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Alexa’s Study Abroad Journal: French Films Foster Fluency in French

(photo by: facetsfeatures.blogspot.com – image of famous, iconic French film “A bout de Souffle”)

It’s my first day of French 132 and I want to fall asleep to the sound of my professor’s voice. Or maybe that’s because it’s 7:40 p.m. and I’ve never taken a night class before. But time aside, our actual first class was supposed to be on Tuesday evening. Thanks to Winter Storm Janus’s impending doom that didn’t happen and I got to Duolingo my night away. Before any of us could address her as Madame Portier, she insisted that we call her Francesca (the Americanized version of Françoise). I always find it a little unsettling when a professor prefers to be addressed on a first-name basis, but here we are. With a riveting round of “Bonsoir, je m’appelle…” out of the way, we dove right into Francesca’s doctoral thesis topic: jazz in French film. Well, sort of. She mentioned it, receiving a chorus of “ooahs” and perky, first-day smiles.

Most of us were struggling to keep up with her perfect accent. I tried to remind myself that this was nothing new, nothing new. I stopped myself from mentally translating her French into English and, instead, let the words flow in their native form. My sleepiness aside, I think it worked. I always knew generally if not exactly what she was saying. I even answered a few questions. She then asked us to fill out a small survey about our interests outside of school. I was a little embarrassed to realize I’ve only seen three French films: Amélie, Le scaphandre et le papillon, et Le fantôme de l’opéra. The class compiled a list of at least 25 titles, which I hastily copied down in my notebook. The apparently popular and/or interesting ones I’ve yet to watch include: Léon, Delicatessen (“très bizarre!” she warned), et Le voyage dans la lune.

To my delight, she kicked things off by giving us a taste of French culture. Not literally (though I wouldn’t have minded un petit croissant avec un café between inevitable, très impoli yawns). We began the second hour of class by dabbling in the evolution of film. I was immediately excited about the change of pace. No grammar? No tedious vocabulary words thrown up on the chalkboard? What was this heaven? We began by comparing a short documentary from the 1890s (L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat) with a short comedy sketch from the same era (L’Arroseur arrosé). Then, we met Georges Méliès. His work was bizarre, quirky, and completely amazing — for the 1900s. He was one of the first filmmakers to use special effects, like multiple exposures and hand-painted color. A lot of it was experimental. A lot of us were laughing. Maybe I’m trop sérieuse, but I was in awe. Francesca joked about how we probably couldn’t wait to go home and download the entire movie from the internet, right? But that’s exactly what I plan to do with my Friday night. All good things must come to an end, I suppose. She closed class by telling us that Janus hasn’t snowed in our syllabus. Our first composition is due in class on Thursday. Apparently it will be a short one, though.

So, here’s what I’ve learned so far:

1. Get more sleep on Wednesday night, because Thursday is my longest day (three classes plus working on The Daily Targum, our campus newspaper).

2. Eat dinner immediately before class, or at least bring some almonds, or something.

3. Finish watching Le voyage dans la lune, and about a dozen other French masterpieces.


I think that’s it. Happy spring semester!



Alexa Wybraniec

Alexa studies journalism, media and French at Rutgers University. She is abroad at Sciences Po for her third year of college. Check back every other Monday for a new post and connect on Twitter.


Alexa’s Study Abroad Journal: Back to (French) Class

(photo courtesy of carlxonline.com)
Slump time. It’s the opposite of crunch time. Basically, I’m stuck between two polar axes and I don’t know what to do with this little bit of time. Spring semester starts tomorrow. That means French, French and more French. But it also means more distractions, other classes, work, meetings, applications, yadda yadda.
Whenever I have these little snippets of time, I play Duolingo. If you don’t know what that is, and you’re trying to learn a language (at any skill level), you’re doing it wrong. Duolingo is a free crowdsourced text translation platform. Essentially, players help run the site by playing. And I’m not kidding when I tell you it’s fun, easy, and comes in an iOS (and Android!) app. In fact, Apple chose it as its 2013 iPhone App of the Year.
You start with the basics and work your way up a skill tree. There’s a vocabulary section to practice learned words, of which Duolingo keeps track. According to my account, I know 1220 French words. And counting.
The gamification comes in with lingots (“ling-guhts”), which are little red jewels you win when you 1. level up, 2. finish a new skill, 3. finish a lesson with full hearts, 4. complete a 10 day streak, and 5. invite a friend who accepts the challenge. I like the social media aspect of Duolingo, which I’ve linked to my Facebook account. Whenever I slip up, one of my friends will call me out on it, whether in real life or online. But usually I’m diligent. There is a virtual store in Duolingo-land, and I cashed in on a double or nothing wager about a week ago. If, by the end of the week, I’ve conscientiously logged on and practiced my French at least once per day, I will win double the lingots I used to buy the wager. Which is cool. Because then I can be even more of a consumer, in a virtual sort of way. My options include: heart refill, streak freeze, timed practice, double or nothing, French certificate, and bonus skills (Christmas, Idioms, and Flirting).
As a side note, the store in the app version is a bit more limited. There, my options are between “formal attire” or a “champagne tracksuit” in which to outfit Duo, the little bird character and icon of Duolingo. I’d rather spend my lingots on learning for now. But maybe one day, when I have more to just throw around and I start learning another language. I have my eye on German.
It doesn’t end there, though. There’s an “Immersion” section of the site, which (you guessed it) allows you to more fully immerse yourself in your language of choice (which, by the way, are English, French, Spanish, German, Italian, and Portuguese). This is a place for more advanced learners to read, mouse over (to learn keywords), and eventually translate real Wikipedia articles written in another language. In the “Discussion” section, users can talk amongst themselves, airing their grievances and sharing their ideas. Again, the social aspect of the site is essential.
As I mentioned earlier, though, Duolingo is data-driven. It’s a lot cooler than Rosetta Stone, so forget what you heard on 90s infomercials. This site learns not only from your translations, but from your mistakes. The system measures which questions you struggle with and the patterns of your mistakes. All the better to teach you with!
I just really love the idea of Duolingo. It’s really revolutionary. And I’ve never been so motivated to become fluent in French, which is quite the statement for a girl who never thought she’d make it out of AP French alive.
P.S. Professors at City University in New York and the University of South Carolina found that 34 hours of Duolingo-ing may yield the reading and writing capabilities of a first-year college semester. I have to believe this is true, because after a summer of Duolingo-ing, my French grade rose from a C (freshman year) to an A (sophomore year).

Alexa Wybraniec

Alexa studies journalism, media and French at Rutgers University. She is abroad at Sciences Po for her third year of college. Check back every other Monday for a new post and connect on Twitter.