ATX Longhorn Abroad

Surviving the language barrier (and recognizing different customs) in France

*This is the first of guest blog posts for the Longhorn Abroad series. Psychology senior Aysha Najjab studied in Aix-en-Provence, France.

This spring I spent four incredible months studying art in the south of France. People always talk about culture shock but I never really understood the term before I left all my friends and family behind to attend school in another country.

Photo by Aysha Najjab
Photo courtesy of Aysha Najjab

In France, I was truly independent so everything was new. It was fun for me to catalog some of the more amusing differences between Americans and the French. I’ve listed a few of them below:

  • People do not smile to each other on the street. I know what you’re thinking, “Well duh, it’s not like Americans actually smile to each other all the time,” but get off your high horse jerk, because we do! Whenever I see someone with a small child or a dog (basically the same thing, right?) I always smile at the kid/pet and then share an affectionate/complimentary smile with the owner, like “Hey, your pet/kid is really cute and I noticed.” I have smiled at many owners/parents and none of them have smiled back. It really is an American thing.
  • French people keep their hands on the table at all times during a meal. I didn’t notice this one until my housemate pointed it out but now I see it everywhere. I’ve always grown up putting my hands in my lap whenever I don’t have a utensil in my hands but they rest theirs on the table. And they don’t switch hands to use a knife and fork. They just keep their fork in their left hand and hold their knife in their right. I bet you never noticed how weird it is to switch utensils all the time while you eat. Don’t worry, I didn’t notice either but now you will never forget.
  • French people don’t like it when you ask them how their day was or what their name is. That’s private info and why do you want to know anyway, creep. I recently went to a grocery store here in the States and the cashier started asking me about the items in my cart. That would NEVER happen in France. Which was probably for the best because I might not have been able to understand cashier small-talk in French.
Photo by Aysha Najjab
Photo by Aysha Najjab

The biggest issue I came up against was the language barrier. It was incredibly difficult to channel any personality into my limited-vocabulary conversations. So I’m pretty sure my host family only saw me as the girl who liked to update them on the weather. Some of my more witty musings included “There are clouds” and “It makes rain.” I think it’s probably hard to imagine that another person has all the same emotional and intellectual depth as you when all they can do is make fragmented small talk.

At home I am a capable college student but to my host family I might as well be a trained monkey. I would often be unable to correctly pronounce certain words. Once I spent a good five minutes trying to pronounce Roi René correctly, to the supreme amusement of my host family. But I think my family actually liked me even more when they could laugh at my French. It’s endearing when someone tries to speak your language and fails miserably.

Photo by Aysha Najjab
Photo courtesy of Aysha Najjab

It’s important to have a good sense of humor if you go to France because as a foreigner you will basically humiliate yourself at least once a week. Or if you’re me, then you’ll embarrass yourself in front of French people on a daily basis just by trying to communicate with them.

Even with all that, I wouldn’t trade my time in France for anything. I learned so much about the world and about myself. If given the chance, I think that everyone should travel and put themselves out of their comfort zones.

Story and photos by Aysha Najjab

Leave a Reply