What do you mean… they speak English here?

By Kaitlyn Nolan, API Grenoble Peer Mentor

My first day in Paris for API orientation did not get off to a great start. Jet-lagged and ravenous, I went with fellow API students to track down some lunch. I wanted a tuna sandwich and thought, “Je voudrais un sandwich ton” would be simple enough to say. However, the look of confusion I received was enough to convince me that my time in France would not be as easy as I thought.

Thankfully, I chose to live with a host family and all of my classes were in French. While incredibly difficult at first, surrounding myself in the language meant I relied on French. Communicating in English was no longer my default. I realized this during my first break, in which I traveled to Germany, Austria, and Czech Republic with one of my college best friends. We agreed to meet at the baggage claim at Berlin-Tegel Airport. I wasn’t sure where to go and stopped to ask an airport worker for help. He gave me the strangest look and I couldn’t comprehend why he didn’t understand me. I tried posing my question in another way, but I still received a blank stare. It was only then that I realized I was speaking French in Germany. After a moment of panic wondering how I was going to communicate, I remembered I know how to say, “Do you speak English?” in German. I went through this process in every non-French speaking country as I constantly forgot many people speak English.

In tourist-heavy areas, I developed this annoying habit of doing a double take every time I heard native English. It would turn into a triple take when I realized the accent was American. The only Americans I ever interacted with in Grenoble were my fellow study abroad students and we were not a large group. Therefore, my own native language sounded foreign to me. I traveled in Florence, where the number of American study abroad students probably equates to my college population, and I couldn’t stop my double take. Everywhere I turned, I heard an American accent. I found it overwhelming and disconcerting. As much as I enjoyed traveling, I hated having to rely on English. I always breathed a sigh of relief when I disembarked in France and heard the familiar French accents.

When I finally descended in Boston at the end of my semester, I thought that I had dropped my double take habit. Here was a place where English was to be expected, spoken by people I knew. However, old habits die hard. I went to New York City two weeks after I came home and my double take habit came back in full force. Here I was in a major city, and everyone spoke English! My grandma even commented on my constant head-turning and I received quite a look when I exclaimed, “Everyone speaks English here!” I was already in a post-study abroad depression, but it was at that moment that I realized I missed the familiar intonations of the French language and their habit of not pronouncing consonants.

I spent my summer having mental conversations with myself in French in order to keep my language skills fresh. However, this practice led to some awkward situations when I would respond to questions in French. I ached for my adopted language and couldn’t wait to be back at school to at least have one French class. I soon learned I was in another English shock there. My classes were in English! While this had been the norm for the first three years of college, I was genuinely surprised when I realized all of my professors (even the ones I had before) would be teaching in English. Then there was the moment I walked into my French class that I finally felt I was at home.

As my native born French professor greeted us, I felt I was the closest I was to Grenoble since I left in May. I never imagined a foreign language would have such an impact on me. While it certainly was not easy communicating French, it’s an experience I long to return to as I appreciated the challenges and rewards of stepping out of my comfort zone.

Kaitlyn studied with API in Grenoble in the spring of 2011, and is currently studying psychology at Stonehill College.

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