in French, this was our way of taking a break and examining how language affects our lives. Our made-up pidgin kept us sane as we strived to master our nasals and remember the non-sensical genders of words in la langue de Molière. Being immersed in the French language was a priceless experience, one that I hope to have to opportunity to have again. Until then, I’ll be thinking of my time in Lausanne.


Here’s a freebie pic of Lausanne.

— Emma B.

Spanish and American Girl (or How My Spanish Obsession Began)

What a great kick start for language learning! What was your motivation to start a new language?


It’s no secret that I’ve always loved to read.  You don’t have to know me for very long before my love of books comes out. What isn’t as obvious is how many of my other passions stem from books — almost all of them, actually.
Spanish was the among the first.  When I was a girl, I devoured historical fiction — think The Watsons Go to Birmingham 1963, Johnny Tremain, and the Dear America series.  My absolute favorites, though, were the American Girl historical characters.
Oh, those books.  The entire American Girl company, in fact, is in my mind synonymous with my eighth through twelfth years.  I waited breathlessly for the glossy catalogs that came every three months full of shiny, beautiful dolls.  I tore through the magazine, which was a smorgasbord of short stories, recipes, and tips on everything from friends to hairstyles. But mostly I loved the books.
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The Art of Being Bilingual

Bilingualism is the ability to understand and communicate in two languages. To me, it is how I catch the pieces of my grandmother.

I think language is a different experience for everyone. Some people are masters of the craft—they easily capture the “gist,” or what I think is the nuanced, near­-native understanding of a language; they quickly turn their words into another language. To others, it’s a grueling process, plunging deep into grammar rules and pronunciation. “Gist” comes later because the foundation is so hard to build.

For me, language is neither extreme; I’m neither a master nor a slave to the process. My parents immigrated to the States before I was born. I spoke exclusively Korean in the house. I got my English from school. There wasn’t really a tangible process of language learning to me. Even so, my environment surrounded me with English, which became my native language—the language I am most comfortable speaking. Korean became my second language and inevitably, I lost much of my proficiency in it.

My grandmother’s garden is located in the backyard of her home. It is rare to see in Seoul because many of the older generation have left the homes they had built to move into apartments that reach higher and higher every year. In the face of this dynamic landscape, my grandmother’s house remains untouched—an artifact of the sixties when the house was built from fresh concrete and filled with my grandmother’s hopes. My grandmother’s garden remains the one dynamic patch of life within her unchanging home. Often, our discussions pivot around this patch of land—what new flowers have blossomed today.

flowers2          flowers1

The pieces of her flowers: Today.  Cactus.  Picture.  Fade.

Eloquence in translation, as I have read, comes with mastery of the target language—of the native tongue. I subscribe to this ideology because it makes sense. “Gist” is important here once again. Once you understand the intent of the first language, it becomes less complicated to string together the ideas into coherence. I find myself constantly piecing together a narrative with clues. I try to understand the intent of the original, and mirror the same eloquence. It is through this process that you realize that finding the translations to every word is not as important as carrying the same messages across in the most similar manner.

When pieced together, my grandmother’s message: This is a cactus flower. I took this picture before it withered. Cactus flowers wither quite quickly.

cactus1          cherries

There’s something very reassuring about knowing another language.

“Foreign” is not necessarily “unfamiliar.”

Korea stands 14 hours away on a direct flight from the Detroit Metro Airport to Seoul Incheon Airport, and does not share the same common language with the States. There are no two nations so different when it comes to customs, cultural standards, and landscape. But from learning—or perhaps speaking Korean, I feel that this disparity is lessened. I think that at the base of knowing another language is a basic understanding of the culture that surrounds that language.

From understanding we derive a relationship.

I think that’s irreplaceable and important, especially as the world becomes more and more interconnected.     I think that my elementary understanding of Korean, though highly lacking, ties me back to those who matter to me.

How we work with language and all the culture and nuances it carries—the weight of that language—that is what makes bilingualism worth it. That is the root of the familiar that connects us to each other.

My grandmother likes to send me pictures of her garden. Last week, she sent me a picture of cherries and cactus, accompanied by small words of wisdom. Unfortunately, idioms, when translated, tend to lose their meaning, however her words were wise because I understood beyond language.

— Stephanie Choi