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


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

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?

lausanne 2

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.

Starting a new language? Use it from day one!

Don’t be afraid to sound silly! Trying to speak a language is one of the most important hurdles to overcome!

Lost for Words

Fear is the main point that slows down the early stages of language learning for many a learner; a fear of actually using the language…

Lets talk about getting over this fear, and turning it into amazing progress! The secret? Speak from day one. It takes a little preparation, and isn’t easy, but overcoming that early fear will pay dividends in even a pretty short time.

When we start a language, most will be dreaming of confidently chatting with native speakers, weaving beautiful sentences with ease, without stopping to think in our first language. Yet despite the usual (and completely understandable!) main goal of using the language, nearly everyone tends to spend a good while flicking through a textbook instead.

That drag through the textbook  also tends to go on a bit longer than originally intended. Why? People are generally concerned of ‘reaching a certain level’ before they can talk.


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How to Learn a Romance Language.

Great advice for picking up some “functional” fluency quickly. This can be pretty helpful if you’re just passing through a country or staying for a short while.


1. Don’t learn every verb tense.


There are lots of verb tenses in any language. However, you will eventually discover that you only need a strong grasp of a handful of them. Normally teachers will teach you about all the exceptions to the rules. My advice is to forget about this and pick out the verbs you need to know.


When it comes to tenses I have discovered that in the Romance languages you only need to know 7 maximum, and that is at a near native standard. I have learned that learning the Present and the Past are the first 2 most important tenses to learn. This is followed by the imperfect tense.


It may come of a surprise to some people that the future tense isn’t mentioned among the ‘sacred three’. This is because you can construct sentences in the future tense without actually using…

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Online games to learn Russian (and other languages!)

Привет! In this post I thought I’d share a few games that I like to use to practice Russian – vocabulary, listening, the case system, and typing!

Ba Ba Dum is four games in one. Practice vocabulary (and listening and reading) with matching and spelling games that involve only pictures and the target language – no translation, so you can get used to thinking in the language! For extra fun, it’s available in 13 languages:

  • Portuguese
  • Romanian
  • Greek
  • Swedish
  • Japanese
  • Russian
  • Italian
  • French
  • Spanish
  • German
  • Polish
  • American English
  • British English

Russian Case Roulette helps you learn the 6 Russian cases through a series of visually-appealing games. Grammar terms are presented in both English and Russian.

Finally, is a fun, multilingual, highly responsive online typing tutor. It keeps track of which letters you are struggling with and presents them more frequently, so you can get extra practice. I like to get a little typing practice in every evening – you can do a few minutes at a time, and your data will be saved. Under Settings -> Keyboard Layout, you can set the language to one of these six:

  • English
  • German
  • French
  • Italian
  • Portuguese
  • Russian

I hope you have fun with some of these games, and learn a little Russian (or Portuguese, or Greek, or Spanish…) along the way!

– Amelia