Overcoming the Language Barrier

One major part of the study abroad program is that each student stays with a host family for the entirety of the trip. In an effort to fully emerge us into French culture, the family kind of adopts us into their daily life and most importantly, they only talk to us in French. In theory, this seems like a very good idea as it provides us with the best possible way of improving our French, as we are constantly around the language and are forced to use it to communicate. However, it also has an unintended side effect by the way that it clearly delineates the presence of a language barrier, an obstacle I had never considered until I arrived here. Now, it is true that I do speak some French, but it’s more like what I like to refer to as “baby French”. And trust me, I had no misguided beliefs that I was going to arrive here and just start spurting perfect French. It takes a lot of effort for me to speak French conversationally, especially in the beginning. I had to think about everything I wanted to say very carefully. Then there is the added struggle of comprehending what is being said to me. It’s not too bad in a one-on-one conversation, but I’ve been staying with a family of seven. So every dinner or breakfast is kind of like a marathon for me as I try to keep up with everything that is being said, as both the parents and the children talk at full speed over each other.

I think this was such a big shift for me because I’ve always been able to articulate exactly what I want to say so that it is perceived and understood in the way that I want it to come across (at least to a certain extent). But, in French, I can’t do that. Furthermore, the way I communicate is a direct illustration of my personality. I’m a little sarcastic and silly all at the same time, all of which I communicate through my choice of words and tone. But again, in French, I can’t communicate that with my words. Realizing this made me feel as though my host family would never really get to know me and that inversely, I would never fully understand them. I had never fully understood the concept of a language barrier until that moment. Language can serve as a bridge that connects people or it can serve as a wall that isolates you. However, it wasn’t the source of the isolation, but only the tool used by it to enhance something that was already present. As with most emotions, the sense of isolation I felt came from the inside, created and cultivated by me.

Looking back on the first two weeks that I was in Lyon, when I felt this sense of isolation the most intensely, I can easily see how my host family continually tried to connect with me and include me in their family. They were kind as well as attentive and during group discussions, like the ones that would occur at dinner, they would slow down to make sure that I could understand, ask me questions so that I could join the conversation, and patiently wait as I tried to articulate my idea. My obstacle wasn’t the language or even being intimidated by the rapid French of my host family, it was me. I needed to be patient with myself, allow myself to make mistakes, and most importantly, to keep trying. In the end, when I look back on my trip, my host family was probably one of the best parts. I will be forever happy that they decided to adopt me into their home and that I put out the effort to make a connection with them, instead of allowing the language barrier to form a wall in between us.

Hannah-Kaye Carter is a junior at the University of Missouri- Kansas City double majoring in chemistry and psychology with minors in French and biology. She is spending her summer abroad with the Faculty-Led UMKC French Language Summer in Lyon, France. Hannah-Kaye was born in Kingston, Jamaica, where she lived until she immigrated to the United States at 9 years old. Currently, Hannah-Kaye is a member of the UMKC Pre-Med Society and a member of the Educate Organize and Advocate Committee. Additionally, she volunteers at the W.E.B. Dubois Learning Center as an assistant teacher in their subtraction classroom every Saturday morning. Her hope is to someday go to medical school, become a doctor, and eventually become a member of Doctors without Borders.


Student blog entries posted to the Roos Abroad Blog may not reflect the opinions and recommendations of UMKC Study Abroad and International Academic Programs. The blog is intended to give students a forum for free expression of thoughts and experiences abroad in a respectful space.