Leaps of faith at the Maison Française.
By George Murphy
Like many Columbia students, I have commitment issues—with languages, that is. When I came to campus in August, I flirted with Turkish, tried out Arabic, and finally committed to Italian. And yet, my heart continued to wander. So when a friend told me about Café Conversation, Columbia’s French conversation club, I decided that the time was ripe to improve my previously unremarkable conversational skills in la langue française. Every time I go, however, I’m faced with a dilemma. Café Conversation has two levels: one for beginners and one for more advanced students. In the beginner level, we struggle to get much further than describing our days with the passé composé and saying merci when the cookies are passed around; in the advanced level, the attendees effortlessly speak beautiful, near-fluent French. After months of struggling to improve my spoken French, I have been left with a simple question: How can I bridge that gap?
One recent Tuesday, I decided to be courageous and stay for both levels of Café Conversation. I cheerfully strode into the Maison Française, located on the second floor of Buell Hall, and prepared myself to affect the most Gallic accent I could muster. Since it was Halloween, we discussed various spooky subjects: films d’horreur, our Halloween costumes, and the specter of returning midterm grades. However, what really seemed to be haunting attendees was the challenge of expressing themselves in French. We paused, stuttered, frantically scrolled through online dictionaries, and frequently resorted to franglais. In the face of these difficulties, Café Conversation veterans remained unfazed, noting that the club was a unique opportunity to put their French skills to use. As Julian Roa, CC ‘24, put it, “I think it’s sort of difficult day-to-day to find a way to … practice with other people and to force yourself to sustain a conversation.”
The point of no return came at 5 p.m. when the beginners left and the advanced students streamed in. I had resigned myself to sounding like a francophone four-year old but as the conversation began, something surprising happened. Little glimmering sparks of meaning emerged from the conversations swirling around me. At first, I kept trying to latch on to specific words, but they slipped out of my hands like sand in the sea. It was only by letting go and letting myself be swept away by the language that ideas started to come into focus. Finally, when it was my turn to speak, I found that something deep inside me had snapped into place. The fear of embarrassment that had always held back my attempts at speaking French was gone. Immersion was a leap of faith; by putting aside my doubts and letting myself absorb the surrounding conversations , I found that the language had been waiting for me all along, waiting for the right opportunity to be released.
After the meeting ended, I described my experience to Eva Martin, this year’s Maison Française intern, who noted that it wasn’t unique. Immersion, she said, was the single best way to improve language skills, and her advice to French students at the club was “try to surround yourself with the language.” Of course, almost all language students hear similar advice at some point, but it can be difficult to put it into practice. What Café Conversation taught me is that surrounding yourself with a language is just the first step; only by surrendering yourself to a language can you internalize it. That loss of control is scary, but it really does work.
From Akkadian to Zulu, students at Columbia have access to an astonishing array of language-learning opportunities. In an era in which language programs at many US colleges are falling victim to budget shortfalls, these opportunities shouldn’t be taken for granted. And yet, whenever language courses come up on campus, students frequently write them off as a tedious obstacles. Much of this can likely be attributed to the Core Curriculum’s mandate that students take four semesters of a language before graduation—and yet I think a large part of the problem is that many of us are afraid to fully commit and dive into the process of learning a language. Maybe, by following the lead of Café Conversation and venturing into the unknown, we can start to more fully appreciate the linguistic riches that surround us.