Evolution of Learning a French Word

As the semester draws to a close, I’ve been reflecting on how far I’ve come in language acquisition. While my classes are without a doubt helpful in acquiring new vocabulary, I’ve found that just living in France is indispensable when wanting to learn new words and phrases. Picking up vocabulary through context is far easier than memorizing a list from a book. Not only that, but sometimes not having a direct translation makes the words come easier.

Seeing the same words on signs is one way of learning them--"sur place" means you sit down and have your food. "à emporter" means "to go."
Seeing the same words on signs is one way of learning them–“sur place” means you sit down and have your food. “à emporter” means “to go.” Also, milkshakes are not milkshakes.

One of the things I discovered upon arrival to France was that I didn’t know how carry a conversation. I knew mostly how to uphold my end, but when another person–my host mom, for example, was talking, I didn’t know how to indicate that yes, I was attentive and involved. When living in a homestay, it’s important to let the other party know you understand and you’re not just smiling and nodding. But saying, “Oui, oui” all the time gets boring and starts to sound like you don’t understand after all. So what do you do?

1. Recognize there’s a word you need that you can’t replace with other words.

There are a lot of ways to get around not knowing something. Every week or so, there always seems to be a word popping up often that nobody knows (a few weeks ago it was “sneeze”–éternuer). You can say “I did like this,” fake a sneeze, and continue on. You could say, “that thing like a cough, but not a cough,” and people would guess what you meant. However, doing this frequently usually brings you to the realization that this really is a word you ought to know. Why say five words when you could say one? And what happens when the word or phrase you need isn’t something you can look up in a dictionary, like “stuff to say to let someone know you’re listening?”

2. Ask, Look up, or Listen.

Asking is usually the best way to go if I want a quick answer. Looking it up is all right too, particularly if I’m alone, but asking means I’ll have a more tangible memory of my question. It helps to have a better context in which to remember the word. Describing it, acting it out, or pointing to it are all viable options. But what about words or phrases that aren’t so concrete? In that case, I usually listen. For this example, I started listening to things my host mom and professors said that I’d brushed over as “filler” before. Turns out I needed it! I started noticing that one of my professors said, “Ah ben, dis donc!” often, to let a student know she was listening to what they had to say–and that she agreed with them. I’m guessing an English translation might be, “Wow, yeah.”

3. Try it out

This is the hardest part for me. What if I’m wrong? Even after being here 4 months and making a mistake a minute, I still have a hard time going for something and knowing it might end in a correction. But it’s always worth it. Even if you’re wrong, you either get an explanation why, or an alternate thing to say–and context to remember it by! Sometimes, something wonderful happens and you don’t even realize you’re going for it. The other day, when my host mom was talking about something, my mouth opened and out came “Ah ben, dis donc!” Except it came out more like: “Ah, ben…dis…donc?” At first I was confident because after hearing the phrase so long, my subconcious knew what to say. But by the end, I was surprised to be saying it! I hadn’t planned it.

4. Repeat with confidence!

The best way to remember anything is to keep doing it. “Ah ben, dis donc” is probably going to become my “thing to say” for a couple weeks.

And that’s it! A quick little progression to show how I’ve learned some of my favorite day-to-day lingo. I hope there’s lots more to come during this last month!

Found in Translation

20140114_131535Way back in January, I opted to take a French-English translation class at Rennes 2. This means I got graded alongside native French students. Who speak French. Natively. This suggested two possible outcomes:

1.) I would perish in the ocean of French vocabulary I did not know. Aware I was going waaaay in over my head, I almost decided I couldn’t go through with it.

2.) I could exponentially improve my vocabulary, meet French students, experience the French university system firsthand, and better understand the inner workings of my two favorite languages.

I recently finished that class, as it was a Rennes 2 course and not with CIREFE, and I can confidently say that I experienced…both!

