What a French Major Studies

Hello everyone! It has literally been a year since my first post and I remembered I started this blog as the annual charge went through! I’m making the same promise of posting every week to myself again. As I really have no excuse since a bunch of free time opened up, thanks quarantine. So let’s see what French classes taught me in undergrad!

Parlez-Vous Francais? ; Tell me something in French

If you study a language, or anything in higher education, there’s the old routine of questions friends (but especially family) bring up. They expect you to be an expert in such a small time frame considering the classes are a couple of days a week. Here’s just a couple of examples of these questions.

So what are these questions specifically?

  • “You speak insert language fluently then?”
  • “When are you/have you studied abroad insert country?”
  • “How are you going to use the language?”
  • “What do you like/dislike about it?”

The questioning doesn’t frustrate me as much as it just left me as flustered as any college student defending their choice of major. Now if we’re talking job interviews or presentations, then I should be prepared to have a good “why”. Mine isn’t too deep, I just wanted to be able to read more and see where French literature crosses over thematically with English based overtime. Maybe one day my “why” will change once I have a better answer regarding fluency and traveling abroad once I make a trip.

While the first two questions are more difficult, this is also because they are closed questions with a yes or no answer. I prefer the later questions as they allow a freer conversation about what makes a language like French fascinating to me. Whether then if I have made it useful enough for conversation by developing a fluency. They’re also more interesting to answer as I can pull from my knowledge of a specific word that can’t be translated properly, looking at you “grandeur“. The content of my French classes also better prepared me for this type of question as we will now see.

Ouvrez vos livres; Hitting the books

What are French classes actually? It’s not a constant hour of speaking back and forth about food and books. But it also isn’t reading books with pretentious titles and subtle plot points. More of a fine line in between.

French Conversation, you hear the name of this class and think okay maybe we’ll learn how to discuss a bunch of topics. Food, books, the newest Weeknd album, things you’d discuss in your native language. I hated the fact that I was wrong more and more every week for twice a week when the professor had the authority to limit the class to her choice of topic: movies. Instead of learning vocab and role-playing like the introductory coursework, we watched films and had to be prepared before class through our research and writing to discuss them. This left my speaking fluency faltering even in class because there were only so many words to discuss a film especially when we watched two of the same genre. Next, we’ll discuss one other class where my speaking was not one hundred percent.

French literature, the higher level you take as a junior/senior exposed me to some of the most beautiful prose and poetry I’ve ever read. It was mostly reading and writing as this was the only way our professors could accurately test us. We still had oral discussions of the assigned readings but these turned into a competition of words. It’s hard enough presenting your analysis of a book in your native language and doing so in French required stringing together the grammar and right words in your head fast enough. Think of when a scrabble table is filled with all the words you know while you’re running out of useful letters. I found after three or more students made their points that it was hard to come up with a new sentence or idea. I’m prepared now to speak maybe one or two points on a formal book such as Hugo’s poetry, but not in modern terms or slang since the classes were formal.

My skills from the years in the unexpected challenge of lots of reading and relying on word reference “qui me sauve la vie”. I know the right reference sites, to watch shows in the language no subtitles, and even forums to discuss with others. Although I can’t call myself fluent as I was during my finals exams, its fun to dive into French culture and other places to see what I can retain outside the English barrier.

Bon Voyage ; Travel Difficulties

Of course, I desired the experience of studying abroad; the thought of practicing my French while surrounded by works of art and delicious cheese was always at the back of my mind. Finances stopped me once I realized the number of student loans I already racked up from undergrad and still desired to go to grad school after a gap year. Add on top of these things the extra costs of the flights and passport fees, my part-time student job wasn’t going to help me enough.

The new goal is to save money to travel on my own in the future after keeping up with French on my own. It isn’t immersing yourself around the language on a 24-hour basis, however, UNR does its best by having all third and fourth-year classes conducted entirely in French. Students cannot use English at all making it rewarding when you figure out another way to say the sentence you’ve had stuck in your head. No, it isn’t Lyon, but I’m still grateful for the classes I’ve taken that allowed me an experience immersed in the language regardless of dismissing a semester abroad.

Another conundrum in the plan was the required profinecy tests which ensure you’re ready for high-level courses outside the US. This includes oral, reading, and writing with higher score requirements depending on the classes you plan on taking. I considered it was too late for me after three years of French focused on written exams with enough student loans stacked up from housing and my other major. UNR has a renowned study abroad program which I’ve heard numerous great things about from my classmates don’t get me wrong, but the logistics of my situation lead me to decide I’d travel a year after graduating, maybe more delayed now.

Grandeur Dans La Langue; Language’s greatness

Another misconception of language studies is that the student learns how the language is spoken contemporarily and natively. Some probably know this already, but there are several dialects especially in romance languages and any language outside English. Dialectsrefer to variations in a language depending on the degree of formality or region for example along with different forms which include alternative vocab, grammar, etc. Examples in English seldom come up because they are with specific words and vowel pronunciations depending on where you’re from. Soda vs pop and sandwich vs sub, to name a couple.

