How French is Getting me through Le Lockdown

"Knowledge of languages is the doorway to wisdom."

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This is a guest post by Y.A. contributor Sydney, an avid traveler who has studied French since high school and practiced it everywhere from France to Morocco to Canada and, more recently, used learning a language during lockdown to keep her sanity during COVID 19. 

Many people are taking on a variety of pastimes these days. It helps to prevent them from going crazy during this “stay-at-home-until-further-notice” period. Maybe you’re reading books you don’t usually have time for, cooking new recipes, or perhaps learning a new language (or returning to one you’ve already studied).

Stuck in the Greater Seattle Area with my parents and brother in our family home, but far from my Canadian boyfriend, the lockdown has been a mix of paradoxes for me. I’ve enjoyed the flexibility and freedom of working from home but miss my coworkers and feel as though life is on hold indefinitely. I’d been working on moving abroad to either Luxembourg or Montréal later this year, but both look less and less likely the longer the U.S. continues to struggle with its COVID response.

learning a language during lockdown

All of this uncertainty has not been great for my mental health. I decided to dig into my French studies actively. I was pleasantly surprised by the mental and emotional benefits. It’s been a friendly, productive lockdown activity. However, what I wasn’t expecting was how much the daily practice would help me maintain my sanity. Learning a language during lockdown is fantastic.

Research shows that learning a new language has many benefits for your brain. While it’s never easy (French has about three exceptions for every rule, and most of the time you only pronounce half the word), it is keeping me mentally and emotionally in check during this difficult time.

Here are five reasons how learning a language during lockdown is helping me survive this wild lockdown ride. 

learning a language during lockdown

1. Learning French gives me a goal to work toward

While I love a good Netflix binge or fall into an internet rabbit hole, I think we can all agree it’s not exactly productive nor great for mental health (especially these days!). I do better with clear objectives (i.e., Journal one page a day) rather than vague goals I hope to achieve in the future (i.e., Write more! Read more! Become fluent in 3 new languages!).

Also, science says goal-oriented people are more successful. So if you want to improve your foreign language skills, it would help to have a clear plan.

While I studied French all through high school and college, then traveled, volunteered, and aupair-ed throughout Francophone Europe and Morocco post-grad, it’s not as easy to maintain my skills back here in the very monolingual USA. I’ve done my best, practiced a bit each day, obtained a B2 score last fall on the Test de français international. This recently granted me admission to graduate school in Luxembourg. It also offered me a job offer in Montréal (my currently across-a-closed-border boyfriend’s hometown).

As the pandemic worsened here in the U.S. and closed borders make either option less and less likely…my morale was falling hard and fast. I woke up one day and decided this was no way to live life, nor get through le lockdown, and decided to set specific goals to increase my proficiency for when I am finally able to move abroad. Learning a language during lockdown is helping a lot.

learning a language during lockdown

My personal “language practice recipe” has included;

  • Listen to a podcast (personal favorites are Grand Reportage, Affaires étrangères, and Coffee Break French). Watch an episode of Netflix (lately I’ve been loving Plan Coeur and Call My Agent) in French every day (Netflix binges are “productive” if they’re for language practice! Nice loophole, huh?)
  • Write one page of French in my “quarantine journal” every other day. I set a goal of writing every day to have a personal record of what will become a historic time. The entries vary from simple recounts of my day to musings on the state of the world, my life, and how the two intertwine, to rants about how unfair life is. Riveting stuff, let me tell you. My French entries are sometimes similar-but-different versions of English ones (if I’m feeling lazy), and sometimes they take on a life of their own, and I go on a completely different tangent. Almost like I’m a different person while writing French (more on that in a minute).
  • Read a French book every week/every other depending on length. 
  • Recent Favorites include:
    • L’appartement Oublié by Michelle Gable (A must for any French language learner – an antique appraiser, romance, and a forgotten Parisien apartment? Yes please!)
    • Alger Ville Blanche by Régine Deforges (I’m a sucker for anything historical fiction and Deforges, but his books about Léa and François speak to my soul. Want to start at the beginning of their story? Check out La Bicyclette Bleue).
    • Petit Pays by Gaël Faye (a heartwrenching story about the Burundian Civil War)
  • Up Next:
    • Peau Noire, Masques Blancs by Franz Fanon
    • The recent protests and spotlight on police brutality and racism in my home country have me (and I’m sure many of you) wondering, “but what can I do?” I think where all of us White and Non-Black POCs can start with basic education. Over the past few weeks, I’ve picked up a few books on institutional racism and what it means to be black in America and was thrilled when I came across Fanon’s text. It allows me to practice French while educating myself on racism from an international perspective. I urge all language learners to seek out diverse voices, and if your ability is high enough, try reading a foreign language book about this critical and vital topic.

Setting these goals gives me clear activities to do once I’ve finished work during the day. Making it less likely that I’ll just veg out on the couch and drink wine (not a wrong choice, but doing this every day while stuck at home would get old and depressing).

learning a language during lockdown

Plus, you’ll come out of quarantine with a VERY useful new skill and bragging rights, while your friends and colleagues became moderately decent at new hobbies. Oh, you learned to knit? You made sourdough? 

I learned how to flirt with Parisian waiters in their language (okay jk I have a cute French-speaking partner already…more on that in a bit), but you get the point. 

