Language Exhaustion: Navigating French Immersion in Toulouse

Anya Mukundan | 10/11/21

Our new student blog series, “The View from Abroad,” follows OSA peer advisor and senior Anya Mukundan as she studies with CIEE Toulouse this semester!

The series continues this week with a new post about the challenges and rewards that Anya has experienced while navigating language immersion in France.

Each morning this semester I stumble out of bed and get ready for the day as usual. However, the one thing my groggy self is still never ready for is the fluent French I will have to process and attempt to speak when I go downstairs for breakfast. It always takes me a second to switch back into “French mode” after a night with my English thoughts, and I start with an easy “Salut!” or “Bonjour!” in order to get back into the swing of things. Despite having a cohort of American friends and a couple classes in English, as a student studying abroad in Toulouse I am constantly surrounded by French. I consciously have to process the language around me, whether I am in public, in classes at the local university, at my internship, or with my host family. While I am only a month into my semester here, I have already begun to understand the benefits and nuanced challenges of language immersion.

One of the main challenges for me is not in my lack of complete fluency, but in the mere mental exhaustion that comes with speaking in a different language. Language immersion basically adds a whole other layer to your life that you always have to be thinking about. This exhaustion is most noticeable for me in the classroom.  Back at Tulane, I can catch myself beginning to zone out in class and quickly recall what was said in my short-term memory. Here, since I must concentrate specifically on understanding the meaning of each phrase before I put together the professor’s full argument, not paying attention for even a second has a much steeper cost. It can be quite tiring focusing on every single word my professor and fast-talking (not to mention masked) classmates say for two hours straight. Although, when I do stay alert, I get to learn not only about subjects like urban geography, but all the French vocabulary that surrounds them.

How can I solve my language exhaustion? To be honest, I am still trying to figure it out. The best long-term solution is to continue putting in the mental effort so that eventually listening in French will be second nature. I can already feel this starting to happen, and some of what used to take noticeable effort does not anymore.  While working on a research assignment I was skimming both French and English article abstracts, and occasionally I would not remember whether the source I had just read was in French or in English. I am proud that it is becoming less of a recognizably separate task to translate than it used to be.

In the short term, one idea to avoid exhaustion is to occasionally take some breaks. Talking in English is tempting, and I admit I often use it as a break with my American friends here. However, switching back to “English mode” makes it more difficult to talk in French later in the day. The best type of breaks is self-care that focuses on helping the exhaustion part, not necessarily the language part. Taking walks, painting, or listening to music are some examples.

Focusing on the amazing parts of language learning is also important. Besides being able to communicate with a whole new country of people, there are so many opportunities for miniature moments of pride each day. I feel proud any time a Toulousian compliments my French, or if they say something fast and I can keep up. Since many people here do speak English,they can tend to switch over if I make a lot of mistakes. When this happens, I continue responding in French, or I even sometimes say, “Don’t worry, I am here to practice my French,” or “I’d love to practice my French.” Despite being able to use these techniques, interactions where people continue to speak French and I do not have to intervene give me the most joy.

One of the silliest moments of pride in my language skills I experienced was when I signed up to take an introductory Spanish class here, only to realize it was more of a 2000-level course. After a brief introduction in French, the professor proceeded to speak completely in Spanish for the remainder of the class. Having never taken a Spanish class in my life, I was instantly both shocked and amused at the absurdity of the situation I was in. However, using both my knowledge of French and English, I was able to understand what was going on to the point where I chimed in to answer a simple question. I still felt clueless enough to drop the course, but was quite surprised I was able to understand anything at all! While having immersion experiences in any language is quite challenging and requires a lot of mental effort, pushing through even for a bit can lead to some really interesting and rewarding experiences!