The French I studied didn’t always transmit directly to the real world/native country. We didn’t learn slang and some words have more formal uses mainly found in older 17th or 18th-century literary works. Professors warn us that not every grammar structure (seriously there’s a lot), is spoken. An easier way is to avoid using formal tenses like the subjunctive employing substitution with another word or phrase whenever possible. This means that while a French major conjugates for every verb tense a ridiculous amount of time, they don’t know how to say the words “guy” and “bitch” translated to “mec” and “putain” informally. Seriously, context changes the meanings of words in all registers depending on who is dancing (danser) or what is being tasted (gouter).

French ER verbs
https://lingvist.com/course/learn-french-online/resources/er-verbs-french/

One more takeaway from the variations in slang, pronunciation, and other structures in foreign languages is the importance of listening and being open. Sure you may not understand the language someone is speaking, but I found this applies to English as well. We may disregard others when their word choice or descriptions sound unlike how we would say it. Naturally, we learn to speak the same way as those around us growing up meaning our families and hometowns. This doesn’t mean someone’s ungrammatical account of the quarantine, for example, is wrong as much as you may not understand what they’re saying.

Fin; Final thoughts

I’ve loved my French classes despite not studying abroad or speaking the same way they do in Paris. The small class sizes, the energy the professors bring to every class until finals week, and the beautiful language of course. Although I can’t say I’m a fluent speaker, I know that I made the right choice when I changed my minor to a major.

Thank you for reading if you made it to the this far! Next week, I’ll be switching back to my experience as an English major. I’m thinking of covering “how English majors read” not in the literal sense of course. So be on the lookout for that.

What Linguistic Majors Really Study

I’m asked often what I study as a linguistics major and usually this comes in the form of a question such as the following: You study a bunch of different languages then right? How many do you know? The answer is complicated, technically my classes expose me to many languages, however, I cannot say I know or can translate languages besides English. If you read on from here, the question should be answered, or at least linguistics may make a bit more sense to you than before.

Definition

A big misconception from linguistics is the notion that an undergrad learns how to translate/speak many languages. It’s not surprising considering the tendency for television and film to depict a linguist as an expert translator. Languages also shows up frequently in media as modern authors create their own languages unique to their universe such as Dothraki and Elvish. Linguistics in reality means the scientific study of a language. This includes its own topics like Syntax: how sentences are strung together in a language. Also, Phonology: the study of sounds along with their patterns in a language. So, I can say that I’ve encountered many languages as a linguistic major. But, I cannot speak or write them for you.

There is a great scene in a movie not talked about enough, in my opinion, titled Arrival. This scene explains a linguist’s job well in the sense that a language that is foreign to us still has the same general rules socially and grammatically regardless of the translation. 

Literature Coursework As Well

I also took some upper division literature to fulfill elective requirements towards my linguistic degree.  Literature majors earned my respect once I found out how  tough it is crafting new arguments for some of the most read texts, even though my courses were limited in number. The coursework was an adjustment for me at first since it involves weekly reading and writing as opposed to linguistics which focuses on exams and participation. My linguistic background wasn’t worthless once I took Chaucer where the required text was Middle English/Chaucer’s English version of The Canteburry Tales. Thanks to my linguistic background I picked up on the language’s structures quickly which made translations easier for me compared to my fellow classmates.

I even did some research to see if a linguistic background applies to literature and found yet another subtopic for linguistics devoted to this very issue. Click here to read more. Anyways, I’m saying not all linguistic majors only know linguistics; we also know how to identify a literary device or two, just ask!geoffrey-chaucers-masterpiece-10-728

Wrong major in retrospective (Looking at you, Phonology)

I changed my major to linguistics my Sophomore year because the variety of languages across time space still fascinates me today. However, phonology and sociolinguistics did not resonate with me (sound pun intended). These courses seemed interesting in the first couple of weeks, but quickly become an insufferable repetition of sound puzzles and failed studies. A more adequate description for both fields boils down to this; Phonology consisted of data set after data set with a hidden sound pattern in each one. Basically, we deal with puzzles using languages that you’ve never seen which have little incentive besides studying.

Sociolinguistics looks at language and how social factors affect it. I took language and gender as my sociolinguistics requirement where we learned through numerous studies that women and men do not speak as differently as hypothesized almost all of the time. This made the readings very dry and the research papers difficult to write given the lack of actually findings in the field. ipa

Conclusion

Therefore, I didn’t choose to be an English major because I like science which I didn’t really know linguistics was until the final classes described above. Studying literary works for a better understanding and then an analysis is much more pleasing to me. My time in the enjoyable linguistic requirements flew by until it was too late, but at least I took some French literature. To be continued in another post!

Authors note

IF you’ve read this far, thank you so much for reading! I hope this post provides you with a little bit of insight into what I and many others study when we say we are linguistic majors. It can definitely be confusing when its rarely mentioned or even majored in. Look out for my next weekly post which will more than likely be similar regarding what French majors study, yes I’m a double major with a minor as well (waiting for December when I’m finally done). Thanks again.