I am a proud graduate of the Ontario high school core French system and now a Functional French minor at UTM. However, by no means could I confidently speak the language as of this past May. No…   that stuff was for the elementary and high school French immersion or “my dad’s a Francophone” kids. As a result, I’d always intended to do an international exchange and this summer I finally did. I signed up for a farmstay on a dairy farm with a family of six (and another one on the way) in rural Brittany (or “Bretagne”).

I didn’t want to make it too easy for myself.

So, did I come out the other end completely bilingual? More “francilienne” than “canadienne?” Well, to be honest, yes and no.

I quickly discovered just how inarticulate I was. I was nervous each time I opened my mouth. Eleven years of exposure to the French language disappeared. It wasn’t until a phone conversation and a Skype call with my parents and a friend later in the week that I remembered I had the ability to speak in full sentences—albeit in a language other than French.

While I chose to travel with an organization not associated with the university, the University of Toronto offers a range of similar organizations and opportunities. These include UTM’s International Education Centre, the Summer Abroad courses offered by Woodsworth College (207 UTM students participated this past summer with 28 taking language-specific courses), the Centre for International Exchange, and UTM’s Department of Language Studies’ Study in Florence program. Rosa Ciantar, the undergraduate counsellor of the department, says of the last of these programs that “students who participate in the Study in Florence program return to us with superior language skills, not only in the sense of grammar but are able to fluently and spontaneously express themselves in Italian. In addition to the obvious improvement in language skills, students develop independence, maturity as well as a social responsibility and empathy for other cultures.”

She adds, “Although the classroom is the first point of contact in terms of learning the grammar of a language, the hands-on experience gained by students in the study abroad context is invaluable.”

Katherine Rehner, a language studies professor who holds various titles including coordinator of programs in language teaching and learning, has researched the benefits of exposure to French as a second language outside of the classroom. She explains that the first of two major benefits of such immersive experiences is the “development of communicative abilities in context”. Besides the social niceties associated with a different language, says Rehner, students also gain an “identity that involves the second language and a connection to the people, culture, and language of the target community”.

Studying a language abroad is often easier said than done, though. What if you’ve never taken a language course or, like many young Ontarians in the case of French, haven’t spoken the target language in years? Rehner suggests that this shouldn’t hold students back. She uses the example of immigrants arriving in a country where they don’t speak the official language—they learn it by living it.

However, she admits that the combination of an immersive experience and a structural approach is ideal. This is how we all learned our native language—the immersive aspect being our home life and the structural being our time at school, explains Rehner. So dive into an immersive program, but seek to get structural instruction before, during, or after the fact to boost your understanding of a language.

By the end of my own experience abroad, about 12 weeks after my arrival, I’d become a pro at my farm chores (including one of my favourites, “gratter les logettes”— scraping cow poop), developed a hopefully lasting relationship with my host family, and gained new confidence as a French speaker. I wouldn’t say that my French is now on par with a native speaker. I can’t speak “pure Parisian French”. Instead, I’ve gained an extensive and practical vocabulary and, as Rehner calls it, “a claim to speak the language” (or losing that sense of apology each time I utter a French word).

Most unexpectedly, the greatest lesson I learned was cultural. I have an intimate understanding of a French family’s daily life, including food and meal times, the education system, and family gatherings and dynamics. I’d never uncovered that aspect of the language behind the cover of my grammar textbooks or within a professor’s PowerPoint.

Learning a language that seems a world away brings these “worlds” closer to us. It exposes us to new bodies of knowledge, whether it’s through a UTMcourse or native speakers of that language. In these contexts we also learn about ourselves as individuals. As Ciantar shares, “These are the types of opportunities that help our students become better global citizens in a complex modern world.”