It’s okay if you don’t (don’t worry, this whole post will be in English). But for me, I’ve had this question on my mind a lot in the past few weeks. See, I started learning French back in seventh grade. And although my French education hasn’t been continuous since then, that’s still a long time to become comfortable with it. Yet I have still found myself battling the language barrier for the past two weeks.
But first, hello! My name is David Rich. I’m a rising senior in chemical engineering at MIT, and I’m doing research with CEA for the summer in Grenoble, France. I’m right smack in the middle of the Alps, with views like I’ve never had in my life right outside my bedroom window.
Since arriving, I’d say I’ve been about 85% in French-mode. My thoughts are 85% in French, my conversations are 85% in French, the readings have been 85% in French…. You get the idea. I’ve spent 1-2 hours each day buried in a French textbook reviewing material that may have slipped from my mind in the past 8 years, all while running through hypothetical situations in my mind in order to be better prepared for conversations to come. And while I feel immensely better about the language than I did two weeks ago (while on the 14-hour journey to Grenoble from Boston), there are still some comforts of being fluent in the language of your peers that I greatly miss.
In the U.S., a significant part of my life was spent engaging in conversations with others. Don’t get me wrong, I’m honestly one of the shiest people I know. But once I get my shell cracked, I’m an open box. The process by which that usually occurs has been overturned by the fact that maintaining an engaging conversation is nearly impossible here. Specifically, maneuvering the art of humor has been difficult, occasionally leaving me disheartened that I didn’t know “enough French” before coming.
Despite this, I’ve made some amazing friends thus far, and have been invited on multiple occasions to go out to bars, movies, festivals, and more. This has helped me to come out of my shell and to learn how to navigate a conversation, which has helped my sense of belonging in this microcosm. There was one thing in particular that made me feel more at ease: Last Wednesday night I went out with a coworker and her friends to celebrate her acceptance as a postdoc to NASA. She discussed her visits to the United States and said to me, “I feel like while I was there I wasn’t as engaged or happy, especially in groups, because I couldn’t follow what was happening. Yet when I spoke to someone one-on-one, I felt much better.”
Granted, her statement didn’t really offer a solution. But it did make me realize that I’m not alone in this endeavor to break the language barrier. And more importantly, it was a sentiment that I can now relate to for the first time ever.
I have never been the minority with respect to language – I speak English in the United States and grew up around very few people from other countries. I spent years being unaware of the magnitude of the struggle of those who did not speak the same language as I did, and I took it for granted that anyone I would meet would likely speak enough English that we could get along. Yet when I went to college in Boston, I met a myriad of people who did not speak English perfectly, and spent a lot of time wondering what that experience must actually have been like for them. I wondered what they had to give up to survive, especially with respect to language. And now, finally, I get to experience it for the first time.
But I am also inspired by those people who do so well despite the difficulty. And I greatly look forward to being able to develop myself in the context of French society, more and more confident every day about navigating the language.
But until then, I bid you all ‘au revoir’!
Until next time,
David Rich is a senior studying chemical engineering with a concentration in materials science. This summer, he is working on the characterization of micro-needles for applications in more efficient drug delivery mechanisms in Grenoble, France.