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Impressions of a French major: A personal essay

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SABRINA MIRANDA | STAFF

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NOVEMBER 12, 2022

Last semester, while walking to my French class, I ran into one of my classmates, a senior who, like me, was a French major. We began to chat about the class, the department and how we felt in general about our major. “I’m shocked that they’re even giving me a degree,” she said, “because I don’t speak French. Not really. I don’t care anymore.”

I quickly looked away and redirected the conversation. Her words hardened in my chest and filled me with resentment. It wasn’t simply her “senioritis” that bothered me, it was that she was on track to get a degree in French without actually knowing the language. Her comments seemed disrespectful; they rendered my field of study pointless, arbitrary. They were difficult for me to hear, and I didn’t want to believe her.  

“I’m shocked that they’re even giving me a degree,”
she said, “because I don’t speak French. Not really.
I don’t care anymore.”

Unable to defend my position to her face, I later tried to convince myself that whatever apathetic attitude she had toward the department was her fault. She was missing the point. I, on the other hand, was spellbound by the French major. It was an opportunity to immerse myself in another language, to become fluent in it and to cultivate a deeper understanding of the culture, literature, arts and media tied to it. Love of this language and this world were at the core of my studies. The degree would merely be a certification, a mark of my labor, time and effort. She and I had nothing in common.

But beside our obvious differences in attitude towards the major, we were also at different stages in our degrees. I was a transfer student in my second semester whereas she was a senior finishing up her final credits before graduation. During her first two years at Berkeley, she had completed the lower-division language courses, where she supposedly learned all that she needed to reach the “advanced intermediate” level. As a transfer, I had skipped this step and jumped straight into the “gateway course” to upper-division studies. This meant that my foundation in the language and culture was acquired outside of the university. I did not yet know how French was taught here, while she knew all about it. 

What I learned, quite quickly during my first year here, was that upper-division courses operate under the assumption that students are French speakers; that they are fluent enough to read, analyze and discuss difficult texts and eventually become writers themselves of “academic” French. At this stage, questions about basic grammar or oral expression are regarded as review, practical refinements of students’ linguistic eloquence.

This expectation — that students acquire a new language in roughly two years and perform as academic scholars of it — is something that I didn’t understand at first. I came to Berkeley with a love of language learning for its own sake. I knew that learning a new language as an adult is fundamentally playful and explorative. Being a student of French caused me to evolve and grow in response to losing myself to a language within which I lacked the words to articulate who I am and what I feel. I learned from discovery, by making mistakes and taking risks.

It was a method of learning that was joyful and rigorous, at once. This was not the method of language learning that I encountered in my French classes at Berkeley. Here, I was met with an institutional force, an expectation to master a language that I was still learning how to speak. 

It was a method of learning
that was joyful
and rigorous, at once.

My classmate must have been well aware of that pressure. Her resolved, finish-line mindset was echoed by other seniors who could tell, from my outlook, that I was new to Berkeley. They said that they could “see it on my face.” My relentlessly optimistic energy made it clear to them that I wasn’t yet “worn down,” but I would be, after a few more classes. Eventually, I would understand where they were coming from. 

But I didn’t want to become worn down — that would be a sign of failure. I cared deeply about my degree and wanted to feel proud of it. As an idealist, I imagined a field of study that would build upon my intellectual curiosities, not erode them. It was embarrassing for me to even consider graduating without having first become fluent in French. 

Now, going into my senior year, I wonder if I still enjoy studying French as much as I used to. As I stumble in and out of Dwinelle Hall, I notice a subtle shift within myself. I look down and struggle to recall that yearning for a language that used to preoccupy all of my thoughts. I watch as my passion turns into a monotonous devoir, a strained effort, a domesticated responsibility drained from its initial pleasures. 

Observing these changes, I wonder now if I had misunderstood my classmate who said “I don’t speak French. Not really.” I noticed that I, too, have started to share her linguistic insecurities. If she was wrong to feel that way, her experience echoed throughout the department, by other seniors, and now by me. I wondered, or rather feared, that I had failed to see beneath her words a deeper, systemic issue in the department itself.

In the classroom, I play and act as if I were bilingual, pretending to be as eloquent in French as I am in English. The French department demands this sort of performance from its students. We are assigned enigmatic texts that would be difficult for a native speaker to parse, which are expected to be read, analyzed and discussed within 48 hours. In two nights, we might read 30 to 40 pages of Les mandarins by Simone de Beauvoir or two chapters of L’étranger by Albert Camus, complete with highlights and marginalia. 

