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French Immersion Trip: ‘I Surprised Myself’

The students in Dr. Karen Quandt’s FRE 202 (French Language and Francophone Culture) and (Introduction to French Literature) classes spent Spring Break fully immersed in French language and culture. Mostly in Paris, the students visited multiple cultural sites each day, including, museums, archives, and took a day trip to Normandy.

Throughout the week, the tours were in French and students were expected to interact in restaurants, on the street, or with others by using the local language.

“I surprised myself by being able to really understand everything people were saying,” said Jake Weber ’25, a rhetoric and French major from Fishers, Indiana. “I won't say it was easy, but I was able to understand and live like a native speaker for that week.”

Classmate Neal Laymon ’25 felt similarly. While the French taught in the classroom is more formal, he found the use of colloquialisms outside the classroom to be eye-opening. 

The French 202/302 students at the Eiffel Tower.“I enjoyed that challenge,” Laymon explained. “The way people phrase sentences or use slang is a test of fluency. The only way to do that is just to be there.”

Quandt appreciated how the students in the two different course levels interacted with each other. When the students had questions or experienced something new within the language, they could ask questions of each other and work through solutions together.

“It was really beneficial to everyone,” she said.” 

She was also heartened by the students’ willingness to translate for non-French speakers like Dean of the College Todd McDorman, who accompanied the students on the trip. Translating — which includes listening to the language, thinking the idea through, and sharing that in another language — indicates a certain level of comfort and expertise.

“That was fantastic to see,” Quandt said. “It was striking, meaningful, and one of the best parts of the trip. It worked out really well for this group.”

Quandt’s goals thematically in country were to explore narratives of heroism. From Napoleon to the present, there are complicated narratives in French history, from the monuments he left behind to the Franco-Prussian War to the larger conflicts of the early 20th Century. 

The days were set up with both structure and free time to explore. Students were responsible for presenting on site at a variety of monuments and museums. From the Arc de Triomphe (Napoléon’s most visible and enduring architectural legacy), to the Sacré Cœur basilica (constructed as a beacon of perseverance after the devastation of the Franco-Prussian war), to the Musée de l’Armée (the national military museum of France), their presentations turned familiar tourist spots to sites of living and complicated French history.

Particularly moving and sobering were visits in Paris to the Mémorial de la Shoah (Holocaust Memorial), the Mémorial des martyrs de la déportation (Memorial of the Martyrs of the Deportation) and Mont-Valérien (the execution site of hundreds of Resistance fighters), where students and faculty grappled with the round-up and mass murder of thousands of Jews living in France. At the Musée de la résistance nationale (Museum of National Resistance), as well as the new Musée de la libération de Paris (Museum of the Liberation of Paris), the group considered archival documents and artifacts that helped them absorb the day-to-day reality of living under Nazi occupation and the dangerous risks undertaken, not only by well-known figures in history books, but by everyday people.

“It's hard to face the past a lot of times,” said Quandt. “I wanted to let some of those complex narratives surface, Students pictured near the Arc de Triomphe.topics that tend to not be talked about so much. World War II didn't come out of nowhere. There is a long history behind it of conquest and empire.” 

Both Weber and Laymon felt like their immersion experience in France strengthened connections to other coursework at Wabash.

For Weber, it was RHE 370, Rhetoric in the Field.

“We talked about being in the space that you're studying, to live the experience before you start analyzing it,” he said. “I really appreciated being able to connect this experience in Paris with that rhetoric course. It made me notice little things like the difference in tone between a sign in French and English translation right next to it. I might not have noticed that if I wasn't taking a course like that.”

Laymon, a history major from Logansport, Indiana, has the goal of becoming a professor.

“To know that I've seen the artifacts, I feel a connection to the place and understand the benefits of getting out of the United States and experiencing different cultures. It’s a lifelong connection you make.”

The students returned to campus with greater confidence in their ability to communicate in another language.

“I was a little nervous going to France,” Laymon said, “but I quickly learned I'm much better in my ability to understand people. I definitely gained more confidence in my own comprehension.”