Ask Away: 5 Questions for a Student Pursuing International Research in French
We’re asking students, teachers, and counselors five questions on how languages play a role in shaping personal and professional success…
Meet Madeleine—a Hendrix College senior and French major whose language skills are contributing to biomedical research.
1. Why French? What first inspired you to start learning the language, and has your motivation changed over time?
My mother was the French teacher at my middle school, and I wanted to do something that felt more “special” than learning Spanish in Arizona, where almost everyone speaks it. Over time, I’ve discovered that the practice I have put into it has paid off a thousand fold, and French has helped me gain opportunities I would have had few other places.
2. Can you share with us a little about your decision to major in the language?
By the time I applied to colleges, I couldn’t imagine not taking French classes.
I looked for colleges where I could pursue interdisciplinary studies and where I could have opportunities to study abroad.
When I met the French faculty at my current college, I knew I couldn’t stay away–these were women I wanted to learn from!
I also knew I was interested in pursuing biology, and I hoped that French would be a way to help distinguish myself from other candidates in the (now not-so-far) future as I apply to graduate schools.
3. You recently completed an internship at the University of Montpellier—tell us about it!
I had the most amazing time! My college has a program through which you can apply for funding for independent projects, so I wrote emails (in French) to authors whose research papers I had read, asking them if they would be interested in having an unpaid intern for the summer. To my surprise, I actually got a response from an Italian expat living in the south of France! Neither of us really knew what we were getting into, but I knew that I was chasing something that had long been a goal: doing research internationally.
And that’s how I ended up spending eight weeks on the southern coast of France researching epigenetic changes in cystic fibrosis patients!
I gained so much confidence while there, and I’m now looking at graduate programs in the same city.
4. What surprised you most about working/living abroad and being immersed in another language and culture?
I was surprised by how tired I was. Even though I was sleeping more in France than I ever do during the academic year, I would arrive home at the end of the day completely exhausted! It’s tiring enough to be working an eight-hour day, let alone in a foreign language.
On a more upbeat note, I got one of the best pieces of advice ever this past summer.
I have long considered the standard of fluency to be complete, 100% competency in a language, especially with numbers (which I always struggle with). While trying–and failing–to count cells in French, my boss realized what I was doing and stopped me. “Even after 27 years in France, I still count in Italian! It’s definitely impossible for me to do it well and quickly in French,” she told me.
I felt such a huge wave of relief: I had spent the whole summer trying to hide what I thought were inadequacies, but it turned out to be such a minor part of the whole experience. That was my greatest revelation from my time there.
5. Back at home, have you participated in other language or cultural initiatives on campus? Any ideas for activities other students should consider implementing at their schools or universities?
Our college has a small group of students that run a French club at a middle school once a week for a semester.
It’s a really fun way to get involved with the community and spread the love for French culture. You don’t have to have a super-high level of French either, since you’re teaching 11-year-olds! Plus, there’s no better way to get the interest of kids of all ages than if you have crafts like “build the Eiffel Tower with cookies.”
One of my other favorite language-based activities that I would definitely recommend would be the French Film Friday. On the first Friday of every month, the French Club shows a French film with English subtitles. We always have snacks and coffee, and I can usually convince my English-preferring friends to join us too. 😊
BONUS QUESTION: Have you got a favorite word or expression in French? What does it mean, and why is it special?
My favorite French phrase is deceptively simple: “un bon vin blanc,” meaning “a good white wine.”
While taking French Phonetics, my professor told us that this sentence contains all of the different nasal vowels used in French. Yup, that’s right–all four of those vowels should have differing sounds. It’s still hard for me to differentiate between the “un” and the “vin”, and I’m looking forward to the day that they all come naturally to me!
What’s next for Madeleine?
“I am interested in doing biomedical research in epigenetics or infectious disease, hopefully internationally!”
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