Summer Spotlight: Immersion Learning in France

Liza Strong ’24 in Features | September 9, 2022

Immersing yourself in a different culture teaches you more about a language than any four-walled classroom ever could. This past summer, I had the opportunity to travel to France with the School Year Abroad (SYA) program for five weeks. When an SYA representative came to my French class last year to discuss the idea of living abroad with a host family, I knew it was something I was interested in because I enjoy speaking French and wanted to learn more about French culture. There were about 35 students in my group, some of whom also go to Lawrenceville, ranging in age from ages 15 to 18. During the program, I lived with the Steimetz Family, who had never hosted anyone from the U.S. before. At the beginning, I was nervous to live with an unfamiliar family who did not speak English. I soon realized that I had nothing to worry about, because my family was welcoming, caring, and generous. I had three host siblings: two girls ages five and 11 and a 14-year-old boy. 

On my first night, I was faced with my first challenge as a foreign exchange student: I was having dinner with the entire family, but I could barely understand their conversation. I was so focused on deciphering their French that I ended up getting a headache. Whenever they posed a question that I couldn’t understand, I would just answer “oui.” Trying to understand my youngest host sibling was especially challenging because she spoke so quickly, and her sentences didn’t align with any of the grammar “rules” I had learned in class. French spoken casually felt like a different language altogether. 

Over the following few weeks, my language comprehension skills steadily improved. I spent weekday mornings studying French language and culture at the SYA school in the city of Rennes, Brittany. In the afternoon, we would do various immersion activities, from museum visits to kayaking on lakes. Some days, our host siblings could also come to the activities with us. One afternoon, my host brother came ziplining with us, and my friends on the trip loved meeting him. The more time we spent together, the closer our SYA group grew.

During the evenings, I helped make dinner, watched French TV shows, and spent time with my host siblings biking around the neighborhood and playing board games. Over weekends, my host family and I would go to the beach or visit their relatives in the south of Brittany. My host family lived in the village of Châteaugiron, which is a 30 minute drive from Rennes, so I’d have to take two buses and the metro every morning and afternoon to get to school. When I first started taking the bus and metro, I was very confused, as I didn’t have much experience taking public transportation alone in the U.S., let alone in a foreign country. On the bus ride back home on my first day, I actually missed my stop, and my host family had to search for me two towns over. With time, however, traveling to and from the Steimetz’s house became much easier, and I was able to navigate my way home regardless of my starting location. Speaking with my host family significantly improved my French, and the more I spoke, the less I had to think about translating everything I heard into English. By the final week, I was able to comfortably explain complicated scenarios to my host family, something I could never have done with my traditional French education. 

I spent the last five days of the SYA Summer Program in Paris, where we visited the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, and Musée D’Orsay. Before we traveled to Paris, everyone said goodbye to their respective host families. I was sad to say goodbye to the Steimetzs but was so grateful for everything they taught me, and I will forever cherish my memories with them. 

In France, I discovered the importance of learning about new cultures and how rewarding taking risks can be. Living in France elevated my perception of the country’s language and allowed me to cultivate my respect for different cultures. The entire SYA group became so close over the course of the five weeks, and I’m so thankful to have had this experience and to have met all of the amazing people that I did!