CIEE set up the class for us Americans, which was very helpful. We took two different sections: French-to-English at the License 3 level, and English-to-French at the License 1 level (easier, as it’s much more tricky to translate from your native language into a foreign one and make it sound good). With French-to-English I could often guess at what to say in English because the words look similar. Another plus to having the class split into two different levels was a genre change. In French-to-English, we translated newspaper articles about the economy and political protests. The other class focused on literary texts and had selections from Animal Farm and Little Women.

My homework after I correct it.
My homework after I correct it.

Both classes were easily my favorites, despite constantly getting everything wrong.Even though I try hard, it’s easy to laugh at how ridiculous my translations into English can be. Sometimes, I wrote things like, “According to Alex Salmond’s idea, the referendum of self-determination would be a consultation and would be comprised of the subsidiary question ‘a maximum devolution,’ blurrily outlined, but that could in short be a nearly complete autonomy (notably in taxes).” Grammatically correct, sure, but otherwise nonsensical!

A challenge of the English-French class was our obligation to use the dreaded passé simple. As we’re translating literary works, using this rare tense makes sense, but after having been told that we don’t need to worry about it by high school, college, and even the French professors who teach us foreign students, it was hard to get used to!

An added bonus, since our professors were from Great Britain, was a crash course in British journalistic jargon. Residences are dwellings. Substantial budget cuts are referred to as swinging cuts. The noun leader, when not referring to a person, should be changed to leading.

However, even though I struggled in the class, there’s no doubt in my mind that I’ve grown leaps and bounds from taking translation. Obviously, I learned a lot of vocabulary, but I discovered other things as well. You start to learn that it’s okay to omit certain words from your translation, if they don’t mean much and would detract from the auditory aesthetic. You also begin to grasp the danger of translating too literally. It might be right, but by translating “calcul” as “calculations”, you might miss out on some nuances in the sentence. “Way of calculating” might be better, if you’re talking about a change in retirement pensions. And don’t get me started on the multiple meanings of words! Context is indispensably important in translation. As it is in daily life! But really, the most important thing I took away from the class is that there’s always more than one way of saying things. Everyone has a personal style and way of respecting the original writer’s work.

I’m so sad the class is over and am ready to raise funds for a translation club at Hope. All languages welcome!



CIEE Excursion: Châteaux de la Loire

This past weekend, CIEE took us on a fun (and educational!) trip to 4 castles in the Loire valley. If anyone knows me, they’ll know I have a great love for old stone, so this excursion was right up my alley. Rock lasts for centuries, even millennia. It’s easy to picture all the historical figures who may have touched a cornerstone of a castle–both famous and common. Since the trip, numerous people have asked me which one was my favorite. But that’s such a difficult question! Each one was unique and I felt connected to it in a different way.


BrissacWe visited le Château de Brissac first, and I think it was a lovely place to start. Compared to the later castles we visited, Brissac was fairly small. But it felt the most like a Disney castle to me. I swear they turned Gaston’s tavern into the dining room. Even more interesting, a family still actually lives there! Brissac is particularly known for its ceilings, and I must admit, they set the tone for the rest of the weekend. I couldn’t stop looking up in the three other castles. Brissac also produces its own wine, and after our guided tour we were treated to a small wine tasting in the dungeon. This was followed by a stroll through the grounds in the sunshine.

VillandryjpgVillandry is a château best known for its vast and intricate gardens. At one point, the castle was in disarray and was actually saved by a couple comprised of a Spanish man and an American woman. As such, there were many Spanish influences in the decor and in its small collection of art. The castle felt much like a manor house to me, and our self-guided audio tour concluded with free time in the grounds and gardens. The view from the hill was definitely the most breathtaking. We just stood and looked for a long time.

