French Beyond the Classroom

I started learning French during middle school, so I am not sure what kind of vocabulary French 101 at the U-M teaches. If you are just starting to learn French, maybe you will add to your repertoire the travel-guide basics – bonjour (hello), ça va (how are you?/I’m fine), où est la toilette? (where’s the toilet?).

As you advance, you will probably learn more basic, but less touristic words, like singe (monkey) or trottoir (sidewalk). In my personal experience, though, reading French poems and writing French essays can deceive you into thinking that you are proficient, if not advanced, in French.

One of my personal weaknesses is listening. Professors speak slowly and they really enunciate well, so I usually understand everything spoken in the classroom. But, when I went abroad, I realized that the youths have their own turbo speed of chatting, especially in their special lingo. I felt like a fish out of water, but I also felt a large improvement in my aural abilities in a short amount of time.

Another perk of going abroad is that you don’t just learn French equivalents of English words; you also profit from a cultural experience. Some of the words that I learned during my internship at KEDGE Marseille are regional. They are words that will never appear on my French paper, or in my reading assignment. Maybe these words aren’t that important. As a foreign-language student, I kind of accepted the fact that there are words native speakers learn in infancy, yet I will never know.

Nevertheless, I still think that it is really cool to have a chat with a native speaker in a setting far away from the classroom. Just by being in Marseilles, I learned that calanques are these rocky cliffs surrounding an inlet, uniquely found in the region. Navettes typically mean shuttles, but they are also delicious biscuits in Marseilles.

Of course, I also learned some non-regional words. They are fairly popular, but in the gastronomic domain, so you will probably have to stumble upon them in a recipe, or during a dinner with a French friend, as I did.

An example illustrated in my internship blog (pardon any grammatical mistakes!):

Pendant la semaine, j’ai rencontré Emmanuelle (Manu), une ambassadrice de KEDGE Bordeaux. Je l’adore ! Nous avons passé beaucoup de temps ensemble et puis je l’ai invité chez moi pour le dîner. C’était une expérience merveilleuse car on ne parle pas de la cuisine à l’école alors j’ai appris ce soir-là des mots comme « cassis », « orge », « pourrir », « décortiquer » (on a mangé des crevettes dans le riz cantonais), et elle m’a enseigné la différence entre « brûler » et « griller » (j’ai trop cuit une crêpe mais c’était seulement marronne et pas noire !), et entre « espionne » et « agent secret » (je n’ai pas su avant le dîner qu’elle est étudiante de KEDGE Bordeaux alors quand elle l’a révélé, j’ai plaisanté qu’elle est espionne).

The approximate translation:

During the week, I met Emmanuelle (Manu), a female ambassador from KEDGE Bordeaux. I really like her! We spent a lot of time together, and I invited her to my place for dinner. It was a marvelous experience because we don’t talk about cooking in school, so I learned that very night some words like cassis (blackcurrant), orge (barley), pourrir (to rot), décortiquer (to de-shell) (we ate some shrimp in fried rice), and she taught me the difference between brûler (to burn) and griller (to grill, so to brown instead of blacken) (I overcooked a crepe but it was only brown and not black!), and between espionne (female spy, with a negative connotation) and agent secret (secret agent) (I didn’t know that she was a KEDGE Bordeaux student, so when she revealed that fact, I joked that she’s a spy).

I feel that I have just begun scratching the surface of “French in the everyday life.” Sure, I can run to if I ever encounter a word, regardless of how basic it is, that I do not know. Yet, when will I be able to fill the gaps that will make my lexicon on par with French kindergarteners’? How many years of schooling will I need, in order to attain the ultimate goal: fluency? This is probably one of the most disheartening worries that language students have.

Maybe an answer is, once you are proficient, go abroad and immerse yourself. Or, the easy way out: you don’t have to be fluent. Learn enough to make small conversations, because you will not need to be completely dependent on the foreign language.

What about a compromise? Incorporate language of the daily life into our courses. Make contact with native speakers via Skype, or other video-chatting applications. Even encouraging students to spend time together, maybe over lunch, speaking the foreign language with a fluent facilitator present, will increase opportunities to learn words like cassis.

— Sheila, University of Michigan student


Finding Time for Language Practice

Some people say that you need to practice something for 10,000 hours before becoming a master in that field.  I don’t particularly subscribe to this, as I believe in quality over quantity– but I do feel that while you can become good at something with practice over time, there are limits to becoming great without following a premeditated, strategic regimen of training.  Languages can be trained just like any other skill in terms of practice–consider developing a custom schedule for learning your favorite foreign language.  Dealing with the logistics of language practice can be placed into two categories, finding time itself and finding a type of schedule you enjoy that also pushes you to new ability levels.  

