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Living and Studying in the Languedoc Region of Southern France

Article and Photos by Lola Pak

Pont du Gard in Languedoc

Author in front of the spectacular Pont du Gard, a Roman-built aqueduct just outside Nîmes, a town in the Languedoc.

When I first entered college, I never imagined that I would leave with a French degree. In high school, I studied Spanish and knew that I wanted to pursue a foreign language in college. But a language that half my class had studied and everyone else in America was in a frenzy to learn had lost its unique appeal for me. I took French as soon as I got to college for a fresh start and out of curiosity. Since then, I have completely tombée amoureuse (fallen in love) with the language and culture.

French is known to be a complicated language to learn. The nasally accents were alien to my English tongue. The intricate rules identifying when to eliminate the last vowel of a word, and when to add an apostrophe boggle my mind to this day. But the biggest challenge in learning French was the lack of exposure. I live in the Deep South where the Spanish-speaking population is growing daily. Any semblance of French culture is limited to crème brulée for dessert. After a while, I doubted whether French was for me. I was discouraged by working adults who considered French a “useless” language in today’s America. “Take Spanish,” they advised.

But I wasn’t going to give up that easily. I transferred to the University of Georgia in my junior year and found a study abroad program called UGA en France. I decided that I would join this program and become more exposed to French language and culture in order to decide, once and for all, if I was going to continue studying this difficult and relatively unpopular language.

Other factors contributed to the program’s appeal. UGA en France offered courses taught directly by University professors, which eliminated the chaos of transferring credits. The program also took place during the summer from June to August, which meant I could focus solely on the credits for my French major and I wouldn’t fall behind in the courses for my other major in journalism. Getting along with the other 20 students in the program wouldn’t be a problem, as we had our love for UGA football and a desire to perfect the French language in common. But the greatest advantage of all was studying French in a town where no one spoke English.

Arc de Trimphe in Montpellier

The Arc de Triomphe at the end of Rue Foch in Montpellier.

Montpellier is the capital of the Languedoc-Roussillon region of southern France, west of Provence and a four-hour train ride from Barcelona. The town was a healthy mélange of ethnicities, such as Algerian, Moroccan and Martinican; few spoke English. The director of the program had purposely chosen the city to ensure that students would be completely immersed in the language.

Arriving in Montpellier—after a week of sightseeing in Paris— we were individually placed with host families spread throughout the medium-sized town. There was a considerable distance between each house in order to further prevent interaction with familiar faces. The contract drawn up between the host and the hosted was simple: speak only French. My host was Valerie, a lady from Martinique who lived with her two children. I was excited at not only having the opportunity to live in a French household, but to be exposed to the francophone culture of Martinique as well.

�glise St-Roch in Montpellier
The Gothic-era Église St-Roch, named after the patron saint of Montpellier.

As for classes, the first session began the Monday right after our Saturday arrival. We were taught by our campus professors who covered topics such as the culture and literature of southern France. The hours were intense; from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day for three and a half weeks in classes with exams and projects due each week. The instructors had made it clear from the beginning that the program would emphasize the study in study abroad. Even during the weekly excursions which we took to other Languedoc towns—such as Nimes and Aigues-Mortes—we were accompanied by guides who offered historical commentaries. Everything about this program was very unlike the experiences I had heard described by other students, who typically had studied very little and traveled a lot more in other countries.

Aigues-Mortes

The city of Aigues Mortes (“Dead Waters”) with its famous purple ponds for salt evaporation.

Fortunately, the classes and trips were fascinating enough to satisfy the desire for the ultimate study abroad experience. The Languedoc region has a richer history than I had been aware of in my three years of French studies. I learned that the entire southern half of France at one point spoke a completely different language called Occitan. Today, few can speak or understand the language, but some of the older streets in Montpellier are still named in Occitan to commemorate a time when they had a separate identity from the north. The name Languedoc actually means “language of Oc(citan).”

For more leisurely experiences with the local culture, my peers and I headed to the nearby Mediterranean beaches on the weekends. We attended several local events, such as La Fête de la Musique, a music festival, and watched the arrival of the 2007 Tour de France. On other occasions, we split into groups and took day trips to smaller, neighboring towns such as Carcassonne—which is an hour by train. Montpellier is situated equidistantly from Spain and Italy, and many students took advantage of the longer weekends to visit those countries.

Carcassonne
The fortified city of Carcassonne in the distance.

