Hello everyone! Here is my survival guide to studying abroad.
My name is Chanté and I’m a third year university student. I am currently studying for a degree in ‘Mathematics with French Language’, a rather random combination, as I am often told, but nevertheless, one that lets me study maths whilst allowing me to continue learning the language I enjoy! Now, as is the case with many degrees that have a language element, a year abroad is compulsory; I am doing mine in Caen, the capital of Normandy in France. Rich in history, and once the town of William the Conqueror, it is a lovely, picturesque city, which also boasts a fairly large student population.
As promised, although slightly later than originally planned, (apologies), I have written an account of my time here so far. Let’s go!
Now the primary goal on your year abroad is to improve your competency and fluency in the foreign language, and full immersion truly is the best way. You are completely surrounded by the language and the culture and have no other choice than to speak it, save for when people pick up on your English accent and decide to launch into English!
Having had French lessons two or three times a week since year 7, I arrived, being able to hold a decent conversation. What I quickly realised however, is that, speaking French in a classroom setting and speaking it in the real French-speaking world are two vastly different things. In class, if I didn’t know a word, I could ask my teacher or say it in English; when you are actually in the country, you do not have this luxury!
In the first few months, you will fairly frequently, as I did, find yourself in situations where you do not have the vocabulary you need to fully express yourself or to get across what you want to say. This does cause you to get rather frustrated at first, understandably, but, what you have to remind yourself, is that whilst you are not yet fluent, you really are learning and improving each and every day. I would like to think that my French has come on a fair amount since I first arrived!
The most challenging part of this experience is without doubt the work.
The work is very hard. I am regularly in my lecturers’ offices asking for additional help and I spend hours trawling through Google trying to find supplementary explanations of the work done in class. What quickly became apparent was that some methods and processes that are taught in France, presumably throughout secondary education, simply do not exist in English mathematics. You would not think it, but it’s true!
Maths in itself is an incredibly hard subject; combine understanding the maths with having to simultaneously decode the language in lessons, and it’s easy to see why it becomes incredibly draining.
My lectures at university in England are 50 minutes each and involve a combination of note taking, and reading lecture slides and lecture notes.
Here in France, ‘cours magistrales’ (lectures) are at least an hour and a half, and handed-out lecture notes are very, very rare. TD’s, (Travaux Dirigés), the semi-equivalent of tutorials, can last between 2 and 3 hours. You write for the entire duration of the lesson and as there are no online lecture slides, independent work and research is that much more essential.
In spite of the difficulties, there comes a point where all of a sudden you find yourself actually understanding the lecturer who you could not understand in the first few weeks, and being able to chuckle along with the jokes made by the teacher, which in the first month, went so far over your head, you just had to keep looking at your work, hoping no-one noticed you weren’t laughing.
One of the other major differences between university here and at home is the frequency with which we are examined. Whereas at home we have one exam per module in January, here we have weekly ‘interrogations’, ‘partiels’ halfway through the semester, ‘contrôles continus’ and ‘terminales’, the final exams in December or January. Whilst constant examination most certainly does take its toll, what it does mean is that you cannot fall into the trap of coasting through the semester, to then cram all of your learning and revision into the Christmas holidays. As stressful as it is, it does strike me as a more effective way of ensuring students are constantly working throughout the semester.
When applying to the university I opted to stay in university residence, instead of searching for external accommodation. My room, which is on a corridor with 21 others, is nice and pretty typical of a university room. All of us share a kitchen, (which, I might add, does not have an oven, a fact that definitely did not go down so well!), but choosing renovated accommodation means I am lucky enough to have my own bathroom. The residences are actually situated on campus, meaning my lessons are never more than a 15 minute walk away, which, when you have lessons that start at 8:15, is glorious.
Friends and Social Life
As you are an international student joining the university in third year, everyone already has their friendship group. This can make the prospect of building friendships very daunting. I was incredibly lucky though; the Erasmus society for my university is one of the largest and better organised in the area. In the first week there were Erasmus events practically every day, which made it very easy to meet other Erasmus and International students and to make friends quickly.
Making friends with French students can however, feel slightly more intimidating. French, as is the case with the majority of languages, is most difficult to understand when spoken by young people. Naturally, when you are amongst your friends, you use slangs, abbreviate words and speak quickly, which is why on a year abroad, your classmates will likely be the people you have the most difficulty understanding.
Language difficulties aside, turns out I needn’t have worried as everyone here is so genuinely lovely. I was pretty nervous about being the only Erasmus student in my class, not fluent in the language, going into a class where everyone already knew each other, but my classmates have all been so extremely friendly and have really taken me under their wing. I truly could not have asked to be in a nicer class of people! They are very welcoming and are always more than willing to help, if, I don’t understand.
Culture Shock / Homesickness
During our year abroad preparation in second year, we had frequently been warned about ‘Culture Shock’. Fortunately I have always been a very chilled and adaptable person and so was not really worried about this happening to me.
I am also fortunate in the fact that I am someone who never really gets crippled by homesickness. Of course I miss home, but my family and friends are only one text / Skype call / Facebook message away. (Thank goodness for modern technology!)
However, in the times when it does feel too stressful and overwhelming, and I find myself wishing I were back home in England, I remind myself of just how great an opportunity this is, the great friends I’ve made, how much I already have overcome and learnt, and how much I will learn in the rest of my time here.
If you have any questions you’d like to ask, feel free to leave them in the comments section below!
I’m hoping second semester will be a lot less stressful and I will be able to update more regularly!
Until then, Au Revoir!