I began my study of French at the same time that I began completing my undergraduate studies in Civil Engineering. Thanks to my French courses, I learned to respond to essay prompts, dissect passages from French texts, and present on cultural topics as assigned by my professors.
Then I moved to a French-speaking city, and realized how little practical French I actually knew.
Sure, I could write a solid analysis of the character development of the protagonist in Marie N’Diaye’s Mon coeur à l’étroit. But my ability to discuss Francophone literature in writing wasn’t helpful when I interacted with people in everyday life. Reading a French novel in its original form is rewarding and challenging, but won’t help improve casual conversational skill with French-speaking neighbors over a glass of wine or small talk with polite strangers in line at la Gare.
Overall, I have found that through the study of French in a classroom, my comprehension of the French language has grown tremendously, but that the ability to speak and express ideas clearly in French takes a lot more work. For example, here at EPFL, while lab work and publications are completed in English, seminars and talks take place frequently in both French and English. Not long after arriving here in Lausanne, I attended a presentation by an EPFL graduate student of his research in the application of electrical networks to leak detection in water networks (closely related to my own work), which was given completely in French. With the exception of a few technical terms, I understood his discussion in its entirety. When asked to comment on part of the subject matter and its relevance to my own tasks here in the lab, however, I stuttered through a few words in French before swapping to English to complete my response.
I have since tried to use that incident as motivation to push myself to really practice spoken French, even when it may delay the communication of an idea somewhat. I always manage to muddle through a thought if I am patient and give myself enough time to think it through. And thanks to the patience and help of my French-speaking colleagues here at EPFL and the rest of the French speakers of Lausanne, I am improving. The people here are always willing to gently correct my mistakes or help me remember a particular word or phrase, and love to hear that I am trying. Oftentimes the learning experience goes both ways – in trying to express an idea in French, I will ask for a translation from an English word or phrase, and find that my conversation partner does not know the French equivalent. We then turn to the ever-helpful Internet and, when we find the answer, we both come away with some new knowledge of one another’s language.
I feel strongly that this exchange of ideas and knowledge, linguistically, really resonates with the importance and significance of the exchange of information and expertise that takes place here at EPFL every day. I have learned a lot about my specific field of research, and picked up some new technical skills that I know will be valuable to me in the future. But equal in value to my professional and technical development has been the development of my linguistic abilities, and I am so thankful that I have had the opportunity to practice and improve my French both at EPFL and in the rest of French Switzerland.
Merci aux gens de Lausanne pour votre patience et gentillesse!
Diane Jlelaty, Georgia Institute of Technology
Applied Computing and Mechanics Lab, EPFL