Alexandra Stark, Missouri Southern State University
In most high schools in America, it is a requirement to take foreign language classes. In my experience, those usually involve sitting down, being lectured to in English, doing some basic written work in the language, and promptly forgetting everything after graduation. For me, foreign language was also a requirement for my Bachelor of Arts degree. While I was required to take three years of university level courses, I wasn’t holding my breath for a better experience. I couldn’t come up with one good reason why sitting in a classroom in America being lectured to about French would be any more useful than when I did the same thing for Spanish and Latin in high school. Thankfully, I was wrong.
After two and a half years of studying French, including a semester spent living in Morocco and studying at Al-Akhawayn University, I came back to America and settled into my first upper division French classes. I took French Composition and French Civilization, both of which, while somewhat beneficial, paled in comparison to my experiences using the language with native speakers on a daily basis. It’s simply impossible to gain the same type of knowledge from sitting in a classroom full of non-native speakers, no matter how adept the professor. Unfortunately, many students do not have the opportunity to live abroad as I did, and especially not for such an extended period. Whether due to finances, scheduling, familial responsibilities, or any number of other reasons, it’s relatively rare for American college students to spend a semester or more overseas during their education. While I find this to be extremely unfortunate, I understand that sometimes living abroad is simply not an option, which is why I was so impressed with the idea of TalkAbroad.
This semester, when I registered for French Conversation, I figured it would be a lot of talking to other students at my level who probably wouldn’t push me to improve my speaking abilities by any significant amount. Then, I walked in on the first day of class, and my professor told us about our TalkAbroad assignment. Even after having lived in a francophone country, the idea of having to video conference with a complete stranger who also happens to be a native speaker of the language was nerve-wracking, to say the least. But, unwilling to let my grade suffer due to nerves, I bit the bullet and registered.
Because of my experiences living in North Africa, I chose a partner who is also from that region, Malek. She is Tunisian, and while Tunisia is very different both culturally and linguistically from where I was living in Morocco, it gave us some common ground from the start. We talked for half an hour, sharing thoughts on our families, our educations, our goals for the future and what we want to do after we finish school. We discussed our identities, and while I struggled for words a few times, and had to ask her to repeat the occasional question, she was patient, and I learned a lot. More importantly even than getting to practice speaking the language, I came to understand new things about life in Tunisia, and see a perspective on the world that is totally different from my own. It’s hard to beat that.
It isn’t easy to put yourself in the uncomfortable situation of trying to have a conversation in a language that you don’t speak fluently. That is, it’s not easy to start a conversation with TalkAbroad. It can be awkward, anxiety-inducing, embarrassing at times…but, that’s what learning a language is. If there’s one thing that I learned from trying to speak French abroad, it is that embarrassing situations with native speakers are the dues required to become fluent. It would be extraordinarily difficult to learn a foreign language to fluency merely by sitting in a classroom with other students, but the fact that programs like TalkAbroad exist make it that much easier to do. For that, I am grateful.