WSN Abroad: Betsy Saylor

Before this semester, I was so excited whenever I thought about going abroad. I was going to France where I would be immersed in the culture, speak the language, and enjoy every moment in a place I had dreamed about. However, as soon as I arrived I was immediately overwhelmed by the pressure to speak French as much as possible. I felt insecure about talking, a feeling that I never encountered back home (if you know me, you know that talking is my favorite activity). During the first few weeks, long days of learning would make me crave English, only to go home to my host family for dinner to eat new and strange (but usually delicious) French food. Writing in my journal and singing along to my favorite music in my bedroom were the things keeping me myself. All that said, I learned very quickly that getting A’s in every French class that I have ever taken does not equal comfort and ease when speaking with native speakers. Being shoved into a new language and culture made me feel hyper-aware of the different language and culture that I grew up in, and how it has shaped my behaviors and the way that I think.

I often feel as if some part of me is missing when I speak French. It's just a side effect of the simple fact that I am not French and I have not lived in Aix-en-Provence my whole life. I do not understand a lot of French humor, and I am still learning colloquial phrases and vocabulary. Sometimes I have to pause and process what someone has said before responding because they spoke too quickly. I have let myself feel inadequate or embarrassed when I mess up or can’t fully understand a situation. I have allowed myself to become frustrated when attempting to explain to my host parents the importance of different ideologies in America, or what exactly political correctness is. Yes, I have had very many successful dinners, hours, and days speaking French. But I have felt that instead of appearing as the spicy, school-loving, and sometimes funny Betsy that I am in Ann Arbor, I am “that American girl that just can’t get her accent right.”  

A week ago, my host dad asked me if I would be sleeping at a friend’s house. I struggled through the grammar of explaining that, no, I’d prefer to come home even if it meant that I would have to walk 30 minutes or take an Uber. He kindly smiled and repeated his question, asking me if I wanted a ride to town. The other night, my host mom asked me if I knew what a fable was. I said that I wasn’t sure because I did not recognize the French word for fable. She mentioned “La Lièvre et la Tortue” (The Tortoise and the Hare) and I told her that, of course, I know that particular fable. After that, I listened for 15 minutes as she explained the story, and what a moral was, and why fables are important. It will not be easy, but with time, discomfort, and persistence, I will become the spicy French Betsy that I always thought I would be.

Each day I am getting better. I am learning more helpful vocabulary and feeling increasingly comfortable with my speaking ability. I came to France for a change, and I am ready to face the challenge. When I first got here, I was waiting. Waiting for my French to become seamless, waiting for me to successfully tell a joke en français, waiting to be able to express my feelings and my knowledge eloquently in French. I realize now that if I ever want to do those things, it needs to come from me, and it doesn’t need to be perfect. If I approach every situation with an open mind, ready to listen, ready to (try) to speak my mind, I will probably make a fool of myself sometimes. And that is okay. In fact, putting myself outside of my comfort zone is the only way that I will be able to grow and learn. As la lièvre learned at the end of her story, I now know that “rien ne sert de courir ; il faut partir à point.”