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?
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.