With all of this uncertainty of doom and gloom, we must create meaning in our days. Working toward any goal is very important for your mental health; for some people, that’s cooking or crafts, for me, it’s practicing French. Whatever you’re choosing, as long as you have something with a clear product at the end (bread loaf, hat, flirting skills), you’ll feel much more accomplished at the end of all this, and in the meantime, have a much healthier headspace.

learning a language during lockdown

2. Language learning provides escapism when we can’t travel

I know we’re amid a pandemic with new information coming out daily, but damn. I don’t want reminders. Every. Five. Minutes.

I work in international education with students from around the world. My days consist of discussions about the situation, the global fallout, how it’s impacting our students, and various doomsday scenarios. During my COVID-heavy workday, I’m continually receiving news notifications (I KNOW I should turn them off). Coronavirus stories dominate the background because my family INSISTS on watching the news every day.

At some point, we all need a break from the chaos, and while I love running and hiking, my mind is still able to wander during these activities. Thus I continue to play the “what if” and “worst-case” game – not a fun time let me tell you!

learning a language during lockdown

I’m sure I’m not alone in needing a break. Practicing French ensures my mind is occupied with something else for at least 30-60 minutes a day. I highly recommend it. It’s an excellent stand-in for the escapism travel usually provides from life, since none of us are going very far, anytime soon.

You can watch a foreign film and escape to your favorite city, or explore one you’ve meant to get to. Or perhaps daydream about lavender fields in Provence and bistros in Paris while conjugating verbs. Anything is better than reading another article about a new set of COVID symptoms or the daily death count in your area.

Since we can’t travel right now, language learning is a great way to prepare for when borders reopen, and travel is once again on the agenda.

learning a language during lockdown

3. I can pretend to be someone else for a little while

There have been studies done that show you (to a certain extent) develop another personality while learning and speaking another language. Maybe you’re more eloquent in a foreign language or talk with your hands more.

Currently, I’m pretending French me exists in a parallel universe where there is no pandemic, and my biggest issue is what to have for dessert tonight and when the hell to use le subjonctif.

I mentioned above how my French journal entries often take on a life of their own. It’s as if I’m expressing completely different thoughts than I would in English. I’m not sure exactly why. Perhaps since we’re forced to think differently in another language (new vocab and grammar rules), our reflections also change. Often when learning a language, you’ll become frustrated because there won’t be an “exact” translation of what you’re trying to say, it forces you to think and express yourself differently. This often leads to a few epiphanies and new world views in my experience.

4. It keeps me dreaming of past and future travel.

When I first started learning French back in high school, it was just a random elective to fulfill graduation requirements. However, at some point during University and after I realized the power of learning other languages.

And while we’re all stuck at home (Seattle for me) and unable to travel, my daily French practice allows me to reminisce on some of my favorite travel memories. Every day I’m transported to happier times, such as the first time I ever visited France on a trip with my dad or at that time I had to give a police statement in French.

Now learning a language during lockdown keeps my travel dreams alive.

learning a language during lockdown

Reflecting on past trips is something we often don’t have time to do. We get back from a trip, show our friends a few photos, are jetlagged for a few days, and then it gets filed in the back of our brain. We often don’t actively think about how it affected us or impacted our life, just chalking travel up to escapism or “a great time,” when reminiscing is so powerful. It can inspire us to take another trip, move abroad, or just remind ourselves anything is possible.

It also reminds me that we won’t be stuck at home forever, and I can still plan trips for the future. Lately, I’ve been daydreaming of finally visiting my boyfriend’s home province of Québec, road tripping through Southwestern France, and exploring Tunisia.

learning a language during lockdown

5. Allows my boyfriend & I privacy

If you haven’t figured it out by my comment above, I have a boyfriend. And no, it’s not the picture above. That’s my Dad, weirdos!

Unfortunately, we are currently separated by a closed border (international long-distance relationships, amirite?). We are also living in houses packed with people. I’m with my family in Seattle. He’s with roommates in Vancouver. I think we can all agree that no matter how much we love the people we’re stuck at home with, eventually, they’re going to drive you crazy.

Sometimes you just don’t want to be overheard, or you want to escape into a different reality. Learning a language during lockdown helps with this.

learning a language during lockdown

So naturally, when we chat, we want to rant about our inhabitants. Sometimes just be assured no one eavesdropping; having another language to do it ensures us some privacy. French is the first language for him, and I’m fluent enough where we can have conversations, even if sometimes it leads to (usually silly) arguments and misunderstandings.

Him: “What are you saying?”

Me: *repeats*

Him:“Oh you mean…”

OKAY my pronunciation is not always spot on you know what I’m saying!

Also Him: “That’s not a word.”

Me: “YES IT IS! You just don’t know it because you’re from Québec and speak weird French sometimes!”

Him:*Google translates* “Oh I guess you’re right.”

Me: “I KNOW I AM!!” I guess my French alter-ego likes all-caps?

learning a language during lockdown

To be fair, this often happens to us while conversing in English as well. Perhaps it’s because I’m American and he’s Canadian. Or maybe it’s because I’m from the West Coast and he’s from the East. It’s probably a mix of both.

I knew learning another language would be useful, whether in my travels or with landing a job. I’d never dreamed it would help me cope during a global catastrophe. I suppose it’s just another reason everyone should try and learn a language in their lifetime!

At the beginning of lockdown, daily French practice was more about skill maintenance. It helped to keep my mind occupied during a tumultuous time. As the months have continued to pass, it’s become more about hope. I hope my plans to move abroad will eventually happen. I hope that we will travel again. I dream that we’ll all come out of this a little more understanding of each other.

How about you? Are you up for learning a language during lockdown? Have you used lockdown to learn a new language or pick up a new hobby? How is it helping you cope?

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