The Language Barrier

One of the best parts about studying abroad is that the cultural immersion helps you to learn a new language. So far, however, this has not been the case during my stay in Perpignan. The daily opportunities that I thought I would have to practice my French with actual French speakers have not happened. This isn't out of laziness, and only in rare, complicated cases does it occur because I genuinely don't know what to say in that conversation. Instead, my attempts to speak to Perpignan residents in French are cut short as they immediately switch the conversation to English. Today in a creperie I tried to order in French, saying "Je voudrais…" But once I finished, the waitress responded in English. It seems that once I speak, my thick, crude American accent butchers their native tongue in such a barbaric fashion they 're compelled to stop me before I do any further damage. It's as if they don't want me to learn their language.

I get taken aback when my efforts to practice are rebuffed; it's something that I'm not used to at all. I grew up learning to speak Spanish, and California's large Mexican population made that easy. I could walk into any Mexican restaurant in my hometown and at Cal Poly and order in Spanish. The owner at my favorite place, Taco Roco, greets me with "Hola amigo, Comó estás?" and immediately we launch a conversation in Spanish. They were happy that I was trying to learn their language and were patient with me when I stumbled. In Perpignan that patience and willingness to help me learn is a rare creature. I can understand why this occurs; that it is easier for them to use what little English they know than to suffer through my French. Still, I find it disappointing that so few of the people here are interested in helping me learn.

However, I have found a silver lining to this cloud. Every time I get through a conversation only using French it is a small victory for me. Being able to get our orders in at the pizzeria with a waiter that didn't speak English was just as satisfying as the meal itself. Hopefully in the next weeks these victories will be too commonplace to be considered victories any more.

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About the Program

Fifteen college students came from North America to Perpignan, France, in June 2011 to produce these videos and stories. To find out more, read a welcome letter from program director Rachele Kanigel, meet the program faculty and explore the 2010 website.