Imagine arriving to a place you’ll be living in for the next several weeks, and signing a pledge that prohibits you from speaking, reading and writing in any language other than the one that does not come naturally to you.
For 24 hours a day, you have to think — really hard — before forming a sentence; the organic fluidity of a conversation is constantly interrupted by sifting through pocket dictionaries, and your day-to-day interactions depend on a constant game of charades and nonverbal cues. If you’re caught speaking in any other language, or browsing through your phone without changing your language settings, you’re given a warning; by the third strike, you’re expelled.
This scenario may excite you if you’re the type of person who likes to be constantly challenged. But if you’re anything like me, not being able to communicate verbally is crippling.
If you’re anything like me, not being able to communicate verbally is crippling.
So how exactly did I find myself on a plane heading to Université Sainte-Anne (Nova Scotia) on a French immersion program last spring? Well, friends, as it turns out, taking six credits in a language other than English is a degree requirement*— one that I always felt I had time for, but was still surprised to encounter as a roadblock when I began planning my course schedule for my last few semesters. I realized at this time that taking both credits during the spring and summer sessions was the only viable option I had left (unless I wanted to take another year of school, which wasn’t the most appealing alternative), and so the panic ensued.
Over the years, a few close friends of mine had gotten their language credits through the Explore Program — a five-week intensive French-immersion bursary program that is offered to people with any skill level in French. The bursary is valued at $2,200 — it covers tuition fees for the course, meals and accommodation. The way I saw it, I could stay in Edmonton, pay for my spring tuition out of pocket, and spend the next five weeks staring out the window wishing I were outside OR I could travel to another part of the country, get my language credits, and be fed/housed (essentially) for free. For obvious reasons, I chose the latter.
The application process took a grand total of 15 to 30 minutes. Once I created an account with Explore, I was able to select my preferences (yes, I wanted university credits; yes, I wanted to live on-campus, etc.), and the search engine then matched me with universities across Canada that met my needs. Once I submitted all my supporting documents, I waited for the results of the auto-generated lottery that randomly pairs each applicant with one of their top three university choices. By March, I found out that I was an Explore bursary recipient at Université Sainte-Anne, a campus located in a small town called Church Point just three hours south of Halifax, Nova Scotia.
I quickly learned that there is no such thing as “downtime” or “boredom” in Explore.
I still remember arriving at Sainte-Anne a day before the spring session started and thinking to myself, How will I survive this place? The entirety of the campus could probably fit into one quadrant of the U of A, and the closest Tim Horton’s was about a 30-minute drive away. Basically, there was no civilization as I knew it in walking proximity; life in Sainte-Anne was confined to our campus parameters, and as someone who has always lived in major cities, this small town gave me big fears of being bored and lonely.
However, I quickly learned that there is no such thing as “downtime” or “boredom” in Explore. As soon as we signed our pledges to speak/think/dream in French, we took our placement exams the very next morning to determine which level we were in so that our classes could match our skill level. I was assigned as a “Debutante II” or Beginner 2. Classes were usually full school days, the first half being your formal classroom learning, followed by a theatrical information session (my favourite!) to get you excited about the day’s activities, a lunch break, and finally, your atelier (or option class). Since I depended so heavily on charades to communicate, I decided to go for theatre — and acting in French was one of the most challenging roles I have ever gotten.
Once classes were done for the day, there were usually a series of diverse activities planned — anything from intramurals and competitive board games to bonfires and excursions. There was always something going on. On the weekends, there were themed soirées (parties) and, to this day, I don’t think any party has lived up to the hype of Sainte-Anne’s.
While I can attest to the fact that the five weeks were a constant mental workout, and that I went to bed every night completely exhausted, the strict nature of the immersion program was absolutely necessary to learn, and learn quickly. By week five, I could hold conversations without pausing, and was even dreaming in French. Instead of being glued to my phone, I learned to leave it in my room for hours at a time without feeling the need to stay connected via social media. For the first time since I could remember, I was actively present and involved with my rate of learning, and speaking French to survive social isolation became my catalyst to learn and appreciate the language.
By week five, I could hold conversations without pausing, and was even dreaming in French.
It has been eight months since I completed Explore, but I still find myself looking through pictures and videos of walking to the beach, designing a makeshift Christmas tree out of duct tape for our “fake Christmas,” the nap parties, and most importantly, the friendships I made that keep my heart full even today.
For anybody who is curious about learning French, or seeing a new part of Canada, or just simply in need of a change, I strongly encourage you to apply for Explore. It’s easy to take something as basic as language for granted until you’re put in a situation where suddenly vocabulary is not as accessible to you as it used to be.
Explore showed me how much of language shaped my own personality; I couldn’t be funny or sarcastic in the ways I was accustomed to, but I was still able to bond with people from all over the country and develop long-lasting relationships without ever having spoken to them in English. This showed me that the essence of who you are can be spoken without your native tongue.
Explore, for me, was a magical and surreal experience, unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. I would do it all over again in a heartbeat if I could.
*Editor’s Note: There are changes coming to the Faculty of Arts BA degree, which will take effect in fall 2018. Please visit our BA Renewal website for more information.
Student Voices is a WOA blog feature that presents the experiences and viewpoints of current Arts students. Through their posts, you’ll experience the creativity and passion of our students as they present glimpses into student life. The views and opinions expressed within these posts are solely those of the authors.