In the classroom, I play and act as if I were bilingual,
pretending to be as eloquent in French as I am in English.

We return to the classroom, having synthesized the contents of our reading, ready for discussion on the themes, quotes or questions that we have identified. We listen to lectures and raise our hands to contribute to discussions. After a few weeks, we are given a writing prompt to which we compose our essays on particular themes of the class, such as French feminist thought or postcolonial discourse in the Francophone world. Then we repeat the process with another text, another round of lectures and essays. 

Throughout this process, French students are often alone, isolated from each other. We read and write by ourselves, rarely finding the time to meet outside of the classroom. Peer review is rare, sometimes entirely out of the question. A professor once told me when I asked them about peer review, “Well, you are all at different levels … We wouldn’t want you to get feedback from a student whose grammar is incorrect. It’s better if you come to office hours for feedback.” When I went to office hours, the professor, sitting across from me at their desk, read back to me the feedback that they had written on my submission, which I had already read at home. I asked them some questions, they made some suggestions and then our 15-minute time slot was over. As I was leaving, another student came in through the door, and replaced me in the seat across from the professor. It all felt so mechanical, so prescriptive. 

I’m no stranger to these feelings. In the French department, it is difficult to find a sense of community among instructors or peers. Social relations between classmates are obscured by the department’s quixotic determination to achieve excellence and independent, innovative thinking. I don’t know the topics of my classmates’ papers because writing workshops, peer review and collaborative writing exercises are so rarely offered in my classes. As a result, reading and writing processes are seemingly stripped from their social dimension. They become private activities, tucked away inside laptop screens, far removed from the kinds of conversations that inspire critical and collaborative thinking. 

Reading and writing processes are seemingly stripped from their social dimension. They become private activities, tucked away inside laptop screens, far removed from the kinds of conversations that inspire critical and collaborative thinking. 

Whatever sense of community fostered in the department is left entirely up to the student, but extending oneself to classmates can be difficult. After my first semester, for instance, faces became more familiar and more obscure at the same time. When I introduced myself to classmates, I wondered if I was too friendly. Some lowered their heads as I said “bonjour” to them in the hallway. Some would quickly turn the corner as I passed by. I gave my phone number to classmates who never responded to my texts. Even as I made efforts to socialize, I doubted whether anyone wanted to spend time together outside of class. I smiled and pretended that I didn’t mind, but at some point, I stopped making any effort. 

Having trouble making French-speaking friends, I tried to speak more often in class. But there is little room for conversation in the classroom. Though class sizes in the French department are small, it is rare to speak more than twice per lecture. The students who speak the most also tend to be those who are already the most articulate and confident in their speech. This has a deleterious effect on the students who need to practice their speech, but who might also be too shy to speak over the louder voices in the room. 

I was approaching fluency at the start of my first semester, but my confidence soon dwindled. I became reserved, nearly voiceless. I had such little opportunity to speak French that I began to worry that I was not learning French at all, but rather some other, dead language that only exists in books. 

In the absence of community, books reassembled my social world. I poured my heart into each passage, hoping that if I studied every intricate detail, each turn of phrase, a better French speaker might emerge from the surface of the text. Most days I spent reading, hunched over tiny, embrittled paperback books by Maryse Condé or Annie Ernaux. 

In the absence of community,
books reassembled my social world.

More than any other text I read, le Nouveau Petit Robert, my French-language dictionary, was the one I learned best. The dictionary warmly welcomed me into its language and outlined for me a topology of its words. I became accustomed to its structure; I could estimate my proximity to a given letter of the alphabet by flipping through the pages with my thumb. 

At first, my Petit Robert was a pleasure. I was content to drift between words, to allow the definition of one word lead me to a network of others. As most do, I began to take the dictionary too seriously. For one of my essays, I spent an entire day looking up definitions, cross-checking them, verifying them for clarity, ensuring that each word sounded correct, grammatically sound and appropriate for the tone. So much dependence on the dictionary turned my writing into an overtly robotic and systematic process. The writing became dull and unintelligible to my voice. 

My friends and family began to worry about my health because I was always at home, reading and studying. A portion of my spirited, talkative personality was missing. Previously, my French studies invigorated these aspects of myself. I would learn through others, by speaking and acting in groups. I would meet up with classmates for study sessions, soirées du cinéma, game nights, parties and workshops. Friends and I would read together, over a glass of wine, chatting every now and then about the text. Looking at myself, I no longer recognized who this student was. 