Finding extra time itself:

Anticipate any potential obstacles to practicing language each week and figure out how you can get around them.  Can you reschedule a meeting that makes for a really long day?  When do the last-minute parties tend to happen?  What other things are on your to-do list and how long do you think they’ll take?  

If you can’t find time, make time by turning existing time into language time:

  • Wake up early or stay up late and have the peaceful, quiet time to yourself to practice.
  • Listen to a podcast or playlist of songs during a workout or on your regular walks.
  • Do your math homework by saying the numbers and mechanisms aloud in your target language as you go.

Have a language learning party–either by yourself or with classmates.  Get out chips and salsa, order pizza delivery, and have a blast.  Blare some music and converse only in your target language, get out several contemporary books and movies, etc.  Go out to a party and only speak in your target language with your classmates.  Bonus points for making people think you’re foreign exchange students.

Take a serious look at your schedule, as if you were someone else objectively analyzing it.  What do you spend a lot of your free time on?  Is there time being wasted on unimportant things?  Document a few days or a week of your daily activities and what you do–can stuff be cut out?  Don’t be afraid to switch up the practice schedule each week depending on what’s going on then.  

How frequently do you want to practice language? For how long?  What kind of focus is most important to you?  Why are you doing this?  Take a piece of paper and write all of this down in short bullet points or whatever format you’re most comfortable with.  Place this paper wherever you’ll see it often to remind yourself that this is important to you.

Approach this like a sports practice or a job.  You basically are expected to show up to sessions unless in the case of illness or other unavoidable circumstances.  Why should your language practice be any different?  Your skills, and more importantly, you, deserve the same accountability that you afford to others.

Finding a type of practice schedule you enjoy:

Try not to see this as “studying” language, but “practicing” language.  Even if you are delving into a language for an academic class, placing the emphasis on language being a fun part of your lifestyle and a long-term skill you’re developing, rather than just another contributor of homework and sleepless nights, can help turn your motivation around.  

Create goals for yourself.  What are your short and long term goals?  Some example goals:  Practice 30 minutes per session, twice a week outside of your classes.  Meet with a language partner once a week.  Consider creating goals for longer periods of time, such as weekly, biweekly, etc if you find yourself feeling stressed over more frequently occurring goal-periods.  Provide yourself some leniency–if you schedule a practice for Monday and it just doesn’t happen, let yourself be okay with it and don’t waste any time getting upset over it.  Give yourself a week to make up the missed time and consider it over.  Then move on.  Just move on.

Have some form of timeline for at least some of your goals, i.e. “be able to talk confidently about various types of appetizers by March.”  Productivity is a numbers game–progress can be measured in many ways, including the feeling that you’re getting better.  But when you’re looking at hard numbers [“did I meet my two goals this month?], this can help further validate your progress objectively and is a great way to chart progress over long amounts of time.  Having these records enables you to replicate the magnitude of these results for future language goals, and to avoid past mistakes you see in patterns.

Here are some ideas for fun activities to make consistent language practice easier:

A popup calendar:  Create a calendar where you can peel back little flaps each day–each day you choose to practice has its own area of focus or activity related to language practice.  For example, try pronunciation, spelling, grammar, vocab, and activities like watching video clips and listening to music, writing text messages, speaking over Skype to an overseas language partner, reading from a foreign newspaper, etc.  Mix it up and have fun with this.  Add “fun” surprises on certain days, like a freestyle practice day, a culture day involving cooking authentic cuisine, etc.

Language Bingo: Make this yourself, out of construction paper or anything else you can find.  Award yourself points for each portion of the board, by achieving certain specific accomplishments like learning 5 new words, being able to order basic food and drink, having a conversation with a native for 2 minutes without getting confused, etc.  Leave the board up in your room, office or wherever you frequent so that you can see your progress.  Reward yourself once you hit Bingo, and again once you fill the entire board.  

Reward ideas:  membership to a new language software/website, a foreign DVD or magazine, a trip overseas, a board game, cuisine of a country that speaks your target language, etc.  Have fun, unique incentives that aren’t in your life otherwise.  I recommend keeping the reward language-related, to remind yourself of the intrinsic value of learning a foreign language, which can be a great source of motivation.

Above all, have fun with this!  The core of picking up a new language is being able to communicate better with those around us–whether it be for business, pleasure or other reasons.  I encourage you to use my ideas as a springboard for inspiration of your own; in your language practice I also encourage you to use the same organizational skills that you use in scheduling classes, part-time jobs, student organization meetings, etc.  One of Michigan’s challenges is time management, but if you are able to hack your time and make the most of what you have in a way that’s meaningful & enjoyable to you, you can find remarkably fast improvement in your skills–no matter how many hours you’re working with.

