Nov 23rd, 2017, 03:20 PM

English Spoken Here

By Alison Thomas
Tour Eiffel & Statue de la Liberté. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons/SamFa
Does AUP coddle its students when it comes to French?

When Sara Moskowitz began studying at the American University of Paris, she had every intention of learning French. Hating the idea of living in a country and not being able to speak the language, she made it her goal to strike up conversations at restaurants and shops. But Moskowitz is also a perfectionist: "It became hard for me to go out and speak broken French in front of people who are definitely judgmental." By her second semester, she had given up on trying to hold a conversation.

Sara's experience is far from unique. When asked whether they had learned French in their time at AUP, the response amongst anglophone students was a resounding "...kind of?" Most felt that they had picked up on the basics—bonjour, baguette, etc.—but after that, their progress had halted. Why is it so hard for international students living in France to pick up on the language? The short answer is simple: speaking English is easy and speaking French is hard. Of course, in reality, it's a bit more complicated than that. Each student is unique, both in their French level and learning experiences, but an overwhelmingly common sentiment is that it's easy enough to get by using mostly English and that there isn't really any impetus to learn French, at least not beyond a basic level that is. "I've settled into a routine," explains student Laurence Hewitt, "and I basically only remember the French that I need for that routine."  

As the AUP community is predominately English speaking, students aren't exposed to that much French. For most, real conversation—the kind of back and forth discussion one has with their friends or professors—occurs in English.  Sure, they still have to order food and say hello to their neighbors, but that takes only a minimal French level, and even then, it isn't always necessary. Many Parisians, especially those who work in positions with lots of customer interaction, speak at least some English. In fact, as Moskowitz figured out early on, many will respond in English, even when they're addressed in French—at least the minute they detect an American accent anyway. More and more frequently, restaurants have English menus, signs have English translations, and if all else fails, waving and pointing will get you what you want. Though France is famously protective of its language, as the tourism capital of the world, it's no wonder Paris' people and institutions cater to English-speakers. 

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons/George Hodan

If a student wants to learn French, they have to make a conscious choice to do so. But when you're young and new to a country, that's hard. Sam Gilliams recalls that it's taken her the amount of time she's studied at AUP—3 years—to work up the confidence to speak French on a regular basis. She had to go out of her way to do so, but once she'd decided to commit herself to learning the language, she felt herself improving, "You don't have to go along with the majority. There are lots of options."

Although, at the same time, Gilliams thinks that more rigorous French requirements would be a mark in AUP's favor. Indeed, some students see AUP as complicit in keeping its students from learning French. When it comes to helping students deal with phone plans, bank accounts, and the other day-to-day aspects of living in France, Danielle Jewett describes AUP's approach as "lemme hold your hand." In her opinion, the level of assistance AUP provides, in addition to subpar French requirements, is a big part of what enables students not to learn French. So is a sink or swim approach the best way to learn French? One student, who prefers not to be named, recalls how he successfully learned French as a second language while attending secondary school in Switzerland: "I had no choice." Attending a French-speaking school, and being surrounded by French-speaking students, made French a necessity; he picked up the language in under a year. 

However, most students acknowledge that this may be a bit harsh, especially when access to healthcare and vital immigration processes are on the line. Both Gilliams and Jewett appreciate the help AUP provides to new students in getting on their feet, but feel that it has to stop somewhere, especially for students who intend to stay in France after graduation. For others, while they admit being able to speak French would be nice, it's just not high on their list of priorities at the moment. There's certainly a balance to be struck, both within the AUP community and outside.