ChenonceaujpgOf course, one of the best-known Loire Valley castles is le Château de Chenonceau. We arrived first thing in the morning, and without the crowds of tourists it was easy to picture Henri II and Catherine de Medici (or Diane de Poitier, Henri’s mistress and favorite) walking down the path with us as we made our way to the entrance. By the time we left, however, the grounds were packed! And for good reason. I thought Chenonceau was the most beautiful castle we visited overall. Both its interior and exterior are uniquely stunning, and the grounds and gardens are also something to see.

amboiseIn the end, though, I have to say le Château d’Amboise ended up at the top of my list. Amboise fireplaceFitting, I’d say, as it was also the last one we visited. Not only was it gorgeous, it also had an incredible view of the town and river below and a lot of history behind it. The history made it stand out to me the most. Out of all the castles we visited, Amboise was the only royal residence. Charles VIII and Anne de Bretagne lived there, as well as Henri II, François I and Louis-Phillipe, the last king of France. Leonardo da Vinci is buried there too! Because of the connection to Bretagne, the decor featured various combinations of the fleur-de-lis (symbol of the king of France) and the hermine (Bretagne’s emblem).

All in all, this was a wonderful excursion. Learning about France’s history through its architecture made me appreciate the current culture even more. And knowing this was the last outing as a group gave the weekend even more meaning. We only have one month left!

Cultural Differences: It doesn’t just mean more baguettes.

The first thing that my roommates learn about me is that I like to go to bed early. I’m happy to wake up at 6AM, and I’m perfectly content to stay out the entire day. But when I come back to home base, I like to stay there and recover from my day filled with stimulation. And living in a foreign country comes with a lot of new stimulation. However, I’ve discovered it’s a very weird thing to be my age and NOT go out at night. At first, this change of pace was quite frustrating. Coming home every evening only to be asked if I was finally going to go out–and responding “No,” each time with an increasing feeling of shame–got a little tiring.

But! I did start going out. I started looking for events. I started accepting more invitations to spend a night out. On the whole, it’s been a fun change. Also a learning experience. I’m not the sort of person who jumps headfirst into new situations, but I’m sort of being forced to. And frequently, I’m enjoying it!

The Opera, one of my favorite places to go at night.
The Opera House, one of my favorite places to go at night.

The second BIG cultural difference I’ve encountered is the attitude towards snacking. In the US, we’ll gladly eat an apple, a brownie or some crackers at 3:30 to tide us over until dinner.  In France, however, snacking is viewed as a big misstep, health-wise. It’s quite common to see signs saying “Pour votre santé, ne pas grignoter entre les repas,” which means “For your health, don’t eat between meals.” I’ve seen this sentence on the signs of doors to crêperies, bakeries, and on advertisements for any food that could be eaten as a snack. It goes in the same place as public service announcements like, “Pour votre santé, avoid the overconsumption of alchohol,” “Pour votre santé, exercise twice daily,” or “Pour votre santéeat five servings of fruits and vegetables every day.”

However, just as in the US, posting PSAs does not guarantee that they will be followed. Not everybody exercises twice daily (though jogging is quite a popular sport in Rennes). I’ve encountered quite a few drunk French people. And at least in Brittany, vegetables are not the first thing to go on a plate. In my experience, that honor goes to bread, potatoes, and pasta. (MVP awarded to butter.)

Still, while you do see people going out for a coffee and pastry around 4PM, snacking is not a habit. To see it so discouraged continues to startle me! At first, this difference was actually one of the most difficult things to get used to, especially since the average dinner time is 8PM. I’ve eaten as late as 9. The good news is, lunches are extremely large! The idea is just to eat three larger meals a day and walk a lot in between.

Basically, once I completely stop snacking and start going out every night, that’s when I’ll know I’ve become a true French person!

Day Trip to Dinan!

One of the nicest things about France is the dirt cheap transportation around the region. Last weekend, my friends and I decided to visit one of the most beautiful towns in Bretagne. Dinan has a rich medieval history, so the historic district is full of buildings, walls, and towers from the middle ages. We spent the day exploring! As nice as it is to have the official CIEE excursions to look forward to (Mont St. Michel, St. Malo, and lots of castles), it felt great to figure out how to travel someplace else independently. We ended up taking a bus and it only cost about 8 euros round trip. The bus line also goes to Dinard, a city on the coast, and through Bécherel, an adorable old town known for its bookstores.

