not a question of Why, but of How

September 13, 2017

By the end of my years of high school French, it became clear that the goal wasn’t to speak French but rather to check off the obligatory “cultural exposure” class from the list of requirements that stood between the student and their graduation or their acceptance into a University. To me it was an activity as alien as my algebra classes and only served to give me equal amounts of anxiety. And yet, I had a foundation to work from and I had a half formed hope of building off of it. So when I decided to take a bridge year before university, I chose to spend a year in Senegal, an African country that, according to Wikipedia, spoke French. Among a multitude of reasons, learning how to adapt to a way of life amongst a culture of people so different from my own was my main goal. I wanted to gain cultural and linguistic fluency in Senegal in the hopes that it would help me better understand my own.

Long story short, most people in Senegal prefer not to speak French. And I quickly realized that to immerse myself and connect fully with my community there, I had to give up my own notions of what “fluency” meant and instead simply embrace what was right in front of me. So, I learned to speak Wolof, the national language of Senegal. With this, I learned about the power of connecting with people in their native language and as a result of a better understanding of the culture, I gained a deeper awareness of the vast variance of Francophone culture.

To me, the notion that a language can open the door for deeper connections and can act as a lens to view the world differently is so powerful. Language isn’t simply a formulaic construction of vocabulary that follows abstract grammar rules. Rather, it is a vessel for self-expression; it serves as cultural and temporal unification, and it can capture the world views and archetypal values of its speakers.

So here I am, encore, immersing myself in another culture with the hope of finally learning French. To me the question isn’t about why learn French over another language, but rather how to learn French. The first step is linguistic immersion. The reason I chose to study through APA was that this program provides multiple opportunities to engage in the Parisian life such as taking classes directly in universities with local French-speakers and living with a host family. It has only been a week and I have already starting making friends with French students and am quickly building an intuition for how the metro system works.

There is a Wolof proverb that goes: ndank-ndank mooy jaap golo si gnay (slowly, slowly, one catches the monkey in the forest) which is to say that everything takes time and it is the one who is patient and persistent who succeeds in the end. Since I have a year in Paris, I have the opportunity to continuously put myself in challenging situations that force me to use French but also to be forgiving of myself and to be reflective in my learning. With the help of APA, I hope to (all in French, of course!) be able to build meaningful relationships, develop a deeper awareness of the Parisian French culture, and gain a bit more clarity as to what the next step will be. Well that’s the goal anyway 🙂



Sophia Richter



I’m a junior at Alma College, MI and its been said that my major is Economics and French… figured the introductory blog post should give at least some context to the author 🙂