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Why Studying Abroad Is so Much More than Learning a New Language

Why Studying Abroad Is so Much More than Learning a New Language

As I attempt to squeeze out some basic French words to order McDonald’s, I feel hopeless. Did five whole years of French class only get me so far that I can barely even order a cheeseburger? Sadly, it was the truth. 

I’ve never been good at French, especially with my pronunciation, which is heavily coated with an American and Chinese accent. It was only my first week in Paris, and I already felt defeated.

I spent the first day of my study abroad program trying to find an adapter, since I didn’t do any research prior to my visit. Oops. My phone was dead; I barely spoke any French, and I only had a blurry memory of where my dorm was. After 20 minutes or so of attempting to communicate with the locals, I found my way into a tourist shop, where they charged me 20 euros (aka way too much) for an adapter. I didn’t mind, though. The fact the lady behind the counter spoke fluent English made the price tag worth it.

Before I arrived, I had this romanticized idea of Paris. I believed that everything about the city was beautiful and nothing could be ugly. It took me an entire week until I saw the real beauty of Paris, mostly because my first few days were filled with failures. For example, I was unable to order by myself at restaurants, so all I ate was supermarket food or pizza from the American pizzeria down the street. I couldn’t navigate public transportation and constantly felt lost. 

It took time, but as the second week rolled around, I started to feel more comfortable in the city. I was so used to the route to school that I could walk quickly through the streets feeling like a true Parisian, with a cup of coffee in hand. I eventually learned the way around the metro. I discovered the best Chinese restaurants, the ones with kind old ladies who would give me extra rice in my Chofan. I memorized how to walk from my dorm to Notre-Dame. I even knew which waffle stores stayed open until midnight. 

Still, though, I didn’t know how to speak proper French. Despite going to language class 26 hours a week, the students at the institute all spoke English fluently. So, we all just spoke English with each other.

While my French skills didn’t improve as much as I’d hoped, I still had a priceless learning experience in terms of culture, something you don't get just by reading about it in the textbooks. To eat a sandwich in front of where The Hunchback of Notre-Dame took place. To talk to your friends by La Seine river. To kiss the person you love in front of Eiffel Tower at sunset. These are adventures I'll never forget.

During my last week in Paris, I walked. A lot. I tried to soak every little thing in with my roommate. We sat in a café on Grand-Boulevards; we talked about what we loved and we hated; we laughed about the pigeons that we chased, and we about the times we mixed up our French vocabulary words.

Going abroad is a big challenge in many ways, especially when you don’t speak the language. But once given the opportunity to do so, you’ll receive so much more than just a classroom education. You’re receiving a piece of a culture. My advice: Absorb every single moment of it all. You’re going to be soaking in these memories for years. Je t'aime, Paris. Merci de l'expérience.

 

By Wen Hsiao, 18
 

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