In May of 2006, during a vacation in Paris, I saw L’Université de Paris, La Sorbonne, for the first time. This 13th century, prestigious center of intelligence and culture is known all over the world and I was anxious to visit. There was only one problem. The guard at the door would not allow my friend or I to enter; only students and faculty were allowed. I explained in my novice French that I just wanted to look around and buy a T-shirt at the bookstore. “No”, the guard repeated emphatically! “Only students and faculty are allowed”, he repeated in his clear English! I turned to my friend and exclaimed: “One day I will be back as a student and will THEN be allowed inside those hallowed doors!”
Six years later, I did enter those hallowed doors as a student! Of course, this was not the sole reason for spending countless hours learning French independently and totally uprooting my life as a 50-year-old pastor’s wife, in order to live abroad for six months, immersed with millennials from all over the world; but it was definitely the catalyst! How did this miracle happen?
In the fall of 2012, I was in my last year of graduate school at the University of Texas, El Paso, studying for a MA in Applied Linguistics and French Language. My Final Graduate Project was “The Acquisition of French as a Second Language: Subject Pronouns Emphasis”. As part of my research, I wanted to compare and contrast second language acquisition between a university immersion classroom setting in a French speaking country to classroom instruction in the United States. Therefore, I applied to the ONLY university in the whole world where I wanted to conduct this research and enjoy the life of a true Parisian: La Sorbonne University! I was accepted (WOW!!!) and was funded a Graduate Internship as part of the Cours de Civilisation Francaise, where I was enrolled in five courses: « Les leçons de grammaire et de phonétique » « Paris des origins à la Rèvolution Française », « L’Histoire de l’art Français », and « Civilisation et littérature françaises.”
As one can imagine, there is quite a contrast in university courses at the Sorbonne vs the United States. For this particular program, the courses are all taught in French and there is no contact with your professors outside of class. Any questions about assignments, exams, concepts must be asked in class and with correct grammar (or you WILL be ignored!). Each course is two hours long with daily assessments. The grading scale is very strict and there are no progress reports throughout the semester. The in-class assignments and tests for grammar and phonetics count 40% of your grade with the final exam counting the other 60%. The final exam is a standardized test which is taken at the “Exam Centre” about 20 minutes outside of Paris. The exam is three hours long and is not graded by your professor, whose main job is to get students ready for this difficult exam.
In addition to the prerequisite language courses, I was able to take three Civilisation courses in which there were no in-class assignments or tests; only lectures. There was no textbook; only minimal handouts. Our classes met in the evenings for three hours per lecture, in French. My listening comprehension was highly important as this would be the only criteria in which to study for the final exam. In addition, if my mind wandered for just a minute, I missed a block of important information. At the end of the semester, there was a comprehensive final exam, per course, and that was our only grade.
The only saving grace for me was weekly study groups with my classmates. We would meet in my apartment, which was close to campus, and share café, hot tea and fresh patisseries while we compared our class lecture notes! As this international cadre was quite the cultural mix, we only spoke French which was our common language and was essential to our second language acquisition. I prepared study guides for our sessions complete with the essay questions from our lectures which I predicted would be on our final. This was right in my wheelhouse as I had spent the previous 10 years an ESL instructor at West Texas A&M. This study group became a much-needed community and academic support for me.
On the flip side, as challenging as the curriculum and exams were for a half-century old brain to process in a second language (app. 7 hours a day of speaking only French), attending classes in the Sorbonne lecture halls in the Latin Quartier made up for it. Every classroom had magnificent, vintage wooden floors, vaulted ceilings, stained glass or beveled windows and chandeliers! Of course, to ascend to these over 600-year-old classrooms, we climbed the winding staircases with rod-iron bannisters.
My grammar class was in a 15th century Music Consortium in which we would listen to Mozart, and Bach being played by a string quartet in the next room while conjugating verbs! My phonetics classroom was right across from the Notre Dame Cathedral and our class would begin with two chimes from the ancient bells. Oh my, oh my!
There are very few metro stops in the Latin Quarter as it is the oldest part of Paris; therefore, I walked to class. This was really a blessing in disguise. Even though it was winter, which meant cold, snowy treks for up to 6 miles a day, I enjoyed walking through the streets of Hugo (see posts) and Balzac’s characters (see post) and seeing the 19th century world of my favorite artists Monet, Renoir, Cassatt and Caillebotte.
I started each day from my apartment in the 6th Arrondissment near the Jardin des Plantes through the Roman-Greco streets past the Pantheon, down the rue Saint-Jacques and ended at l’ Observatoire du Val-de-Grace. After grammar, I would walk with my friends back down rue Saint-Jacques all the way to the Seine, near the Ile-de-la-Cité to our phonetics class. I then had a two-hour break (which I usually spent at Shakespeare and Company) and it was on to a three-hour lecture three nights a week in a classroom right behind the Pantheon.
My weekends were devoted to sight-seeing and traveling to parts of France and other countries. I was very fortunate to have several friends and family members who came to visit throughout the six months to accompany me on these adventures.
This experience of studying abroad at the Sorbonne was the toughest challenge of my life and yet, the most satisfying. I learned a lot about myself and overcame many obstacles. I did reach my main goal of second language proficiency in French and received 12 hours of graduate credit which allowed me to graduate a semester early. I also took advantage of every free moment I had to practice the joie de vivre in the Parisian culture: the culinary reconditioning of cooking and eating fresh food from the neighborhood markets; taking long strolls as a flâneur in the magnificent parks, ancient Gallo-Roman monuments, and iconic Haussmann boulevards. Even though I don’t like to travel alone, I spent many weekends on train rides to visit nord, sud and est France to experience the diversity of French culture.
To be honest, my first day in Paris was very hard. I had a crisis of faith and didn’t think I could do it. If it had not been for my daughter Kalie’s encouragement and the Lord’s powerful presence, I would have been on the first flight back home! The Lord reminded me of his promises by giving me two double rainbows that day; one in El Paso that morning and the second when I arrived in Paris. This was Jesus’ way of showing me that He is always with me no matter what continent I reside on. He was my Constant Companion.
As an added bonus, I finally got my t-shirt!
Copyright 2018 by Robyn Lowrie. May be quoted in part or full only with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (www.frenchquest.com)