I went searching for ways to bring life back into my world. I looked for opportunities to talk. What I needed was to empower myself to feel like a French speaker again. The most immediate solution that I could think of was to find a tutor — someone who I could have a conversation with on a regular basis. Looking online, I found someone, a native speaker who agreed to meet me once a week via Skype at six o’clock in the morning, due to the time difference. 

Those mornings were the highlight of my week. While everyone slept, I would wake up, make some coffee, open my laptop and say good morning to my tutor. I was always so groggy and tired, my mouth dry, eyes watery, my voice creaky and raspy from sleep — but it was worth it. The feeling was comparable to that of a morning run, except, instead of exercising my body, I woke up to exercise my mind. However awkward it felt to articulate French words before the caffeine took its effect, the first words uttered on those days were French — that was enough to bring back a sense of purpose to my studies.

Initially, tutoring became a kind of refuge where I could express myself candidly and engage with the ideas that I was learning in class. Those conversations reminded me of the reason why I became involved with French to begin with. Our talks were not concerned with figures de style or how to write a commentaire composé, but they were concerned with real life: trifles, anxieties, social issues and political questions about the world we live in. Ultimately, those talks came to represent the exact place where my studies felt most appropriate and meaningful. 

The problem was that private tutoring in French was not a service that I could afford. Weekly conversations came at the expense of ten dollars per hour. The first couple of weeks, that was a small price to pay for feeling more happy and confident about myself at school and elsewhere. At any rate, it was supposed to be a temporary solution to my linguistic isolation. I wouldn’t need tutoring anymore, as soon as I made some friends or found a mentor on campus. The plan was always to find my own community here. 

But I quickly began to feel dependent on those weekly conversations, like I needed them in order to be eloquent. Every week, I would enter the French classroom with more confidence than I did the week before. My professors were impressed by my progress. When I raised my hand in class, my spoken French sounded so natural and so refined. My only secret was that my progress had little to do with their pedagogy. 

It wasn’t long until I began to spend my grocery money on tutoring sessions. And then the pattern became cyclical. The more I skipped meals, the better I sounded in French. I lost sight of my well-being until, one day, I stopped contacting my tutor altogether. 

My only secret was that my progress
had little to do with their pedagogy. 

I never told my classmates about it. I was embarrassed to admit that I had paid for tutoring when I should have been able to find that kind of mentorship at my school, within my department, as a part of my tuition. Maybe other students found tutors for themselves, but what about the students who can’t afford to pay for those extracurricular activities? What is lacking in the French department that leads students to look elsewhere for help? 

My disenchantment with my major led me to turn to my major advisor. The first time I met with him, I prepared beforehand. I knew that when I speak in French I tend to forget the pertinent information, so I wrote down a short summary and a list of concerns. To my surprise, my French major advisor did not speak French. He did not ask me what brought me to the department, or care to ask about who I am or what I hope to do with my degree. He read me a checklist of major requirements and sent me links to pages on the department website, pages which I had already read and photocopied at home. Then our 15-minute meeting was over. At that moment, my enthusiasm for the major felt wildly misplaced, unwelcome, inconsequential.

This semester, I’m almost finished with my major requirements. Often, I think again about my classmate who said “I don’t care anymore.” Now more than ever, I pay extra attention to that final word, “anymore.” It implies, I realize, a loss. “I used to care, but not anymore.” What she lost during that interval, though unvoiced by the department, left its impression on me. 

What is lost are so many fragments of ambition, joy, a chance at self-discovery. The most awe-inspiring aspects of language learning are communal and experiential. It is a thrilling and disorienting experience to immerse oneself in other lifeways, cultures and worldviews. The effort to articulate oneself in another language seems to speak directly to one’s identity. It causes language learners to reconsider themselves and the worlds they inhabit. The French department has an opportunity to sustain that energy and illuminate the greatest possibilities of undertaking a new, linguistic journey. The degree can signal an emergence rather than an end. 

I regret looking down on my classmate, and others who were tired of pretending to be happy with their majors, of having their fluency taken for granted by a department that neglected to foster the sense of community required to truly master a foreign language. Maybe my classmate had finally abandoned all the secrecy underneath the slightly artificial pretenses of eloquence and mastery. It was time for me to do the same. 

The degree can signal an emergence rather than an end.

If I am fluent in my second language, it is a precarious kind of fluency, one that falls or slips away at any given moment. Like many of my classmates, I am still learning what it means to really know another language, to inhabit it, play in it and make it my own. At heart, I imagine a lifelong linguistic journey that cultivates my enthusiasm for a language that continues to inspire and bring me joy.

Contact Sabrina Miranda at 

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NOVEMBER 12, 2022