We were so lucky that the sun was shining all day! Our pictures turned out beautifully. Since we basically went to Dinan solely to admire its gorgeous architecture, I think it’s best to let the photos speak for themselves:

The old medieval wall
The old medieval wall.
At the top of the tower
At the top of the tower!
A view of lower Dinan from Upper Dinan
A view of lower Dinan from Upper Dinan.
This church was one of my favorites, but it might have had to do with the unusual day of sunshine. The light filtering in through the stained-glass windows filled the entire cathedral with rainbows!
This church was one of my favorites, but it might have had to do with the unusual day of sunshine. The light filtering in through the stained-glass windows filled the entire cathedral with rainbows!
One of the aforementioned rainbows
One of the aforementioned rainbows.

We walked off the side of the road and found old stone walls and steps. We stopped to rest on the side of the road and found old stone walls and steps built into the hillside. The deteriorated state of the structure helped make the age of the town much more real to me. Sadly, it’s easy to get used to pretty walls all over the place. But when you see ruins, your brain instantly registers the amount of time it must have taken for that building to crumble, and you end up standing in the grass with the sun and wind on your face, honored to be where you are.

Tour de Catherine

In Which We Start Actually Studying

It’s the first week of classes at CIREFE!

Left: A sunny day at Rennes II. Right: The language building of Rennes II and home to CIREFE and CIEE. It's called simply "Building E."
Left: A sunny day at Rennes II. Right: The language building of Rennes II and home to CIREFE and CIEE. Like all the campus’s alphabetically-inclined names, it’s called simply “Building E.”

Finally, every last bit of orientation is over and we get to start attending real classes! The last three weeks were absolutely exhausting because every day was different. Sometimes we attended classes at a place called Langue et Communications, which specialized in teaching French to foreigners.  Other times we would go to the CIEE classroom at Rennes II to talk about cultural differences. One afternoon we had a tour of Rennes’ historic district, and one evening we had a wine tasting seminar. Some days we had nothing at all! Even though it was really nice to have this period of time to get used to life in France, I’m glad to be settling down with a real schedule and some idea of what lies ahead!

CIEE is a subset of CIREFE (Centre International Rennais d’Études de Français pour Étrangers) which deals specifically with students from the United States. Most of the things we’ve done in January have been a part of the CIEE program, but now we’re starting to integrate with everyone else! I was a little confused for a while about how everything fit together, so I made a little diagram:

CIEE diagramCIEE also arranges homestays for its students.

Anyone level B2 and above can take a class at Rennes II, but CIEE specially sets up the translation course for anyone interested. I decided to enroll, and so far, it’s been really interesting! We have one class for English to French and another for French to English (waaaaay easier). Both professors are British, so we’re learning some Anglicisms along with vastly expanding our French vocabulary.

I’m also taking the Teaching Practicum (teaching English as a Foreign Language), and I’m auditing the Seminar on Living and Learning. But neither of those has really gotten underway yet. Hopefully more posts on that to come!



Le Place de La Mairie et l'hôtel de ville (City Hall)
Le Place de La Mairie et l’hôtel de ville (City Hall)

All I can say is: I’m so glad I picked Rennes.

I come from a small town and the idea of living in a city made me feel extremely wary. Most of the grand metropolises I’ve visited have seemed less grand and more smoggy, noisy, and claustrophobic. How can I enjoy all a city has to offer if I can’t breathe in it?

In Rennes, none of these things is true. The noise level may have increased a little, but it’s mostly the distant murmuring of café customers, occasional traffic noises, and the rare police siren. And a lot of high-heel-on-sidewalk clicking.

Nor is Rennes claustrophobic. When I visited New York City, I felt like I was suffocating because of how many people were crammed into one space. The buildings stretched so high, I felt like they made a ceiling that trapped us inside. Here, while I may live in a high rise nestled among a few others, the city is mostly composed of smaller buildings–four stories at the most. In fact, on Saturday I managed to get away from buildings altogether. I went for a run, deciding to just follow a canal that runs by my apartment, and within a half hour I found myself running by grassy fields and tractors!

soldesHowever,even though Rennes is pretty small as cities go, the energy doesn’t go anywhere! Right now, the Soldes are going on, so the streets are full of people shopping, selling roasted chestnuts, and playing all sorts of instruments.The Soldes are basically Black Friday for about a month. But there aren’t any other sales throughout the year, so most people take advantage of the opportunity. Even if you don’t buy anything, it’s fun just to walk through the streets of the centre-ville admiring the variety of all the little shops!

