Published on 16/01/23
As a French A Level student at the Sixth Form, we are often told that in order to really gain a true understanding of the language and the culture of France, we need to actually visit the place.
Sitting in a classroom and learning grammar structures and vocabulary is of course essential, but without that real cultural immersion, it is impossible to know what being fluent in French means.
I’ve been to France dozens of times on holidays, and even the school French exchange in Year 9, but I’ve never really been on my own. Even when I've been with my family, I’ve always relied on my French-speaking mother to do most of the talking, and so haven’t really had much practice speaking in French to French people. Therefore, I decided to go to France completely on my own and stay with a French family in order to be fully immersed. I found them via a website which is specifically designed for young people wanting to stay with a family in another country. As all ‘hosts’ have to go through various checks and tests to ensure their identities, and since you have to be over 18 to sign up, it is a trustworthy option for those wanting to do a language immersion without spending too much money.
I got in touch with a young family living in the Jura Mountains, right near the border with Switzerland, who invited me to stay and help look after their children (ages 4 and 18 months) for the week of half-term. I was initially worried I might get bored, as they said they lived in a remote and rural area, but found that when I got there, there was plenty to do! I spent most of the morning helping and playing with the children, and then usually went on a walk in the beautiful surrounding area during naptime.
The thing I found hardest was following conversations between the French adults I met. While the children usually used simple vocabulary, it was much harder to understand the more complex words used by the adults, and they also tended to speak quicker. One of my host family’s friends spoke so fast that even other French people couldn't understand her most of the time! At the end of the day, I usually needed an early night after a day of following conversations all in French - my brain soon got very tired!
I think that overall, the experience made me appreciate how much I take it for granted living in the country of my mother tongue, and never having to think before forming a sentence. I was able to put all of my A Level knowledge to very good use, and took part in conversations ranging from my favourite book, to French politics to childhood to travel, which are things I may not have had an opportunity to discuss in my French class back in the UK. Generally, even if I couldn’t remember specific words or tenses, it was not too much of a problem as my host family knew what I was trying to say! My only major slip-up happened in the airport on the way back, when I accidentally bought a meal containing peanuts, which I am allergic to - always make sure you know the words for the foods you are allergic to in the language you are learning! Apart from this, I felt that the trip was a big success in that my confidence in speaking and listening to French really improved. It can feel like a massive leap to do such a complete immersion as I did, but it is fully worth it!