Year Abroad Blues: Dealing with the early stage wobbles
Christie Anderson studies French at the University of Oxford and is spending her year abroad as a language assistant in Angers, France. This is her advice for coping with those inevitable year abroad wobbles.
Whilst the transition to a life of cheese and crêpes has been an easy one, it has been a bumpier ride in the early stages of my year abroad in France in terms of the language. That pesky ‘language barrier’ really can sometimes hit you hard, and a month or so in when you have already reached that end of the honeymoon period, are starting to miss home, and are experiencing the classic ‘difficult week’, language problems can really get in the way.
Prior to arrival, I envisaged myself speaking constant French with a perfect accent, and this going hand in hand with my croissant-filled, sophisticated, and idyllic life. I thought that after a few months I would be speaking like a native, I mean it would be easy to pick it all up after total immersion in the language for 6 weeks, right?! Well I soon realised that, quite simply, I was being entirely unrealistic. It was completely ridiculous to expect so much of myself after living for such a short time in France; it is also important to remember that at university the amount of spoken practise of the language is entirely different from being plunged into foreign life on a year abroad and coping with speaking on a daily basis. I consider myself pretty hard-working and a bit of a grammar geek, but that doesn’t make the adjustment of going from the odd oral class at uni to speaking French constantly any easier.
That ‘difficult week’ definitely hit me about 6 weeks in; the excitement and novelty of the first few weeks had started to wear off, and had been replaced by work and routine. I was still having a great time and I really love speaking French, but when you are away from home it is really easy to get upset by small things that normally probably wouldn’t affect you. My tricky week coincided with my university Freshers’ week, and receiving Facebook notifications every five minutes about the current events I was missing out on made me feel pretty lonely. It is totally okay to feel like this, and everyone does. It doesn’t mean that you aren’t having an amazing experience, and there is no shame in having a cry about something minor, or dramatically turning off notifications from a university group. So here are my top tips for dealing with those early stage wobbles – language related and otherwise!
1. Start to celebrate the small victories, and be less hard on yourself.
Give yourself a pat on the back for having successfully dealt with pretty big things like moving countries, and, for example, successfully opening a bank account in the language. Give yourself a break when you don’t understand something, and don’t obsess over words or conversations you don’t understand. Rather, focus on what you have learnt.
2. Keep going, even when you feel like an idiot.
Yes it can be a bit embarrassing when you sit with the other teachers in the canteen and finish eating in five minutes because you’re sat there mute and can’t keep up with the conversation, but carry on making an effort in these group situations, especially with teachers/colleagues. In a school it pays to be enthusiastic with the teachers, and there are so many really kind ones who will look after you and invite you to do things with them and their family.
3. Play sport.
Even though it is easy to feel stupid at a badminton or tennis session when you have no clue what the drill is and are wishing you had quizzed up on the French for forehand and backhand, keep at it. It will make you feel good physically and is a good social situation for making friends.
4. Ditch the books for a while.
I am a massive workaholic at uni and get pretty stressed, so for me the year abroad is the perfect time to actually enjoy my subject and to speak French without the constant stress of reading lists and essays. Though admittedly I haven’t ditched the books entirely as I went to the school library and got some modern French fiction out… but it’s honestly actually enjoyable, great for vocab, and not a slog to read. So when I say ditch the books I mean the academic ones!
5. Watch films and TV.
Again, it can be demoralising to not understand a TV programme, or to rely on subtitles when watching a French film. But the only way to get better at listening to fast spoken French is to keep watching, and you will definitely surprise yourself with how much you pick up when you watch a film without subtitles, as it forces you to really listen carefully.
6. Keep a vocab book.
I keep a list of new words that I encounter during the day on my phone, and transfer them into a vocab book in the evening. (I don’t take the book with me as I actually don’t know what I would do if I were to lose this vocab Bible…) . This system might seem a bit obsessive but I find nothing more irritating than seeing the same word several times and not knowing what it means each time; so for me I am more likely to remember a word if I write it down in its correct, colour-coded section…
7. Resist the urge to hang out with lots of English people.
I always try to speak %French when out with friends, even if they speak English, and I save English for speaking to friends and family at home/Made in Chelsea catch ups…
8. Don’t be disheartened when someone notices your accent and asks where you are from.
I find this totally annoying and wish I sounded more French, but in these early days don’t let this bring you down. See the positive side to this and see it as a chance to engage in a conversation with someone; this is especially rewarding if someone remarks vous parlez très bien! These situations also give you more encouragement to go out and make French friends so that you can copy their accent and stop being asked where you come from!
So, basically, it’s okay to have these early struggles, and it is important to keep going nevertheless. Language knockbacks will come often at first, but will become less and less frequent. Try to see the positive side of a situation and celebrate the progress you have made; when I arrived with my parents I wouldn’t even order a coffee, but now am speaking French constantly with my flatmates and getting by really well. The early days can be tough, but petit à petit you will get there and will be rolling those r’s and shrugging those shoulders like a native very soon!