Le Marché des Lices on Saturdays
Le Marché des Lices on Saturdays.

As for city smog, unless you walk directly behind one of the ten billion French people who smoke, it’s non-existent. It rains so much here, any toxins in the air simply disappear. I couldn’t believe how fresh the air smells!

The rain, of course, means that I can’t go anywhere without an umbrella. Don’t let a bright morning sun fool you! Last Saturday, I woke up and decided to visit the outdoor market in the gorgeous warm sunshine. Not a cloud in sight. Since the conditions were perfect and I didn’t want to be hindered by having to carry stuff, I decided to ditch the umbrella. Boy, was I sorry. At 2PM, without warning, it poured. I was soaked in seconds and had to endure the stares of hundreds of French people and their sturdy black umbrellas as I scurried back to my apartment. Never again will I reject the sage warnings of my host mother!

The Places des Lices
Le Places des Lices–not on a Saturday.

Luckily, all the rain makes the sunny days all the more wonderful. Every time the sun cracks through the clouds, everyone tells us to profitez bien while the sun shines. So we do!



Bienvenue En France!

Today marks the start of my second week in France. This sounds absolutely ridiculous to say out loud and in print, because with everything I’ve done, I feel like I ought to have been here for at least double that time.

We all arrived in Paris on January 6 to report for Orientation. I’d flown overnight, as had most everyone else, and we were all extremely jetlagged. We met the Resident Director of CIEE-Rennes at the airport and a bus took us to the hostel. And then…we saw as much of Paris as is humanly possible in three days.

I do not exaggerate when I say there wasn’t a single moment when I wasn’t having fun. We were a big group, so it was pretty obvious we were tourists, but the program gave us different options of things to do each day. Every morning we could pick between to places—hmm, the Eiffel Tower, or the Louvre?—and then after lunch we all had a mandatory excursion with a tour guide. One day we went to Montmarte (a small mountain in the northern part of Paris also home to the Sacré-Cœur Basilica), and the other, Isle de la Cité (one of Paris’ two islands and the place with—maybe you’ve heard of it?—Notre Dame Cathedral).

View from the top of Montmartre--a photo doesn't do it justice, so go see it in person!
View from the top of Montmartre–a photo doesn’t do it justice, so go see it in person!

I also had the privilege of being able to visit the Paris Catacombs, a relatively unknown location full of history. We paid a group fee to have a tour in English, which turned out to be invaluable. The Catacombs are both an old quarry and an ossuary. They weren’t even in Paris at one point—which is why they have all the bones. The condition of the Parisian cemeteries was at one point so bad that Louis XIV ordered them all to be emptied and put into the quarry he had just ordered to be mapped. They think there’s around 6 million people buried in there.

Skulls arranged to resemble a doorway to heaven.
Skulls arranged to resemble a doorway to heaven.

If you want to be simultaneously awed and creeped out, visit Les Catacombes. Even though I was super interested in the story of the quarry and catacombs, I felt a little freaked out by the series of tunnels with bones stacked about five or six feet high. I was expecting some sort of barrier between us and the remains of human beings, but nope! I could have reached out, grabbed a skull, and said “Alas, poor Yorick!” if I’d wanted. But I was told I’d be fined if I did that, so I refrained.

A carving done by one of the quarry workers. According to our guide, he had planned to show it to his friends the very day he was crushed to death while working.
A carving done by one of the quarry workers. According to our guide, he had planned to show it to his friends the very day he was crushed to death while working.

Not what you picture when you think of Paris, eh?

After a couple days, of course, we all climbed on a bus and headed to Rennes, where we’re eagerly and nervously waiting for our classes to begin! À bientôt! See you soon!