— Alaska Lam

Want more time saving tips and tricks? Follow Alaska on Twitter at@thebusypinata and check out her amazing new productivity website!

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

Language Immersion: Terrifying at Best

“Rigor” takes on a whole new meaning when applied to studying a language at the University of Michigan. Adhering to the 4-semester LSA language requirement, many students find themselves in a100- or 200-level course during their time at Michigan, especially during their first two years as undergraduate students.

Whether it be French, Italian, Chinese, Hindi or Polish, most of these 100- and 200- level courses are taught completely in the language of study.

Thus, the students of these courses can relate to feeling like they’ve been tossed into a pool completely clothed, because that’s what language-study is like at U of M – as if you’re a kitten in a sudsy bathtub, drowning in conjugations and vocabulary and an extremely hard-to-replicate accent.

For those wet kitties who are reading this now, I want you to know: you are not alone.

Just this semester, I walked into my first day of French 101, eager to learn but without a shred of prior French experience. Much to my terror, when the professor opened his mouth, all that came out was a bombardment of oui and voilà and a slew of other French words that made absolutely no sense to me. I floundered, resisted the urge to burst out laughing or crying, and tolerated the 30 minutes of French until he broke into English.

“Welcome to French 101,” my professor declared once his lesson for the day was complete.

The entire class took a collective sigh of relief, and all at once, my every worry was mitigated: we were all baffled, I thought to myself. Not just me, but the entire class.

And with that collective sigh, I realized that even though immersion is terrifying and intimidating beyond belief, I wasn’t the only one confused or overwhelmed.

And since this realization, I have come to class each day (4 days a week!!) with an optimistic and hopeful attitude, knowing that if I understand anything at all, it is a victory.

Because I did just begin French a month ago, and if I can say even one comprehensible sentence or noun or verb, I have learned something, and that my friends, is called progress.

So for all you beginners, you bold under-takers, do not be afraid! There is much progress to be made and mistakes to learn from, and in that there is simply no shame.

After all, life (and language) is about the journey – not the destination – is it not?

–Britt Boyle

Stressed About Language Midterms?

Come check out the University of Michigan Language Resource Center; we can help!

The LRC has many resources to help students out in their language classes. Whether it’s expanding proficiency or just starting out, we have materials for every level!


Don’t have your textbook on you and need something for class? No problem! The LRC has copies of most 1st & 2nd yr language textbooks for you to use in the center and copy the pages you need.

Tutor Bank and Conversation Partners

Need some extra help before an exam? Check out the list of tutors the LRC has put together. The tutors are organized by language. Also provided is their proficiency, their pricing, and their contact information!

If you’d like a speaking partner to practice with, we can help you with that as well! Check out the conversation partners list on our website!

Need Help With Listening Skills?

We have hundreds of movies in dozens of different languages ranging from Harry Potter to old video projects for classes. Most of these have English subtitles to help you out. All Available for use in the center.

Independent Learning Kits!

If you’d like additional practice outside of the classroom, the LRC has dozens of self-teaching kits available to be checked out. These range from the basics to the higher levels of learning a language.

Mango and Yabla!

Whether you’re learning a new language or want to brush up on one you’re proficient in, check out two of our online learning programs. The LRC has purchased descriptions for students to use, just sign in with your unique name! These programs are great because they’re organized by topics and by levels. They also show you how long you’ve spent on each program!

Check them out here:

Translate-a-thon Oct 23rd-25th

Come help out your community this weekend by translating for non-profits around Ann Arbor! You can also bring your own project to work on! Work in groups or on your own! This is a great way to expose yourself to new material and realize how your language abilities can make a difference in the world!

As always, if you have any questions at all, please feel free to stop by the LRC in North Quad room 1500 from 8:30a-10p M-Th, 8:30-5:30p F, and 12:30-10p Sun,  check out our website, call, or email us!


Phone: 734.647.0759


Language Partnership Tricks


The words on every mercenary’s lips.  No longer just for career hitmen in bad movies, those picking up a new language can learn from this ideology as well.  Diving into a completely foreign language requires resources, time, the right contacts and energy.  Students will always benefit by utilizing the resources most beneficial to them, and in this field, finding a language partner can be a priceless resource.

If you’re new to this world:  A language partner is someone who is learning your native language and is fluent in your target language [the one you’re trying to learn].  Together you perform conversation exchanges, which are essentially bartering individual assistance in one language for assistance in another.  This takes advantage of both your skill sets.  They can take the form of formal lessons, casual tea meetings, or somewhere in between.  Culture discussions are also often incorporated into the experience.  Potential language partners can be found through your university, sites online ( seems to be one of the most reputable), flyers in your town, local clubs, and more.

