What it is like to Study in a Foreign Language
by Camille François
Many of you, prospective students who are not native in English, might wonder how hard it will be to study in a foreign language at Warwick, especially if you’ve never done it before. When I was looking at English universities, one of my main concerns was the language; Would I understand the course? Would I be able to work well in a language I didn’t even dare speak in front of my family? I sought testimonies of foreign students and their experience concerning that, but I didn’t find a lot.
So, I hope, prospective students, that this article will help you get an insight into what studying in English will be like, and native Anglophone students, I hope you can see what’s it like to study in another language, as you might not realise how hard it is sometimes – everyone speaks English, you consider it natural, and wherever you go, you’ll always find someone who speaks your language. Lucky you!
To make you understand my point of view, I’ll tell you about my experience of English as a ‘normal’ French student. I started studying English ‘for real’ at the beginning of middle school, when the only sentence I could say was “My name is Camille and I don’t speak English“. Being in an Advanced English class (with no justification), I struggled a lot at the beginning: I didn’t understand what the teacher said at all. I’m sure if she said it in Spanish or Italian (languages I did not study at that time), I’d have understood it better! Anyway, English was really hard and my level desperately low compared to the best students.
During the summer between middle and high school, I went for two weeks to a summer camp in England, where I didn’t know any French people. Those were the worst weeks of my life; I was absolutely, utterly lost all the time, I couldn’t understand where to go, when, with whom, I couldn’t talk to anyone in English. But, happily, my brain was so desperate to change this situation that it worked at 500% to understand and make me talk in English, and at the end of the two weeks, I could at last start speaking English.
High school was consequently much easier then. With up to four hours a week of English, it was not enough to become fluent, but once you have the basics, you can really improve. Being an avid reader, I read more than a few dozens books in English – laboriously at the beginning, then eventually, as easily as if it was in French. That, more than anything (except the summer camp) made me learn English. During my last year of high school, when I applied to British universities, I wasn’t sure I’d end up going there. I passed the IELTS with 7.5 (out of 9; 7 being the lowest Warwick asked). I thought that, well, if I had more than the minimum required I would be okay, and eventually, I firmly decided I’d go to Warwick.
In September, when I met my classmates online, on Facebook, it was really easy to understand everything they said, and even to participate, so I thought that studying in English wouldn’t be that hard. However, when I landed in Birmingham, while waiting with the other Warwick students in the airport, I felt exactly the same as during the summer camp – horrified by my level of English. They were all fluent, and I had the impression they were speaking Chinese – or nearly. Fortunately, when some people came and talked to me, I realised I could understand and talk to them, though it didn’t come easily.
Happily, at the very beginning, I met other French people (don’t judge me!), which helped me be more at ease – I was sure someone could translate in case I didn’t understand, and they were not afraid to talk in English, so I bid farewell to my self-consciousness in English, and decided to really, really improve myself until I’d become bilingual. However, what I did not know is that being bilingual – not just fluent – will probably be impossible in only three years.
My first week here, the Welcome Week, was agreeable: there were only foreign students, who would talk slowly and clearly. With them, I got used to talking in English, and realised it was not that hard. Then came the first courses. That came as quite a shock actually! When in my high school English class, I understood every single word and stayed focused during the whole hour, but here trying to understand half the words required so much more concentration, that focusing for 30 minutes was more than enough for my poor brain. It is very challenging to listen to complex material (i.e. uni level lectures), while staying focused on the sentences your teacher utters. Too much concentration and you understand each word, but not the meaning, too little concentration and your brain zones out – in your native language, bien sûr!
Lectures were one thing, workshops were another challenge! In workshops I always feared that the tutor would ask me a question – double challenge: understand the question and answer it. It thus doubles the probability of a mistake – quite stressing, honestly. However, doing the reading came quite easily; I was so used to reading in English that this was not a problem, it just required a little more focus. I would say that writing is okay, but both my GSD tutors told me I needed to pay more attention to all the mistakes I make. I’d gladly erase those mistakes, but how can I improve? I don’t have any English classes anymore, I just have my dear Oxford Dictionary online, which explains the subtleties of this nice language to me.
I engaged in loads of activities to make the most of my time at Warwick. The societies were chilled, so I didn’t have to worry about my English. Sport is a bit more challenging – when practicing horse riding, not understanding an order can be dangerous. And my most difficult challenge: volunteering in schools. I was really afraid that I wouldn’t understand what the pupils or teacher said to me. Eventually, after a few weeks, I’d say that it’s all right, really. As I tutor in French, I can speak in this language, and in my other volunteering in a primary school, I just help Year 1 pupils read. It’s quite ironic when they know how to pronounce their phonetics better than I do, but oh well, it’s okay! And when two little 4 and 5-year-olds came to talk to me and told me something (I didn’t understand a single word), I just told them – naturally with a big smile – to go and see their teacher as if I had understood what they said. I still have no idea what it was about, by the way!
That’s how it works. You don’t understand, you smile, you nod as if all was normal. That’s what I sometimes do when I talk with native English speakers, I confess. I just can’t bother them by asking them to repeat twice what they say. I got used to it. It creates misunderstandings from time to time – like when I’m asked an open question and I just nod, or when someone talked to me about ‘lectures’ and I understand ‘lettuce’ (real life experience here…). But when I realise my mistakes, I prefer to laugh about them than to be ashamed – it’s not easy to try to make sense of the gibberish your brain hears, so it’s better to see the bright side of it and laugh about it!
Some people told me it was courageous to study in another language. I don’t see it that way: it’s just one more challenge of university life (well, okay, the biggest), but it’s not that hard. It is not as if English students came to study in France after their A-levels – that would be really hard. English is much easier to learn than French, and English is everywhere: on the Internet, in our TV series and films, on the signs in any tourist city… If they knew how my brain panics when I must say something complex in English, or when I don’t understand, they’d see my real language level and wouldn’t be impressed!
Even after one term and a half, I still struggle. Even with full marks at the English test of the Baccalaureate, I don’t understand everything people say, and I can’t talk as much as I want – I only speak when necessary. I don’t feel my foreign classmates care as much as I do about their English, they are less self-conscious and improve more quickly. However, most of them come from a background where they spoke English regularly (e.g. lived abroad, have bilingual parents, passed the International Baccalaureate). With them, I can have a normal conversation, and forget that I’m speaking in a language that is not my mother tongue. But I also met lots of very nice native English-speakers, who talk to me totally normally. I don’t know if I should be flattered that they find my English level so good, or bothered that they don’t understand how hard it is and don’t speak slightly more slowly. When someone has a thick accent, when they talk in a noisy room, or when they whisper, then I rarely understand more than a few words. Sometimes, with others, I understand most of what they say, and I’m really happy about it – but I still wonder if I can become close friends with someone I don’t fully understand.
I hope people won’t find me stupid when, for the thousandth time, they ask me “How many lectures did you have today?” and that I answer as usual “Yeah, yeah”.
I hope the proof-reader of this article won’t be too fed up with all my mistakes, which she has to correct (sorry!).
I hope I’ll lose my wretched French accent, because I’m so sorry when people have to listen to it.
I hope my foreign classmates have a better level of English than I have – which they do have, or they cover it well.
I hope now you understand a bit better what it’s like to be inside the head of someone, who just nods at times, because there’s nothing else left to do.