A lesson from the France program

I can’t tell you how many times before this program started  that I expected I would come back home sounding (unintentionally) pretentious.  I could picture myself saying things like “Well, when I lived in Paris…” or “…during my apprenticeship in France…”  I also imagined the eye rolls I would receive from my friends and family when French slips past my lips instead of English.  Yet during all of this time I spent picturing how pretentious I’m going to sound, I didn’t expect how humbling this program would actually be for me.

Directly before coming to France I was an intern with an organization that aids refugees in becoming self-sufficient and gain citizenship.  Most of my job involved the employment aspect of their lives, but even this had a giant involvement in them learning English.  For nearly each client I worked with, there was a language barrier that had to be approached.  Needless to say this was difficult and at times frustrating, but I believed that it was preparing me for the semester to come.  I thought that a language barrier was a language barrier no matter which side you are on.

After having been in France since August, I realize that simply “being prepared to be confused all of the time” as was my strategy before leaving the U.S., is an inadequate approach to the entirety of being on the minority side of a language barrier.  In reality, there is more to it than just “being confused.”  For me especially it involved a lot of pride.  Several times I have pretended to understand something simply because I wanted to avoid the embarrassment of always having to ask someone to repeat themselves.  I’m not going to lie, I am a bit of a know-it-all.  I can be very arrogant about my intelligence, so admitting that I don’t know simple things like the word for “light switch,” “washing machine,” or “spoon” has been very hard for me, especially in the beginning.

After several situations that became more embarrassing than they would have been had I not pretended to understand something, I started swallowing my pride and asking people (sometimes three or, you know, five times) to repeat themselves.  I began to feel more comfortable asking people about specific words in a sentence and became more willing to speak despite whatever mistakes I might make.

Overall, I have found that one of the biggest lessons this program has taught me is that the attitude most conducive to learning is the attitude that your knowledge base is significantly smaller than the amount of information the world has to teach you.

— Rebecca Berry


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