Here are some fun tricks to find and maintain language partners with a strong foundation for growth, mutual benefit & friendship:

1)  Do your research first.  What type of structure does your potential partner want?  For example, some partners may choose to practice language A exclusively for 30 minutes, and then switch to language B also exclusively for the next 30 minutes; others at a beginner level may prefer to have each person speak in their target language the entire meeting.  How many times do you want to meet, and for how long each session?  

  • Do you want more formal lessons or conversation practice?  
  • What are your partner’s specific language goals—do you feel you can help with that, and vice versa?  
  • Does your partner live nearby, or are they willing to do an online session like over Skype?  
  • Does this person seem genuine, helpful, kind and serious about making progress together [as opposed to only focused on their own growth, or too much of a procrastinator]?  

Some of this stuff can only be determined better after a first meeting, but these are just some questions to get you thinking about your own needs and if you have found a partner that is a good fit.

2)  Informal sessions can be a great way to get to know your partner as a friend; enjoy hanging out at a restaurant or other local haunt.  Some may fear that meeting in a less formal setting may disrupt the dynamics—for example, if you agree to practice 30 minutes Chinese and 30 minutes English, it can get tricky to precisely stick to the timetable when dealing with real-life interruptions [ordering from the menu, figuring out the tip, etc].  

However, it’s important to practice foreign language in these settings, so that you’re prepared to face the challenges once you don’t have the crutch of a translator to help get you through.  My personal development philosophy is that it’s better to be over-prepared and relieved upon an outcome, than under-prepared and in a state of shock.  Case in point: do you buy more toilet paper than you think you’ll need, or less and hope you can make do?

3)  Keep it fair. A way to figure out how to equally distribute the language-practice time during informal sessions such as at restaurants is to play a rapid fire game.  Try Language Switch: Choose a very short amount of time, such as 10 minutes, and switch the language you’re speaking every time this amount passes.  

The trick is that you have to maintain the same topic before and after a particular language switch.  If you were in the middle of a sentence about the colonial war days in English and it’s time to switch to Swahili, you still have to continue the sentence in the new language.  Good luck.

(Bonus points for confusing the waiters.)

4)  Keep accountable to both yourself and your language partner.  Canceling sessions occasionally is fine, though it starts to slip when you go three or more sessions without actually meeting.  Make a promise, albeit an unofficial one, to yourself and your partner to devote this partnership to growth.  Even if you are studying language for fun and don’t have a rushed timeline, it’s beneficial for progress to carve a regular time in your schedule and your mind, so that you can get the most out of your experiences together.

5)  Take notes.  Are you going to remember what your partner said to you over the loud noise of a crowded bar about the Croatian word for “crowbar”?  I don’t think I’d even remember that in a quiet diner: I mean, who studies foreign words for crowbar?  If you’re reading this blog, I suspect you might be the kind of person that just enjoys language learning for the sake of it, and eventually you might get around to some of the weirder words such as toolbox lingo.  Who knows?

6)  Play people-watching games!  Pick a person in the distance, and have your friend pick someone that that person is talking or interacting with.  Roleplay a humorous version of what you imagine their conversation might be, in your target languages simultaneously.  

Hey, people-watching is not a spectator sport.  These people move fast once they realize you’re watching them, which makes it perfect for speaking a foreign language and thinking on your feet.

7)  Food-eating contest.  Clarity will be a challenge when you speak a foreign language.  Going off of the principle that it’s better to over-train, why not have an eating contest with your favorite foods while maintaining conversation practice?  If you can talk about your new job or the details of a house rebuilding while scarfing massive piles of lasagna, you’ll be certain to impress at the business presentation where all you’re expected to choke down is water.  If an eating contest is too much food for you, going out to a buffet, downing some extra-thick smoothies or cooking lunch together are also great options.

Overall, a language partnership can have many rocks in its progress, and these tricks and games certainly aren’t all-inclusive, or one-size-fits-all.  I encourage you to explore what works for your potential language partners, and what your needs are as an individual seeking growth.  Maybe it’ll be extreme sports or cleaning house that bond your foreign vocabularies together, rather than any of these things that I’ve listed here.  Whatever you do & wherever you go, the spirit of mutual discovery and spontaneity is something that can be vastly beneficial in your global communications–even if you only perform trades because you’re up to no good.

— Alaska Lam

Want more time saving tips and tricks? Follow Alaska on Twitter at@thebusypinata and check out her amazing new productivity website!