By Rachel Schwartz
I have visited France almost every summer of my life because my mother does research in Paris each year. She speaks French flawlessly. I used to look on and catch a few phrases as she chatted away with her French friends, but mostly I felt envious of my mom and separated from these people by the language barrier.
Although I had studied French a bit before coming to Harvard-Westlake, it was not until seventh grade that I began to improve.
Each summer, I have come to love the country more and more, but this year my experience was more fulfilling because I had the ability to communicate and understand what went on around me. I felt as though I had slipped into the skin of a true Parisienne.
Speaking French not only acts as a tool for communication, but also opens a window into French culture. Being able to overhear conversations, order my own patisseries and see French films gave me deeper insight into French life.
This summer, I felt I could truly be in France since I no longer needed to translate French commands or requests into English in my head to understand their meaning.
Standing on the bus squished against a bunch of commuters on a hot day, a man whispered to me under his breath “insupportable” (“unbearable”). As I replied with an understanding nod, I realized that because I now understand French, I could masquerade as French and escape the whispers of “tourist” that locals so often murmer.
Gaining greater insight into French culture has helped me look at America differently. I get a chance to see my country through the eyes of a culture that at first glance seems similar, but with closer study, is unique.
For example, this summer I learned that French and American concepts of secularism differ greatly. My patriotic instinct is, of course, to assume that we have the most egalitarian policy.
Unlike in the United States, where separation of church and state is seen as the freedom to practice any religion wherever one chooses, in France, secularism blindly bans all religion from the public sphere. While at first the French policy may seem draconian and inhibiting towards freedom, it reveals that the French see religion as a completely private matter.
Just after finals, I found it difficult to even look at any academic material or to appreciate what I had learned during the year, but spending time abroad this summer reminded me of the importance of studying a foreign language at school.
Language study in high school can help you become bilingual. To fully comprehend another culture, understanding their language is key.