Skip to main content

A Year Abroad Story: Am I French Yet?

Tips and AdviceUniversityYear Abroad

It is true that my year abroad in France has had me meeting Mickey Mouse, climbing 'La Tour Eiffel' and drinking wine in Bordeaux. Contrary to my initial expectations however, I'm not quite at the stage where I'll be returning home with a baguette tucked safely under my arm and a beret balanced on top of my head...

I've learnt a lot of French over the past year, but I don't think I’m qualified to be called a native just yet.

What to Expect

Year abroad is one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences saturated with expectation. Whether you're planning on spending the year taking a 'siesta', or coming home engaged to your Italian 'amore', one thing students bizarrely forget to consider before departure, are the language complications. I had many dreams in the lead up to my year abroad - including a particularly hopeful one on the dramatic improvement of my Instagram profile. That said, not one of them involved me having to down a cocktail at 10am when I had tried to order a coffee, or indeed having 14 bank meetings about why every month €4,25 disappeared from my account, to be replaced a while later with €4,17. Administration-wise, it is always a good idea to try and get help from a native speaker, be it a colleague you work with, or even a teacher at your University. It is also very important to thoroughly translate any forms before you sign them. Problems, however, cannot always be anticipated, and you will have to deal with difficult situations that you have not prepared yourself for. The truth is, year abroad is for learning, and it’s hard.

Before Departure

There are typically three main options offered to languages students for a year abroad; a language assistant-ship, a work placement or a study placement. The first two obviously come with a salary which is a huge benefit - plus it would be a great thing to add to a CV. I went for the latter, mostly because I believed it was going to be the easiest way to integrate myself into a community of French speakers. Studying is a great option to have both exposure to the language through lessons, and direct access to people your own age. What I failed to consider beforehand however, was the fact that I would actually have to study... For anyone who is already a bit weary of early morning lectures or exams in the middle of June, you definitely need to consider whether you really want to study. For those who are adamant about being a foreign student, I cannot stress enough how important it is to remember that you are going to be entering into an entirely different education system. Essay expectations, exam situations and even class start times will be different (note: pre-departure meetings will not warn you about 8am lectures on French 18th Century literary theory). My point is definitely not to put you off, but instead to encourage you to be prepared. The biggest challenges you will face will not always be the language. You are about to enter a completely unknown system, one which everyone around you has had 13 years of education to get used to. It's not going to be easy, so take the pressure off and give yourself a break.

Excuse my French

When I'm not "studying", I tend to busy myself trying to chat away in French to as many real-life French people as possible. The entire point of this year is literally to talk, not something you can really complain about, so there's no excuse. For the first time you will have an entire country of native speakers at your fingertips - use them! Funnily enough, my most endearing attribute when facing the French is the very fact that I am English. As soon as I hear the phrase "Ahhh, j'adore les anglais", I know I'm in (yes this has been said to me, and on more than one occasion...). One thing to watch out for though, will be the constant interrogation on your own language. You might not exactly be considered an exotic beauty if you're coming from the rainy streets of Leeds or Manchester, but regardless, people will be interested both by you and your language. They'll want to know the translation for "x" or whether a phrase like "y" exists in English. The amazing thing is that as soon as you're put on the spot, in front of 10 French students eagerly gazing in your direction, you will miraculously forget all the English you've ever learnt. I don't think I've found anything more embarrassing than racking my brains trying to remember the language I have spoken for the past 18 years, all the while silently pleading with everyone to believe that I'm not a fraud, and that I really am English.

Being a Brit Abroad

Being English will have never been more useful, than when you are not in England. My best integration tip is to search out natives who study English for their degrees. This way you can offer a friendship that is mutually beneficial. Suggest a tandem (there are also loads of websites, apps and groups on social media that you can check out beforehand), or even go all out and offer to help with homework. Play to your strengths, respect the fact that people's cultures are different to yours and remember that the ability to speak English goes a long long way. Funnily enough one of the strongest friendships I am coming away with this year, is with a girl whose opening line was: "Hey you're English aren't you, your food is absolutely horrific." Be proud of your roots but also don't stop yourself from having a little giggle at them. Banter is always a good way of making friends and could give rise to some funny situations. One of my favourite examples has to be the arguments about how acceptable it is to put chips, crisps, fish fingers (or anything else for that matter) between two slices of bread and call it a meal. So looking back, I may have ended up picking up more slang than grammar rules, more swear words than essay phrases but, at the risk of repeating clichés, my year abroad has taught me so much more than just a language. The opportunity to live abroad is one that most people will never have, and therefore nor will they ever have to cope with the thousands of daily challenges that it brings. If there's one thing I will take away from this year, one thing that I would advise, it would not be to expect the unexpected, but quite simply to forget expectations all together.

Thinking about doing a Year Abroad yourself? Read more insight from university students like yourself here.


GRB Blog Author and Student - Cachella Smith

Cachella is currently completing her undergraduate degree in English Literature and French at The University of Manchester. She has previously written for the entertainment website 'BeInSync' as well as The University of Manchester's student paper 'The Mancunion'.

Latest Blog Posts

Online courses should not just be seen as something that you do, mark as complete, and put on your CV. Embedding the learning in practice is one key way of giving the course added relevance.

Read more

Students should be prioritising sleep in order to live a productive, fun, and balanced life at university.

Read more

It can be tempting to present your employer with an ultimatum if they don’t offer you what you want. However, voicing the good old ‘I need this pay rise or I’m leaving’, means that you must be...

Read more