During my academic exchange abroad in Geneva, Switzerland, I had to take an oral exam for one of my courses. The course dealt with significant historical events and how they shaped literature. At the time of the exam, we would all get an extract of a text in medieval French. One hour would be allotted to the each of us to read the text and make notes. Then, we would each have a 30-minute session with the professor telling him how the extract relates to the historic events studied and other literary extracts read in class. The professor assured us that it wasn’t the level of our spoken French that interested him but whether or not we could comment on the text. Sounds like an easy exam, right?
Long story short, I botched it.
I understood the text but I didn’t know how to analyze it. I realized that, up until that point, all my studying revolved around memorizing and regurgitating information and not on learning how to think critically. When I opened my mouth to speak, no words came. I had no idea how to express anything in formal French during the exam. That’s when it hit me: my French was terrible.
University of Geneva, Bastion Building. My campus while on exchange in Geneva. I always thought the pyramid trees were an interesting horticultural design.
The professor was nice about it and I passed with a rather generous mark at the end. To save the exam, he and his assistant would ask me questions to lead me through the text and teach me how to make connections between this extract and other pieces studied in the course. I was embarrassed and was tearing up afterwards. What little pride I had left went up in smoke.
The experience was hard. More than 10 years of learning a language and I couldn’t handle a speaking test? Shameful. I wanted to hide away in a hole and call it quits after six months of living abroad. I thought to myself What the heck am I doing here? Physically, I was fine. Mentally, I was torn.
While sobbing in bed that night and doing some introspection, I realized the problem: I had a theoretical knowledge of the language but not enough practice. Language courses focus on perfect grammar and syntax (which not even native speakers have), fill-in-the-blanks exercises (which help with conjugation but not exactly good sentence building), and reading exercises (that only focus on the written form of the language). All in all, I had a perfect theoretical foundation of French but using it in a real, fluid, spontaneous Francophone setting made me a feel like a kindergartner learning the alphabet for the first time.
Bastion Park right in front of the campus. Charming park that was great for taking breaks in between classes.
I put things into perspective. Though this experience hurt, it eventually became a blip on the radar (compared to my other experience of getting lost in Venice in the middle of the night with no place to stay).
So I wasn’t a lost cause, I just needed to improve, and I did. I somehow managed to do another three oral exams in French and pass with relatively good grades. Ironically, it was the English courses afterwards that I didn’t do as well in.
The Jet D’eau of Geneva. Years ago a pipe was being built underneath the lake and in order to release pressure a hole was drilled through it creating a sort of high jet. Now it’s on permanently as a sort of local icon.
Confucius’ saying floated through my mind: “There are three ways in which we gain wisdom. One: by reflection, which is the noblest. Two: by imitation, which is the easiest, and three: by experience, which is the bitterest.” It was a bitter experience, no question about that.
But the wisdom that comes afterwards, well, let’s just say it was worth the experience.