In Aix, Emerson Students Learn Lessons of Language, Culture

I’ve been reading the reflective essays of the Emerson students I took to Aix this May.IMG_5801

Some arrived worried about having to speak a language they didn’t know well. Others worried about what might await them living in a foreign household. A few even worried about the unfamiliarity of French food (never my problem).

Most ended up loving the food. And as for the barriers of language, they, too, weren’t insurmountable. (“Even with the huge language barrier, which was scary, we were able to still communicate and laugh,” wrote one.)

Still, reading these essays, I really appreciated their candor, something I’ve learned over the years is typical of Emerson College’s energetic and creative students. And I appreciated the students whom I was lucky enough to recruit for my first course in Intercultural Communication.

To be honest, I had my own share of fears in the days before flying to France. Sure, I was excited. But in three decades of college teaching, I’ve never spent 14 consecutive days — all day — with a class.  Nowhere close. Usually teaching involves a few hours of showtime.  Those “performances” sometimes flop. But then it’s easy enough to retreat home for dinner and a little TLC from Kathy.

So, I wondered. What would it be like, an ocean away from home, to lead 10 students who, for the most part, I barely knew? What if they didn’t share my enthusiasm for Aix, for France, for our wonderful language-school partner? What if, in fact, they hated the place or the experience? What then?

Would they show up regularly for class or wander off on their own in a land where, mind you, if there is a drinking age it’s a lot younger than 21? Would they respect the people and culture in which they were living? Would they work together as a group?  Would they like the families with which they stayed and their teachers?  Would they feel as if the course and cost were worth it?

For about week before I left, I’d awaken at about 5 a.m. and stare at the ceiling a lot, asking myself just that.

I should have known better. Kathy and I had studied more than once at IS-Aix. It’s a remarkable school, where laughter and a love of language bridge age and cultural difference, and where a nimble corps of highly professional teachers somehow bridges the steady churn of students, many of whom come and go every two weeks.

The school and our terrific pair of teachers quickly grounded my group.

Wrote one in the school’s final evaluation: “Amazing teachers! Learned a lot and I had fun while learning. Great class structure and organization.”

Wrote another to me: “It was an unbelievably rich experience learning from such talented and kind people.  They were tough on us and expected us to know a lot, but I think that is no different than the standards set in any great institution.”

If classes at IS gave students a rich routine, evenings with families and in the city gave them some of their fondest memories.  Reading them,  I recalled my own experience living with an Austrian family for a summer nearly half a century ago. There’s just no better way to learn about a culture than through a “homestay.”

“Being in a situation where I had to speak French almost all day forced me to think in French and it definitely became easier to speak as the days went by,” one student wrote. “In addition, the classes at I.S. helped fill in the blanks with grammar and structure, which is harder to pick up just in conversation.”

The conversations with his host family helped this student take a harder look at the empty calories of Americans’ diets. “As we talked about the poor quality of American food,” he continued.  “They would show me the organic and natural foods in their house, including vegetables from their garden.”

He and several other student commented on how much more environmentally conscious the French were. Author Bill Bryson once had me in stitches reading an essay on Europe’s vaunted timer lights, which can leave one standing in a pitch black bathroom in mid-pee or bumping into walls halfway down the hallway at night.  I read it years before the breakneck speed of climate change made me fully aware of why such measures matter.

Similar energy-efficient lights caught more than one student’s attention, too.

“On my first day when I checked into the hotel my first impression of it was that it was run-down or low-quality, due to most of the lights not being on,” one student wrote. “However, I didn’t realize that the hotel had automatic lights in the hallways that only turned on when there was someone in them. There were also timed lights in the halls of the apartment I stayed at for the rest of the trip. In the water closets, almost all of the toilets had two flushers (you can probably guess why).”

Wrote another: “The French love to conserve. Meanwhile, [we] Americans, are just awful at that. My host mom showed me the battery light system once at night so that if I had to use the bathroom, I wouldn’t run into anything.”

And yes, as students tend to do, some had their best learning moments while out on the town.

“My favorite moments in France were the times I held conversations with locals,” one student wrote. “We met a whole group of friends at a restaurant and we all went out to bars a couple of nights. Most of them spoke English fairly well, but wanted to practice so they spoke English to us and we spoke in French back. It was a really fun way to help each other with pronunciation, vocabulary, verb tenses and expressions.”

Me? I learned, too. Perhaps my biggest lessons is that I should have tried to do something like this years ago and may have missed my calling as a camp counselor.  Even after decades of teaching, I still feed off the energy of students. And on a trip like this that energy felt like it was turned on around the clock.

Back  home, I quickly caught a cold and needed nearly two weeks to catch up on lost sleep.

So was it worthwhile? Absolutely.

Not every group of students I’ve taught calls me “Papa Jerry.”  I kind of like it.




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