Adjusting to my host home environment took a bit more time. It had suddenly hit me that I was officially on my own. While in Paris, I had spent a majority of the time getting to know my peers, and consequently hardly spoke any French. When Valerie and I met at the train station her rapid-fire French instantly overwhelmed me. I panicked, wondering how I was going to survive the next two months.

When I had the chance to call home after settling in, I expressed frustration with my situation: Despite the hours I would spend with my peers, I still came home each day to my host family. They spoke little English and didn’t understand my shyness at greeting them with kisses on the cheek, as is the French custom. But aside from the language barrier, I was not prepared for the culture shock. France and America shared the basic methods of washing laundry in a machine and using a stove to cook with. In addition, the respective presidents had an amicable relationship. How different could living in France be from my life at home? I finally concluded that this type of logic was very “American”; I had naively believed that the diplomatic and economic similarities between the countries meant that they were the same—but they were not. I realized that I had a lot to learn and resolved then and there that I needed be more open-minded for the remainder of my stay. Beyond improving my French, this new outlook ended up being at the core of my education abroad.

It helped that Valerie was so supportive. She treated me as if I was a member of her family; she never once made me feel uncomfortable about my stumbling French. She would simply correct me, then teach me new terms not taught in the classroom. Her son Alexis, who was the same age as I (our birthdays were only 10 days apart!), had become a friend, as well as a guide to French youth culture. Above all, they were my greatest supporters in helping me begin to master the language. By the time I left in August, I was able to communicate effortlessly with store owners as well as strangers who mistakenly thought I was a local!

Market in Montpellier

A spice cart at the open-air market Valèrie took me to on my first weekend in Montpellier.

My host family also exposed me to a glimpse of Martinique, a small island in the Caribbean that is an extended territory of France. Their apartment was decorated with bright colors, fruit baskets and paintings of beaches created by Valerie herself. There was also a dictionary in Créole—a French dialect spoken in Martinique—on the bookshelf, and photos of their extended family throughout the home. They often asked about my own family and origins (I am from Georgia, but my parents are from South Korea). I was able to see that they valued many of the same things I did as a Korean-American: family, tradition, and the constant balancing act between two cultures.

With the Host Family

My host family in our apartment (I'm on the far left).

The most rewarding aspect about studying abroad in France was a combination of the people, the language, and my self-realizations. Being torn out of my comfort zone and thrust into one unfamiliar situation after another brought out sides of me that had remained dormant or undiscovered. For instance, I have always liked traveling, but I never knew just how much until a group of friends and I took a day trip to Aix-en-Provence. Because I had made my train reservation later than the rest of my group, I had to go back to Montpellier by myself via a complicated itinerary: Aix to Marseilles by bus, then to Montpellier by train. It was my first time traveling alone; I was petrified by the prospect of getting lost and sat nervously by the bus window to make sure I knew where I was. An hour into the ride, however, I relaxed and began to enjoy the moment. With no friends to distract me, I focused on the view. It was my first time riding ground transportation in France and I was able to see the some of the small villages and vineyards that are hidden when taking a train. When we got to the train station in Marseilles, I saw that it was on a hill overlooking the city and the Mediterranean. Despite the anxiety about the unknown which traveling alone had initially provoked in me, I would have done it again in a heartbeat. I realized traveling was my passion, and have since made moves to steer my career goals towards working in the travel industry by searching for internships at travel publications and travel companies.

Village seen from train

An unknown village seen from the train ride to Montpellier from Marseilles.

In the end, studying in France turned out to be the best "risk" I ever took. I am now infinitely more fluent in the French language and comprehend more fully the texts I read in my upper-level classes. Receiving exposure to the language in its own context as well as experiencing multiple subcultures created a satisfying and well-rounded study abroad experience. To those who still don't see "the point" in studying French, I would reply that language is a means of communicating with others, and in our increasingly shrinking world that means there is no such thing as a useless language. Take Spanish? Maybe another time—there is still plenty of Languedoc sun and spirit in me to last for a long time to come.

UGA en France 2007

UGA en France 2007!

For More Info

The Institut Méditerranéen de Langues, www.iml.fr. Located in Montpellier, this was the organization UGA en France used to place students with host families. They also provided classroom facilities for the courses taught by the University professors. They arrange language and culture courses at the Université de Montpellier III and offer programs for adults working in the marketing industry.

www.europa-pages.com/france is a site that searches for French language schools throughout France, including Montpellier. Select by region or the desired course type.